Patriots among us: OSS, aka, CIA’s third-string catcher named “Moe Berg”

Patriots among us:

When baseball greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig went on tour in baseball-crazy Japan in 1934, some fans wondered why a third-string catcher named Moe Berg was included.       Although he played with 5 major league teams from 1923 to 1939, he was a very mediocre ball player.  But, he was regarded as the brainiest ballplayer of all time if you look at his complete record.      In fact Casey Stengel once said:  “That is the strangest man ever to play baseball.”  When all the baseball stars went to Japan, Moe Berg went along & many people wondered why he was on the team.

Why was he with the great Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth & other stars?  The answer was simple:  Moe Berg was a United States spy working undercover with the OSS, forerunner to the CIA.     Moe spoke 15 languages – including Japanese.  Moe Berg had two loves in his amazing life:  baseball & spying.

In Tokyo, garbed in a kimono, Berg took flowers to the daughter of an American diplomat being treated in St. Luke’s Hospital – the tallest building in the Japanese capital.      He never delivered the flowers.  Instead, the ball-player ascended to the hospital roof & filmed key features: the harbor, military installations, railway yards, etc.       Eight years later, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle studied catcher Moe Berg’s films in planning his spectacular raid on Tokyo.

Berg’s father, Bernard Berg, a pharmacist in Newark, New Jersey, taught his son Hebrew & Yiddish.  Moe, against his father’s wishes, began playing baseball on the street at age four.     His father disapproved & never once watched his son play.  In Barringer High School, Moe learned Latin, Greek & French.     Moe also read at least 10 newspapers every day.

He graduated Magna cum Laude from Princeton – having added Spanish, Italian, German & Sanskrit to his linguistic quiver.      During further studies at the Sorbonne, in Paris & at Columbia Law School, he picked up Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Arabic, Portuguese & Hungarian – 15 languages in all, plus some regional dialects.  And, while playing baseball for Princeton University, Moe Berg would describe plays in Latin or Sanskrit.

During World War II, he was parachuted into Yugoslavia to assess the value to the war effort of the two groups of partisans there.       He reported back that Marshall Tito’s forces were widely supported by the people & Winston Churchill ordered all-out support for the Yugoslav underground fighter, rather than Mihajlovic’s Serbians.

The parachute jump at age 41 undoubtedly was a challenge. But there was more to come in that same year.     Berg penetrated German-held Norway, met with members of the underground & located a secret, heavy-water plant – part of the Nazis’ effort to build an atomic bomb.

His information guided the Royal Air Force in a bombing raid to destroy the plant.  The RAF destroyed the Norwegian heavy-water plant targeted by Moe Berg.      There still remained the question of how far had the Nazis progressed in the race to build the first atomic bomb.  If the Nazis were successful, they would win the war.

Berg (under the code name “Remus”) was sent to Switzerland to hear leading German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a Nobel Laureate, lecture & to determine whether the Nazis were close to building an atomic bomb.       Posing as a Swiss graduate student, Moe managed to slip past the SS guards at the auditorium.  The spy carried in his pocket a pistol & a cyanide pill.

If the German indicated that the Nazis were close to building an atomic bomb, Berg was to shoot him & then swallow the cyanide pill.    Moe, sitting in the front row, determined that the Germans were nowhere near their goal, so he complimented Heisenberg on his speech & walked him back to his hotel.

Moe Berg’s report was distributed to Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt & key figures in the team developing our atomic bomb.  Roosevelt responded: “Give my regards to the catcher.”

Most of Germany’s leading physicists had been Jewish & had fled the Nazis mainly to Britain & to the United States.     After the war, Moe Berg was awarded the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest honor for a civilian in wartime.  But Berg refused to accept it because he couldn’t tell people about his exploits.

After his death, his sister accepted the Medal, & today it hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

March 2,1902—–May 29, 1972  Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest award to be awarded to civilians during wartime)    Moe Berg’s baseball card is the only card on display at the CIA Headquarters in Washington, DC.

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