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A Major League Baseball Player Became One Of America's Most Daring Spies

Even if you’re a big baseball fan, the name Morris Berg probably doesn’t ring any bells. Truth be told, Morris “Moe” Berg had a pretty unexceptional career in the game, but it’s what he did away from the field that makes his story worth telling. During the Second World War, after a disappointing career with the Red Sox, Berg decided to do his part for his country. In a series of events that would sound made-up if they weren’t true, an average-at-best catcher became one of America’s most unlikely— and most fascinating — spies.

Baseball journeyman

In baseball terms, Morris “Moe” Berg’s career was nothing really to write home about. He became a pretty seasoned pro, playing in Major League Baseball for 15 seasons, but his performance never reached the heights it perhaps could have done. He moved around the field quite a bit before mainly being used as a substitute backstop.

“Good field, no hit” was famed scout Mike Gonzalez’s evaluation of Berg in the early 1920s. He certainly had talent; there was no question about that. But his stats never really shone as some of his peers did. He was no Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig.

Modest career statistics

All in all, Berg took part in just 662 games over his 15 seasons in MLB. He began his career as a utility infielder before the Chicago White Sox started using him as a catcher in 1927. He found his place in the role of substitute backstop from then until his retirement from the game in 1939.

Berg had an unimpressive hitting average of .243 by the time he packed in baseball. Over the course of his career, he’d turned out for the Brooklyn Robins, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators, and the Boston Red Sox. But despite Berg’s underwhelming stats, he became famous for something else in the league.

“The brainiest guy in baseball”

Instead of being heralded for his baseball talent, Berg became renowned in the game for his intelligence. He was a very smart guy, well-educated, and quick-witted. This even earned him the nickname of “Professor Berg.” In fact, people soon began referring to the player as “the brainiest guy in baseball.” It was said the man could speak 10 languages.

A commentator once famously said of Berg, “He can speak several languages, but he can’t hit in any of them.” One of his teammates allegedly once quipped, “Moe, I don’t care how many of them college degrees you got, they ain’t learned you to hit that curve ball no better than the rest of us!”

“The strangest man to ever play baseball”

As well as being incredibly intelligent, Berg was clearly an unusual guy. He was reportedly called “the strangest man to ever play baseball,” apparently by noted right fielder and future New York Yankees and Mets manager Casey Stengel. The more of a picture you paint of Berg, the clearer it becomes that this was no ordinary man, and he led no ordinary life.

Berg’s player stats may have been nothing more than ordinary, but his personality, his mind, and his talents off the field were clearly something special. These were traits that would eventually attract the attention of the newly formed Office of Strategic Services — or OSS — during World War Two.

Born in New York City

By the time Berg was recruited by the OSS, he was washed up as a pro athlete, having retired from Major League Baseball. But a drastic change of career wasn't such a crazy idea to Berg. After all, his interest in more intellectual pursuits went all the way back to his earliest years.

Berg was born on March 2, 1902, in Manhattan, New York City, the third and last-born child of pharmacist Bernard Berg and his homemaker wife, Rose. Berg’s parents were both Jewish, his father having arrived in the United States from Ukraine. He showed signs of promise right from a very young age.

Begging mom to start school

Berg grew up in Harlem, not far from the Polo Grounds in that area of New York City where baseball and football were played. The future baseball pro was a precocious youngster, as illustrated by the fact that he begged his mom to allow him to begin school when he was just over three old.

Though his parents were Jewish, they did not practice Judaism. Still, Berg grew up proud of his Jewish heritage, and he learned to speak Hebrew as a youngster, sparking an interest in languages that would last a lifetime.

High school to high achiever at Princeton

Berg graduated from high school in 1918, and after that, he went on to study modern languages at Princeton. While attending the prestigious Ivy League university in New Jersey, Berg became proficient in not two, but six languages, including French, German, Japanese, and Spanish, a few of which would be vital for his future work with the OSS.

Berg, a gifted academic, was one of only a handful of Jewish students at Princeton at the time. He apparently didn’t have a lot of friends, though he had noticeable charm. He was a very private man.

Pursuing his baseball dream

Berg graduated from Princeton magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in modern languages, but he did not go on to pursue academia or accept the prestigious job offers he received. Despite his academic abilities, his true love was baseball. He once said, “I would rather be a ballplayer than a bank president or a judge.”

