In this regular feature, we will help you acquaint yourself with some of the finest practitioners of the most thankless task in baseball to ever don the “tools of ignorance” for our beloved Chicago Baseball teams. This week we feature Moe Berg.
(Moe Berg) was the strangest man to ever play baseball – Casey Stengel
Not gonna lie, it’s pretty damn impressive when Ol’ Case calls you a weirdo. But there has never been a ballplayer like Moe Berg, either before him or after.
He was already an anomaly being a Jewish player in the 1930s. Add to that the fact that not only was he a college graduate, but that he graduated from Princeton University and Columbia Law School. While he was at Princeton, he was the starting shortstop. When a runner was on second base, Berg and Princeton’s second baseman would relay plays to each other in Latin. Not even the Astros could crack that.
While playing against Yale at Yankee Stadium in 1923, both the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers (who were the Robins at the time) liked what they saw in Berg – mainly that he could be a draw for Jewish fans of their teams. The Giants already were stacked at shortstop with Dave Bancroft and Travis Jackson. Having won the pennant each of the previous two seasons, and on their way to their third, there was no opportunity for Berg there. Brooklyn, on the other hand, was on their way to a 6th place finish in an eight team league, despite having hall of famers Burleigh Grimes and Dazzy Vance leading their pitching staff. Berg signed with Brooklyn, and immediately took over at short. He hit an umimposing .186 as a rookie, and when the season ended, he went to Paris to enroll at the Sorbonne.
When spring training began in 1924, Berg had not improved his hitting a baseball by hitting the books, and spent the next two seasons in the minors, where he was purchased by the White Sox.
He spent the 1926 getting sparse playing time in the infield, hitting .221 with 6 doubles and no home runs. When the season ended, he went to Columbia to finish law school, and Charles Comiskey offered him extra money if he’d come to spring training – pretty astounding, considering how Comiskey threw nickels around like they were manhole covers.
But since he missed camp, he rode the bench until a rash of injuries decimated the Sox catching corps. Berg strapped on the tools, and became a former infielder. He was the Sox’ third catcher from 1927-1930, basically being a no-hit/good glove catcher. However, the Sox waived him before the 1931 season, and Cleveland picked him up.
He spent 1931 in Cleveland, playing 10 games and hitting a paltry .077. Fortunately for Berg, the Washington Senators picked him up. He got to spend the 1932 and 1933 seasons in Washington, who won the pennant in ’33. More importantly, Berg went to Japan in 1932 as part of a tour of big league players running baseball clinics there.
Berg stayed behind after the players returned to the states, visiting (and photographing) various places in Japan.
In 1934, he started the season with Washington, but found himself in Cleveland after his former manager, Walter Johnson, thought he could help Cleveland behind the plate.
After the 1934 season, he was invited on another tour of Japan, and this time he took a movie camera, and was under contract with MovieTone, a major newsreel company. He shot movies all around Japan, including aerial shots of Tokyo and surrounding harbors from the rooftop of a hospital.
Berg then spent the last five years of his career with Boston, also serving as a coach in 1940 and 1941.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed December 7, 1941, Berg joined the Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA), monitoring the physical and mental health of US troops stationed in South America.
In 1943, he moved to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. He was part of the team keeping an eye on Yugoslavia, and trained troops of Slavic descent to parachute into Yugoslavia for various missions.
Later, he became part of a smaller team tasked with learning about German physicist Werner Heisenberg, and whether or not Germany was a threat to develop an atomic weapon before the US did.
In late 1944, he received intelligence that Heisenberg was to give a lecture in Zurich. Berg had orders to kill Heisenberg if he determined Germany was close to an atomic weapon. He found they were not, and Heisenberg, unbeknownst to him, was allowed to live.
After the war, President Harry Truman awarded Berg with the Medal of Freedom, which Berg decided not to accept.
He passed away in 1970 without ever having written a memoir, but there’s a pretty good movie about him, “The Catcher Was A Spy”. His baseball card is on display in CIA headquarters.