American baseball player Morris "Moe" Berg, whose major league career spanned 15 unillustrious seasons on four different teams between 1923 and 1939, never advanced beyond the positions of backup catcher and substitute shortstop. He spent more time on the bench than he did on the diamond, it was said. "He can speak seven languages but he can't hit in any of them," a teammate complained of Berg, who, despite being a Princeton graduate and holding a law degree from Columbia University, led an outwardly unremarkable, even mysterious, life.
If not for his secret exploits as a military spy during World War II, in fact, Moe Berg might not be remembered at all today. Thanks to his work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the progenitor of today's CIA), Berg will go down in history. Principal shooting began in February 2017 on a feature film about the life of Moe Berg, whose wartime activities, though not unknown to historians, have gone largely unrecognized by the general public.
The film, titled The Catcher Was a Spy, focuses on Berg's mission to track down the famous German physicist Werner Heisenberg in Europe, for purposes of assessing the Nazis' nuclear capabilities. Some say he was ordered to assassinate Heisenberg, if necessary, to impede the Germans' atom bomb program.
A number of newspaper and magazine articles have been written about Berg's adventures as a spy (including one by the CIA), not to mention the 1994 book on which the film is based, The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg by Nicholas Dawidoff. To the extent most people are aware of Berg's name at all these days, however, the more familiar source is probably this anonymous, unabashedly hyperbolic viral article circulating via social media since 2013:
Speaking fifteen languages - including Japanese - Moe Berg 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 photographed the harbor, military installations, railway yards, etc. Eight years later, Colonel Jimmy Doolittle carefully studied Berg’s photos in planning his spectacular raid, later characterized as “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo.”
Berg’s father, Bernard Berg, a pharmacist in Newark, New Jersey, taught his son Hebrew and Yiddish. Moe, against his wishes, began playing baseball on the street at age four. His father disapproved and never once watched his son play. In Barringer High School, Moe learned Latin, Greek and French. 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, plus some regional dialects.
During World War II, he 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....
The text, which proceeds to recount Berg's trip to Zurich to find (and possibly kill) Heisenberg, appears to have been drawn from published sources (a 1992 Chicago Tribune article by Ron Grossman titled "Berg — Moe Berg", for one), but Nicholas Dawidoff's more thorough research calls some of its more outlandish claims into question.
Berg had a natural facility for languages and word origins, for example, but he wasn't fluent in any foreign language, a New York Times review of Dawifdoff's book notes (certainly not Sanskrit!). Nor is it known for certain that a critical part of Berg's mission in Switzerland was to assassinate Heisenberg:
As for his spying exploits: Mr. Dawidoff writes that Berg was never ordered to photograph Tokyo; the notion was purely Berg's invention. Nor were his pictures ever consulted for Doolittle's raid. And while Berg may well have been assigned to assassinate Heisenberg, Mr. Dawidoff writes that "the whole situation was charged with improbability." As he concludes: "Only a large dose of O.S.S. wishful thinking finds Heisenberg, with his bomb nearly built, telling a lecture hall full of foreigners about it."
Berg adored being a wartime spy, it seems, and did not do well when he returned to the United States after the war came to an end. Despite accepting occasional work for the CIA, Berg found himself penniless, rootless, and aimless in later years, Dawidoff notes. He lived with his older sister, Ethel, until he died in 1972 at the age of 70. He was cremated and his ashes interred in his parents' New Jersey cemetery plot, but the urn was exhumed by his sister and moved to an unknown location in Israel.
"[Ethel] died in 1987," Dawidoff writes, noting a plot twist Berg himself would have approved, "so the final mystery of Moe Berg's life is that nobody knows where he is."