After being scouted, Berg signed a contract with the Brooklyn Robins, where he started out as an infielder. This caused conflict with his father, though, who was reportedly not happy that his son was turning down respectable professions to become an athlete. A rift with his family ensued, and his dad never attended a single game throughout his whole professional career.

Making friends and entertaining the press

Berg seemed undeterred by this, though. He loved the career path that he had chosen, and he made numerous friends and fans along his baseball journey, from all echelons of the game. And he soon started to show that he was no ordinary ball player.

The erudite Berg was often sought out by reporters, who were very interested in what this interesting guy had to say about the game — or anything else for that matter. He entertained teammates on the bench with his many tales, and he gave interviews in different languages.

Maintaining public and private lives

Berg’s unusually high intelligence in the game was undeniable, and it made him a great interviewee. There was an almost roguish charm to this man, and he oozed a curious kind of charisma; reporters loved him. But there was still an intensely private side to “Professor Berg,” as he became known by some of these journalists.

Despite his openness to weave tales and entertain the press, he was able to keep a shroud of secrecy around more personal matters. His private life away from the game was off-limits.

Always learning

While he was playing — or most often watching as a backup catcher — Berg did not neglect his appetite for knowledge. He used his spare time to voraciously read. He would get through multiple newspapers in a day, and he could often be seen on the bench reading books on philosophy while his teammates flicked through comics or magazines.

Berg didn’t even take a break during the off-season. He used this “downtime” to study for and earn a law degree from Columbia University, work for a New York law company, and even take graduate classes at Paris’ prestigious Sorbonne University.

Discovering new cultures

In 1932, several years into his baseball career, Berg embarked on a trip to Japan with fellow players Ted Lyons and Lefty O’Doul to give lectures on baseball. It was Berg’s first visit to the “Land of the Rising Sun,” and the ever-curious backstop was immediately keen to soak in a new culture and study the language.

Berg was reportedly excited by the sights, sounds, and smells of Japan. He became conversational in the language, and he connected with the locals with his affable manner and teaching of baseball. But was there more to his visit to Japan than met the eye?

Return to Japan

Berg would return to Japan a couple of years later, when he traveled there with an All-Star team that featured baseball legends such as Lou Gehrig and George Herman Ruth, better known by his nickname “Babe.” Billed as a goodwill mission to foster better relations and avert conflict, it had been organized by retired player Herb Hunter.

Relations between the U.S. and Japan were quite frosty at the time, with Japan becoming increasingly aggressive militarily and notably expansionist towards its neighbors such as China. Anyway, on November 29, 1934, in Omiya, an All-Star game would be played between the Americans and a Japanese team. It was one of a series of games being played, some of which Berg took part in. Not this particular game, though.

Out of place

But what was Berg really doing in Japan? What we mean by that, in the nicest possible way, is what was a backup catcher doing traveling with a team of all-time greats? Berg had never won a World Series title or even played in such a high-stakes game. Perhaps the reason was as innocent as his having some prior knowledge of the country and an ability to speak a bit of the language.

Or perhaps, thinking about it now — and given what we know about his later life — Berg was there for more clandestine reasons. Was he already working in some form or another for the U.S. government, aiding them with intelligence?

Suspicious hospital visit

Further suspicion is raised retrospectively by the fact that Berg did not take part in that November 29 All-Stars match. No, in actual fact, Berg had been elsewhere, a few miles across town in Tokyo clad in a kimono. What had he been doing there?

Why, only trying to sneak a film camera that he had brought with him onto the roof of a local hospital, a notably tall, seven-story building in the city. The Smithsonian stated that Berg had introduced himself in Japanese, then “claimed to be a friend of U.S. Ambassador Joseph Clark Grew and his daughter, Elsie Lyon, who was recovering from childbirth on the fifth floor.”

What had Berg been doing?

Tellingly, Berg never gave the flowers that he had purchased to the new mother. Instead, The Smithsonian noted that he captured “23 seconds of footage of the Tokyo skyline and a nearby port” on his camera. But was Berg doing this on his own accord? His recorded observations on Japan were pretty run-of-the-mill takes on the “exotic East” that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a travel book.

