The Catcher Was a Spy

Nicholas Dawidoff

The Catcher Was a Spy

Nicholas Dawidoff

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The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg (1994) is a biography by American author Nicholas Dawidoff. Its subject, Morris “Moe” Berg, was a professional baseball catcher—and later coach—who served as a spy during World War II, before ending his days as an enigmatic figure who lived off the goodwill of his friends, declining to work or start a family of his own. Dawidoff meticulously separates the facts of Berg’s life from Berg’s own boasts and anecdotes, to paint a portrait of a talented but deeply conflicted man. The Catcher Was a Spy spent seven weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.

Berg was born in 1902, not far from the home of the New York Giants baseball team. His parents, Bernard and Rose, were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. When Berg was four, the family (including Berg’s two siblings), moved to Newark, New Jersey, where Bernard Berg had bought a pharmacy. Bernard had ceased to practice Judaism when he arrived in America, although he did not change his name or attempt to hide his identity. Dawidoff argues that Berg found himself trapped between a Jewish identity he didn’t know how to claim and an American identity from which he was excluded by the anti-Semitism of his peers. This sense of divided and unsettled identity would haunt Berg throughout his life.

At the age of seven, Berg became infatuated with baseball. His father, who had never taken to American sports, was dismayed and encouraged Berg to keep putting his academic work first, despite Berg’s obvious gift for baseball.

Berg enrolled at N.Y.U. and later Princeton, where he excelled at languages, studying no fewer than seven, including Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. Throughout his university career, Berg played first base and shortstop for his colleges’ baseball teams. As a senior, he was named team captain, and he was scouted by both the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, who signed him upon graduation.

Early in his career, Berg sat out several weeks of spring training to attend Columbia Law School (he would eventually pass the New York Bar Exam in 1930), resulting in his being passed over in favor of other players. For the rest of his 16-year career, Berg was a backup catcher, first for the Dodgers and later for several other teams, including the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago White Sox.

In 1932, thanks to his language skills, Berg was recruited for a tour to Japan organized by former Major League player Herb Hunter. When the tour was over, Berg stayed in Japan and traveled west through Asia and the Middle East to Berlin. Berg returned to Japan on another Hunter-organized tour in 1934. Before leaving, Berg signed a contract to film the tour, but while he was in Japan—which was preparing for war and restricting visitors—he took a great deal of covert footage of industrial and military sites.

By the end of the 1930s, Berg’s playing days were coming to an end, although he was respected for his intelligent playing style and beloved of journalists. However, Dawidoff reports that during his final years as a player and then a coach with the Red Sox, Berg did very little on field or off, although he had a habit of teaching his pitchers foreign languages.

When the U.S. entered World War II, Berg was 39, and he applied for a role using his skill with languages. He was given a position with the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs in 1942, in which he toured U.S. military bases, inspecting conditions and making recommendations to improve morale.

Wishing to make a more active contribution, Berg applied to the covert Office of Strategic Services (OSS). He provided OSS with the footage taken during his Japanese tour, which proved valuable—although not as valuable as Berg would later boast. OSS sent Berg to Europe, with the mission of establishing whether German scientists under physicist Werner Heisenberg were on the brink of developing nuclear weapons technology. If he determined that they were, Berg was instructed to kill Heisenberg. He even attended one of the physicist’s lectures armed with a pistol, but the lecture convinced him that the Germans were a long way from developing a nuclear arsenal. Berg befriended Heisenberg and successfully convinced the U.S. military that Germany posed no nuclear threat.

After the war, Berg did not return to work in any capacity. Dawidoff discovers that he was offered major league coaching roles and points out that Berg also could have practiced law. Instead, Berg moved in with his brother Samuel, a New Jersey physician, and lived on the goodwill of his friends and family.

When asked what he did for a living, Berg would raise a finger to his lips, to imply that he was still a spy. Dawidoff concludes that he certainly was not. Berg continued to move in powerful circles, however, and he acquired a reputation as a womanizer. Dawidoff speculates that Berg’s identity was simply so conflicted that he could not settle or feel comfortable in a clearly defined role.

There were rumors that Berg might have fondled young children in a sexual way. Dawidoff can neither confirm nor deny them, but it seems likely that these rumors contributed to Samuel’s decision to evict Berg from his home. Berg moved in with his sister Ethel, where he died in 1972. His last words were: “How are the Mets doing today?” He died before his nurse could answer him.
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