Moe Berg

Among the most scholarly professional athletes ever, Berg was an alumnus of three universities, lawyer, mathematician, linguist, and poor hitter, eliciting the comment: “He can speak 12 languages but can’t hit in any of them.” His ability to handle young pitchers and his reputation as a bullpen mystic kept him in the majors, where his roommates wondered at his sacrosanct clutter of books and newspapers stacked in dozens of piles. He professed belief that his newspapers were “alive” and could “die” from being looked at by someone else. On occasion, he braved snowstorms to purchase replacements for “deceased” newspapers.

Casey Stengel called him “the strangest man ever to play baseball” even before it was known he had served America as a spy. Some may have wondered why a third-string catcher like Berg went to Japan in the early 1930s with the likes of Ruth and Gehrig on an all-star traveling team. In fact, Berg was assigned to take espionage photos. During WWII, he became one of America’s most important atomic spies, gathering vital information on top German scientists and even performing some missions that might have required assassination. He declined the Medal of Merit for his wartime service and never wrote his memoirs after being angered by an assigned co-author who confused him with “Moe” of the Three Stooges.

Berg fit the classic spy image: dark, heavy-featured, mysterious, sybaritic, courageous, and impeccably mannered. Women were attracted to the cultured, lifelong bachelor. When he was criticized for “wasting” his intellectual talent on the sport he loved, Berg replied: “I’d rather be a ballplayer than a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.”