And yet the fact that he was filming a port and seemingly gathering intelligence led author Sam Kean, who wrote the history The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb, to suggest that Berg had been “thinking about things in the future.” He further believed Berg had shot the footage “just in case [the U.S.] needed it.”

Retirement from baseball

After that second Japan trip, in 1935 Berg signed for the Boston Red Sox, but he played fewer than 30 games during the time he was there. He was 37 years old when he finally called an end to his playing career in baseball.

Berg wasn’t completely finished with the game, though. No, he worked on the Red Sox coaching team for a couple more years before leaving the sport at the top level for good on January 14, 1942. Incidentally, his father died on the same day he left baseball: a sad and weird coincidence, given how much Berg’s determined pursuit of a baseball career had negatively affected their relationship.

Looking for career options

Before he retired from baseball, Berg had already been seeking out options for his future career, particularly those that would help him maintain the traveling lifestyle he’d so enjoyed whilst in America’s favorite pastime. World War II was underway, but the United States would not get properly involved until the unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan in December 1941.

As we mentioned before, Berg had connected with or made an impression on people of all echelons during his baseball career. Two people whom he had apparently impressed were Nelson Rockefeller, and William Joseph “Wild Bill” Donovan.

Signing up to the OIAA

Rockefeller, a member of a renowned wealthy family, would go on to be Vice President of the United States in the 1970s. He had either personally noticed or been informed of Berg’s potential for a career in intelligence.

In January 1942 Rockefeller offered Berg a job with the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA); after some consideration, Berg accepted the opportunity. After all, this line of work would enable Berg to travel and explore the world, all paid for by the U.S. government.

Traveling to Central and South America

The OIAA sent Berg out to Central and South America — plus the Caribbean — for a specific mission of studying the health and fitness levels of the populations and in particular the American troops stationed in the countries down there. This task would put Berg’s language skills and knowledge of health and fitness from his baseball days to good use.

Amid the global war, the U.S. government under Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the importance of getting its Latin-American neighbors fully on side. The OIAA had been formed to strengthen the bond with the countries south of the United States and negate any Axis influence that might have taken hold down there. Berg played a role in this particular mission from August 1942 and February 1943.

Recruited by the OSS

The Roosevelt administration was informed by the intelligence community that the Central and South American countries plus the Caribbean nations were unlikely to get involved in the War on the side of the Axis Powers, and thus posed no threat. As a result, Berg and several others were pulled from or left the OIAA in June 1943.

But that wasn’t it for Berg, far from it. He was just going to be moved to where his talent was needed more. President Roosevelt had ordered Donovan to spearhead an unmatched spy network for the war effort and beyond, and Berg — who reportedly requested to leave the OIAA and go to Europe — was recruited for the resultant Office of Strategic Services, or OSS.

OSS training mishaps

Berg had played his video of Tokyo’s harbor and skyline to U.S. officials in the summer of 1942; while the shots had been amateurish, they demonstrated his spy credentials and willingness to muck in with the war effort. He was thus deemed suitable for the OSS.

Berg went through a series of training seminars for the OSS, likely taking part in courses that involved learning codes, safecracking, lock-picking, and ciphers. A later biography of him suggested he had been error-prone at this time: Berg was reportedly caught red-handed when attempting to infiltrate an aircraft factory, was recognized thanks to wearing his OSS-issue watch, and even dropped his firearm into the lap of a civilian while traveling.

Involvement in the Balkans

Despite his apparent training mishaps, Berg would land a position in the OSS with a $3,800-a-year salary: that’s roughly $64,000 in today’s money. That position was as a paramilitary operations officer, at least in the beginning.

In September 1943 Berg was assigned to the OSS Secret Intelligence branch (S.I.), and from a remote location in Washington, DC, he kept tabs on the situation in Yugoslavia as part of the OSS S.I. Balkans desk. Berg aided OSS in recruiting Slavic-Americans on their risky parachute-drop missions into Yugoslavia, but unlike some rumors and reports suggested, he almost certainly didn’t take part in them himself, nor did he meet up with Yugoslav partisan leader Josip Tito.

Involvement in Project Larson

In the latter part of 1943, Berg was assigned to an OSS operation codenamed “Project Larson.” That op — led by OSS Chief of Special Projects John Shaheen — was part of the ongoing Alsos mission of the Americans and British.

