Moe Berg was born to a Jewish family in New Jersey and became one of baseball’s most intriguing stories. First, he went to Princeton where his Jewish heritage stood out among his classmates and by the time he graduated in 1923 he was not only an outstanding student who could speak 4 – 8 languages, but he was also the star shortstop on an excellent team.
He graduated with a law degree and served a very brief stint as a lawyer, but signed with the Brooklyn Robins – soon to be Dodgers and played 15 years in the major leagues. He moved from team to team and ended up a Red Sox. He also quickly changed from a shortstop to a catcher and his fifteen year batting line was .243 batting average, 278 on base average and 299 slugging average. He was not a star hitter and he was not a starter either.
Today he would be more highly valued because he had a great arm to throw to the bases and hall of famer Ted Lyons said he was the best at calling a game. He would have been a pitch framer and he would have stood out by the measurements of today, but not by the standards of his day. And yet he kept playing.
He was loved as a teammate and his story telling in the bullpen was legendary. Every day he read seven or more newspapers and he seemed to have the charisma to accompany some of the biggest names of his era – like Nelson Rockefeller. But he was also a loner, who loved attention, but needed to get away by himself. The life of every party, but someone who would disappear with an aura of mystery.
In many ways he was the bench coach while still active and remained in love with the game. He also authored one of the classic essays on pitching and catching. But he really did not care if he played, his pleasure was in being near the game.
He went to Japan to teach baseball and he organized and was with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other HOF stars when they were in Japan. Moe learned the language and even how to write in Japanese. He loved the country and he took photos while he was there that would later be valuable to the war effort.
He was a favorite of the sports writers – they called him the professor. Then his career ended with a little coaching and the nation faced the onset of the war. The nation lacked a CIA, they did not have spies and intelligence, so the country formed the OSS and Wild Bill Donovan recruited the most eccentric group of spies we have ever had and Moe was one.
The fascinating story is told in the book – The Catcher was a Spy, by Nicholas Dawidoff, and it is amazing. Moe was in Europe and meeting with scientists who were being lured to the US or asked to work with the US to develop the Nuclear Bomb. He met Einstein, Scherer, Heisenberg and other leading scientists. He was at international scientific meetings and moved in a circle that few people and fewer spies could navigate and he loved it.
But his life spun in different ways after his OSS days. He was an independent operator and it is hard to make that work in life. He ended up moving from friend to friend, lived with his brother until their relationship fell apart and then with his sister until he died. His last question on his death bed was, “How are the Mets doing today?”
In death this mystery man remains a mystery – Berg’s ashes were buried in Newark in a Cemetery and his brother visited every year on his birthday. His sister Ethel Berg died on her 87th birthday the next year and it was discovered that Ethel had taken the urn from the grave and went to Israel. There she asked a Rabbi to bury him, but he refused because cremation was not accepted, so she asked where he would bury someone if he could and he pointed to Mount Scopus. His brother Sam asked the same Rabbi and he would not tell him the location. His brother Sam died in 1990 at age 92 without ever finding the grave. The location, like the mystery man himself is unknown.