Among the many colorful characters recruited as spies during World War II, no one was more unusual than Morris “Moe” Berg. Tall, handsome, and highly intelligent, Moe was a professional baseball player, lawyer, scholar, linguist, and spy. He earned degrees from Princeton, Columbia Law School, and the Sorbonne, eventually becoming fluent in at least twelve languages, including Sanskrit. He was comfortable talking about topics ranging from the conjugation of Sanskrit verbs, to the mechanics of throwing an effective curve ball, to the physics involved in splitting the atom.
This part of Moe’s story begins in 1934. when he accompanied a group of baseball All-Stars, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, on an exhibition tour of Japan. Moe, like a lot of tourists, carried a 16mm movie camera. One day he visited St. Luke’s International Hospital, one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo, ostensibly to pay a visit to the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Japan who had just given birth. But Berg never stopped at her room. Instead, he went to the top of the building and took a series of panoramic movies of Tokyo. After America entered World War II, Berg screened the movies he took during that trip for military intelligence officers planning the Doolittle Raid on Japan in 1942.
Berg was recruited by the OSS in August 1943. His first assignment was an evaluation of partisan groups in Yugoslavia. His report helped swing American support to Tito and his organization.
Berg was next assigned to a secret mission designed to kidnap rocket and missile specialists out of Italy, and he succeeded in getting Antonio Ferri to defect. Ferri (1912-1975) was prominent in the field of aerodynamics with a specialization in hypersonic and supersonic flight.
When President Roosevelt received the news, he commented, “I see Berg is still catching pretty well.”
But it was a bit later that Berg had his greatest intelligence triumphs. One success was a detailed interview with an Italian physicist. The urbane Berg charmed the initially suspicious scientist with a captivating discussion of the poetry of Petrarch, whom the physicist admired. Three days later, the physicist was talking freely. Disguised as a German officer, he obtained extensive intelligence about Germany’s atomic bomb development centers. And, posing as a physics student, he attended a lecture in Switzerland by Werner Heisenberg (of the famous Uncertainty Principle,) the leader of Germany’s atomic bomb program. His orders from the OSS were to carry a shoulder-holstered pistol and if he discovered the Germans were close to getting the A-bomb, assassinate Werner Heisenberg, then take cyanide to avoid capture. The operation was made moot when Berg overheard Heisenberg telling a colleague that Germany had no chance of developing the bomb before they lost the war. Both Berg and Heisenberg (1901-1976) lived to fight another day.
Oddly enough, for all of Berg’s accomplishments, the one which was weakest was baseball. He batted only .243 with six home runs lifetime. (One of the more famous quotes about Moe Berg came from his Chicago White Sox teammate, pitcher Ted Lyons, who said, “He can speak twelve languages but can’t hit in any of them.”) But he spent fifteen seasons in the majors mainly because of his defensive skills and his knowledge of baseball. His skill in calling games and his knowledge of the hitters put him in great demand around the league. Moe went on to play for Cleveland, Washington and Boston in the American League until his retirement after the 1939 season.
Moe Berg was certainly one of the most fascinating characters of WWII. His biography is well worth a read. After the war he became a man of mystery, living a close-mouthed, eccentric, and vagabond life, eventually passing away at age 70 in 1972.