Its aim was to discover information about the scientific developments of the enemy and in particular the Nazi’s nuclear-energy project. Project Larson — born in the wake of the September invasion of Italy by the Allies — had the aim of abducting Italian rocket and missile specialists and bringing them back to the United States. 

Project AZUSA

Alongside the Project Larson kidnapping plot, there was the slightly less threatening Project AZUSA, which aimed only to interrogate or interview the Italian physicists and boffins, and establish if they knew anything about the two chief theoretical physicists of Nazi Germany.

Those physicists were Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker and the widely revered Werner Heisenberg. And yes, before you ask, that is the origin of Walter White’s now-famous alias for the Southwestern narcotics trade in Breaking Bad.

Who was Heisenberg?

Heisenberg had made a major name for himself in the scientific world, specifically in the field of physics. Indeed, by the 1930s, Heisenberg was widely considered the greatest theoretical physicist on the planet. This was largely owing to his work on formulating quantum mechanics — which won him the Nobel Prize in 1932.

His famous “uncertainty principle” that he developed in 1927 states that we cannot know both the position and speed of a particle — such as a photon or electron — with perfect accuracy. The more we nail down the particle’s position, the less we can know about its speed, and vice versa.

Heisenberg’s involvement in the Nazi nuclear program

Heisenberg was a German native, born in Würzburg in 1901. Although he was not a fervent supporter of the ruling Nazi dictatorship that had seized power in Germany in the early 1930s, he considered himself a German patriot and elected not to leave the country, despite offers of university tenure from abroad, including the United States.

Anyway, Heisenberg — who also contributed significantly to theories around the hydrodynamics of turbulent flows, cosmic rays, ferromagnetism, the atomic nucleus, and sub-atomic particles among other things — became the de facto leader of the Nazi atomic research program during World War II. This was sparked by the discovery of nuclear fission: its potential to provide a powerful weapon greatly interested the Nazis.

On to Rome

Berg, then, via his involvement in Project AZUSA and the overall Alsos mission, was traveling around Europe in 1944 as part of the American need to find out about the German atomic program and its readiness.

After taking a crash course in physics, the former MLB catcher was dispatched to Italy around the middle of 1944 to allay American and Allied fears that the Nazis were ahead in atomic research and capability. He went to the recently liberated Rome to pick the brains of Italian scientists who knew and had worked with Heisenberg.

Berg interviews Italian physicists

On this jaunt to Rome, Berg was accompanied by another OSS agent named William Horrigan. Berg’s codename was Romulus, and Horrigan’s was Remus, a reference to the twin brothers who, legend has it, founded the Eternal City.

Berg utilized his language skills to interview noted Italian physicists Gian Carlo Wick and Edoardo Amaldi about the Nazi atomic program led by Heisenberg, whom they knew personally. Wick and Amaldi said they hadn’t worked with the Germans and suggested that even if Heisenberg and his team were working on an atomic bomb, they wouldn’t have it ready to use for at least a decade.

Pinpointing Heisenberg’s home region

In the summer of 1944, Berg sought out and met other Italian scientists, using his disarming charm and innate curiosity to talk to them and gather as much technical information and insight as he could. But he was unable to learn much of note about the Nazi nuclear program.

Berg did find out, though, some details about Heisenberg from those Italian academic colleagues. For instance, Berg learned that the theoretical physicist resided in southern Germany. That narrowed the field for Berg’s OSS superiors, who were awfully keen to know where the German genius who led the Nazi atomic program was living.

Recruiting scientists and gathering intelligence

Although there were issues with his attendance record, punctuality, and occasional disregard for his superior’s orders, Berg proved to be an effective agent for the OSS. He had a genuine aptitude for gathering intelligence and also a persuasive manner that enabled him to coax numerous scientists from abroad to move to the United States, or at least work there for some time.

Berg’s recruitment success reached President Roosevelt, who reportedly joked, “I see Berg is still catching pretty well.” The former catcher managed to get Antonio Ferri to take up a role at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in Langley, Virginia, and encouraged Paul Scherrer to tour several American institutions too.

Scherrer’s revelation

It was through the Swiss physicist Paul Scherrer that the OSS got its big Heisenberg breakthrough. Scherrer had worked in the Physics Institute at its university, ETH Zurich, and often arranged guest lectures there from notable physicists.

