SUPER COOL: Baseball player who was a spy in WWII

Do you have a friend or loved one who is a baseball fan?  A student of WWII?

This book would make a great gift.

A reader alerted me to this via email… one of the coolest things I have seen for a long time.

From goodreads:

Click to buy!

The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg [A book!]

The only Major League ballplayer whose baseball card is on display at the headquarters of the CIA, Moe Berg has the singular distinction of having both a 15-year career as a catcher for such teams as the New York Robins and the Chicago White Sox and that of a spy for the OSS during World War II. Here, Dawidoff provides “a careful and sympathetic biography”

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 five major-league teams from 1923 to 1939, he was a very mediocre ball player.

But Moe was regarded as the brainiest ballplayer of all time. 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 with them and many people wondered why he went with “the team” . . .

The answer was simple: Moe Berg was a United States spy, working undercover with the CIA.

Moe spoke 15 languages – including Japanese. And he had two loves: baseball and 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. The ball-player ascended to the hospital roof and filmed key features: the harbor, military installations, railway yards, etc.

Eight years later, General Jimmy Doolittle studied Berg’s films in planning his spectacular raid on Tokyo..

His father disapproved and never once watched his son play. In Barringer High School, Moe learned Latin, Greek and French. Moe read at least 10 newspapers everyday.

He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton – having added Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit to his linguistic quiver. During further studies at the Sorbonne, in Paris , and Columbia Law School, he picked up Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Arabic,Portuguese and Hungarian – 15 languages in all, plus some regional dialects.

While playing baseball for Princeton University, Moe Berg would describe plays in Latin or Sanskrit.

During World War II, Moe 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 and 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 and located a secret
heavy-water plant – part of the Nazis’ effort to build anatomic bomb.

His information guided the Royal Air Force in a bombing raid to destroy that plant.

The R.A.F. destroys 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 and determine if the Nazis were close
to building an A-bomb. Moe managed to slip past the SS guards at the auditorium, posing as a Swiss graduate student. The spy carried in his pocket a pistol and a cyanide pill.

If the German indicated the Nazis were close to building a weapon, Berg was to shoot him – and 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 and walked him back to his hotel.

Werner Heisenberg – he blocked the Nazis from acquiring an atomic bomb.

Moe Berg’s report was distributed to Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and key figures in the team developing the Atomic Bomb. Roosevelt responded: “Give my regards to the catcher.

Most of Germany’s leading physicists had been Jewish and had fled the Nazis mainly to Britain and 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. It now hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown.

Presidential Medal of Freedom: the highest award given to civilians during wartime.

Moe Berg’s baseball card is the only card on display at the CIA Headquarters in Washington, DC.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. acardnal says:

    I was surprised to learn you were not aware of Moe Berg and the OSS, Fr. Z. There is a short bio of Berg on the CIA’s website HERE

    Let’s not forget that another of your mentors also worked for the OSS in WWII: Julia Child. HERE

  2. Matt R says:

    I knew Berg worked for the government on his tour of Japan. I did not know he was an OSS operative during the war. After the CIA’s creation, he probably would have been given the Intelligence Star.

  3. Kerry says:

    Via Claremont(dot)org and Harry Jaffa, of boxer Joe Louis: On being inducted into the Army he was asked why he was willing to fight for a country that treated “his people” the way colored people were treated then. He replied with these immortal words: “There ain’t nothing wrong with this country that Hitler can fix.”

  4. stephen c says:

    Berg never cashed out, and lived the rest of his post-espionage life as an unmarried person with little family support and almost no financial resources. (Retired baseball players, and former OSS operatives, had no real pensions back then). Also, not that any of us will ever know, but I think the cyanide aspect of the story is not correctly portrayed. Berg was a well-informed Jew, and they had as much of a canon against suicide as Christians. Anyway, if all of our modern special forces millionaire admirals and generals had half the courage and honor of poor Moe Berg we would be citizens of a very lucky country with a lot less to worry about from enemies than we currently do.

  5. robtbrown says:

    If memory serves ESPN Classic did a bio on Moe Berg.

  6. Sconnius says:

    I always liked that Sir Christopher Lee was in the SOE with Ian Fleming.

    While filming LotR, he corrected Peter Jackson on the sound made by a man being stabbed in the back.

  7. Andy Lucy says:

    Having written a couple of papers in grad school about Operations Grouse, Freshman, and Gunnerside… I would be very interested in seeing the documentation for Berg’s involvement in the destruction of the heavy water facility at Vemork. The Allies knew the exact location of the facility, as prior to the Nazi invasion of Norway, the facility had produced heavy water that was “acquired” by France’s Deuxieme Bureau. Bombing by the RAF was impossible, as the location made high altitude bombing very difficult, and low altitude bombing was prevented by wires strung across the valley.

    A team of Norwegians and British engineers managed to destroy the plant. Following the destruction, the Germans attempted to evacuate the existing heavy water to Germany, but a group of Norwegian commandos sank the vessel carrying the heavy water containers.

    I don’t wish to denigrate the service of Berg… and I do not discount the possibility that he was involved. However, in all of the printed material about the event, I have never seen him mentioned in any way. If he were involved, I would be VERY interested in seeing the documentation, as that would be beyond cool.

  8. Sandy says:

    Even if only part of the story is true (as some seem to question it), this is truly inspiring and we should wish we had a country full of heroic people such as this man. I have to wonder about the comment above regarding “millionaire admirals and generals”. That commenter obviously does not come from a military family as I do (born into it and married into it). Having known high ranking officers, I can tell you that I never met a millionaire among them!

  9. restoration says:

    Depends on how one defines “high-ranking”, Sandy. Stephen c. wrote of “millionaire admirals and generals” which is sadly true due to the “cozy” relationship one sees today between defense contractors and flag officers. This is generally not true for Navy Captains and Army/Marine Corps Colonels and below, but as a long-serving officer, I saw one flag officer after another “retiring” to highly-paid executive positions ($500k+) with huge corporations and lobbying firms. Virtually identical behavior to “retired” Congressmen and Senators. The point is that heroes like Moe Berg did not feather their nest like today’s obsequious flag officers.

  10. Semper Gumby says:

    Great book, baseball and spying. If anyone is motivated to read further in WWII espionage here’s two more books:

    The Double-Cross System by JC Masterman. Masterman was in charge of the XX Committee during WWII, his group converted captured Nazi spies into a British-controlled network that fed Hitler and his General Staff false information.

    Fortitude by Roger Hesketh. This book details the deception campaign for the Normandy landings. Beginning generally in 1942, this book describes how a little-known British unit, the London Controlling Section, orchestrated troop movements, fake radio traffic and dummy troop concentrations, assets from the XX Committee, and other special means such as ULTRA intercepts to convince the Germans that Calais, not Normandy, would be the Allied objective.

  11. stephen c says:

    restoration – thanks for saying clearly what I should have said clearly.
    While each O-7 and above’s decision to cash out may be individually defensible, the overall effect is not good. Moe Berg’s story is so inspiring in part because of his efforts to keep helping, even when there were no major monetary rewards to be had. Sandy C – thanks for your loyalty to the military. I agree with your point insofar as I have never met a millionaire colonel either, retired or active duty. Anyway, you are lucky to be part of a military family. For my part, every day I am grateful for the bravery of my father and his brother and brother-in-law – all WWII vets, two of whom saw a horrific amount of enemy action; and me and one of my brothers are both proud members of the VFW (although I saw nowhere near as much as a fraction of the action my uncles did).

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