Berg, Moe

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BERG, MOE (Morris ; 1902–1972), U.S. baseball player, spy, scholar, linguist. Once called "the strangest fellah who ever put on a uniform" by Casey Stengel, Berg was an anomaly in the world of baseball, where few players had any formal education and where he was recognized as the best-educated man ever to play the game. He was born in a cold-water tenement in East Harlem in New York City, the third child of Bernard and Rose (Tashker). Bernard was himself of keen intellect and attended public school, which was rare for a Russian Jew in that era. He fled the pogroms of Russia in 1894 at the age of 24, arriving in New York with $10 dollars in his pocket, and two years later sent for Rose, from the Kamenets-Podolski region of the Ukraine, to join him.

When Berg was nine months old, the family moved to Newark, New Jersey, where Bernard opened a pharmacy. The family was not religious, never went to synagogue, and the children never celebrated their bar mitzvah, though Bernard did teach Hebrew and Yiddish to his son, whose photographic memory retained everything. Berg became a star player at Barringer High School, where he began learning languages, excelling in Latin, Greek and French. Graduating at 16, he spent a year at New York University before transferring to Princeton. He was the star there as well, playing shortstop for three years and becoming captain his senior year, when he hit .337 and the team won 18 straight games. He majored in languages, adding Spanish, Italian, German, and Sanskrit to his growing list, and graduated in 1923 magna cum laude and 24th in his class of 211.

Berg began his baseball career with the Brooklyn Dodgers the day after his last game for Princeton, playing 15 years with the White Sox, Indians, Senators, and Red Sox, first as a shortstop and third baseman before settling in as a third-string catcher. With his lifetime average of only .243 and six home runs, it was to Berg that the classic expression "good field, no hit" was first applied.

Berg pursued his scholarly interests while he continued playing baseball, attending the Sorbonne in Paris, graduating from Columbia Law School second in his class, and adding Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Arabic, Portuguese, Hungarian, and a few regional dialects to his linguistic arsenal. While it was never established exactly how many languages Berg spoke, they were of no use to him in baseball. Said one player, "He can speak twelve languages, but he can't hit in any of 'em."

Berg's life changed in 1934, when he accompanied a team of baseball all-stars to Japan on a baseball barnstorming tour. While there, he went to the roof of the tallest building, a hospital, and photographed the Tokyo skyline, the harbor, and munitions facilities, which may have helped U.S. General Jimmy Doolittle in his bombing raids over Tokyo in 1942.

Moe's celebrated academic knowledge received national attention in February 1938, when he appeared on Information, Please, the intellectual's radio quiz show. Moe amazed all of America when he answered questions about the derivation of words and names in Greek and Latin, historical events in Europe and the Far East, and current international conferences.

After his career was over in 1939, Berg spent two years as a coach with the Red Sox. In 1942 he was named Goodwill Ambassador to Latin America by Nelson Rockefeller, head of the Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, and subsequently worked for the Office of Strategic Services (oss), the forerunner of the cia. His first assignment was to assess the political and military situation in embattled Yugoslavia. He spoke to the forces under Tito and to the Serbian camp of Mihajlovic, reporting back – correctly – that the Yugoslav people supported Tito. His most notable mission was to Switzerland, with instructions to kill top German scientist Werner Heisenberg, who was lecturing there and suspected of working on the A-bomb. Questioning Heisenberg with a loaded gun in his pocket, Berg determined that the Germans were not building the bomb, and his invaluable report was read by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, and the scientists working on America's Manhattan project to develop the nuclear bomb.

Berg was also a loner and an eccentric, known among other things for always wearing a black suit and not letting people touch his newspapers until he had finished reading them. "Berg's was a life of abiding strangeness," wrote Nicholas Dawidoff in his definitive biography of Berg, The Catcher Was a Spy. Berg died seconds after asking a bedside nurse: "How are the Mets doing today?"

[Elli Wohlgelernter (2nd ed.)]