His friendship with Berg — which saw the OSS gather significant intelligence about German science and its scientists that the supposedly neutral Swiss was breaking his nation’s neutrality law by disclosing — also led to the revelation that Heisenberg was set to make a guest appearance at ETH Zurich in December 1944.

OSS excitement

This news no doubt caused some excitement within the OSS; it had become fixated on Heisenberg and had reportedly drawn up plans to kidnap him as far back as 1942. There were no doubt numerous schemes being planned to this effect.

One such elaborate plot to kidnap Heisenberg featured a former Los Angeles cop who would smuggle the much-vaunted physicist out of Nazi Germany and into neighboring Switzerland. Heisenberg and the cop would then parachute out of a plane into the Mediterranean Sea, where a submarine would be waiting to take the pair to safety. Doesn’t sound straightforward, does it?

Berg selected for Zurich mission

But with the revelation of the Zurich lecture, the OSS didn’t have to dream up such an elaborate plot any longer. They had their target right where they wanted him and could just send an operative to the lecture and make a decision on what action to take.

As a result, Berg — who spoke good German — was quickly lined up by the OSS to attend the Zurich lecture. The catcher-turned-spy was given a crystal-clear objective: determine whether the Germans were close to an atomic bomb from listening to Heisenberg, and if they were, to kill him.

License to kill

Berg traveled to Zurich with the knowledge that he was no longer just a charming intelligence gatherer: he was a potential assassin. The former backstop was given a .45 caliber pistol to conceal, along with a cyanide capsule should things not go to plan.

Scientific liaison for the Alsos mission Samuel Goudsmit declared that Berg had been expected to render Heisenberg hors de combat — French for “out of the fighting” — if he heard any indication that the Nazis were close to building an atomic bomb. The lecture would take place on December 18, 1944, with around 20 graduate students in attendance, along with a clandestine learner in the shape of Berg.

At the lecture

At the lecture, Berg — dressed as a Swiss physics student — listened intently as the 43-year-old Heisenberg rambled on about s-matrix theory in German. Fortunately, Berg was pretty fluent in the language, although some of the technical language of physics might have gone over his head a little.

Anyway, Berg was able to grasp enough of what Heisenberg was saying, but not surprisingly the focus of his lecture wasn’t the German atomic program. Still, Berg made an initial assessment from listening to and observing Heisenberg that the Nazis weren’t close to assembling an atomic weapon via the work of the celebrated physicist and his team. He made the call at the lecture not to shoot Heisenberg — at least for now.

Scherrer’s reception dinner

But Heisenberg wasn’t out of the woods just yet. Berg was going to attend a reception dinner after the lecture, hosted by his friend and secret collaborator Paul Scherrer. At the dinner, Berg was to make a further assessment of the progress of the Nazi atomic program under Heisenberg.

Luckily, Heisenberg opened up more at the dinner. The acclaimed physicist ranted about his homeland having lost the war. He didn’t sound like a dyed-in-the-wool German patriot. And if he was convinced Nazi Germany was going to lose the war, they couldn’t be close to a destructive bomb that would turn the tide instantly, could they?

Walking with Heisenberg

Berg had one more opportunity to take out Heisenberg. That opportunity was after dinner when he left the house with the German physicist and offered to walk him to his hotel. The pair chatted in German, with Berg able to pull off an authentic-sounding Swiss-German accent.

The cloak of darkness offered Berg one more opportunity to take out the Nazi’s leading man in their atomic program. Heisenberg likely had no idea his life could be over in a few minutes. But Berg kept the pistol in his jacket, making the assessment that the Nazis were nowhere close to constructing an atomic weapon: Heisenberg was spared.

Later life and death

Berg’s superiors were reportedly relieved by his assessment and his subsequent conclusion that killing Heisenberg would have been futile. World War II was of course won by the Allies, and the heinous Nazi regime was defeated and dismantled. Berg left the OSS in January 1946; the former catcher also turned down a few MLB coaching roles soon after.

Berg’s spy career wasn’t completely over though: he worked for a short time for OSS's successor, the Central Intelligence Agency, in 1952. But Berg couldn’t get much info on the Soviet atomic program. Following a fall he passed away on May 29, 1972, at the age of 70. He had been an unsung hero for his country, as well as a devotee of America’s favorite pastime. Fittingly, the baseball obsessive’s last words to a nurse were apparently, “How did the Mets do today?”