International Moe of Mystery
Scholar, Ballplayer, Spy
By John Strausbaugh
During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor to the CIA, was run as a personal fiefdom by its creator, William "Wild Bill" Donovan, a World War I hero, Wall Street lawyer and advisor to FDR. Previously, American intelligence was conducted by a welter of competing agencies. The Navy had one, the Army another, the State Department yet another, plus the FBI, all fighting for turf. Roosevelt called the conflicting information they fed him a "twilight zone." The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was a glaring indication of their effectiveness.
Donovan's task was to create a separate "super-agency," outside and above the others, for a more coordinated approach. He recruited amateurs and neophytes from outside the existing agencies, hiring friends from Wall Street, wealthy Ivy Leaguers, "ex-polo players, millionaires, Russian princes, society gambol boys, scientists, and dilettante detectives," as one skeptical newspaperman put it. Donovan called them his "league of gentlemen." Outsiders joked that OSS stood for Oh So Social. Throughout the war it would fight its own turf battles with the other agencies, and its own effectiveness would often be questioned.
One of the most curious of OSS hires was a man so well-known you'd think his usefulness as a spy would be questionable at best. Then again, there was more than a little Zelig in the way Morris "Moe" Berg managed to appear in a strange variety of settings and capacities, interacting with some of the most important figures of his time, yet always remaining something of a blur. For all his celebrity, Berg was a loner whose personality and motivations eluded both his associates and his future biographers.
Moe Berg born to immigrant parents in 1902 in "a cold-water tenement not far from the Polo Grounds on 121st Street in Harlem," Nicholas Dawidoff wrote in his 1994 biography, The Catcher Was a Spy. Berg's father later shifted the family across the Hudson to Newark, where he opened a drug store. The Bergs were non-practicing and strove so hard to assimilate that as a boy Moe gave himself a pseudonym, Runt Wolfe, that he thought sounded less Jewish. A very bright and voracious student, he managed after a year at New York University to get into Princeton, where he was the rare "Hebrew," as his senior yearbook noted, probably to his chagrin. He excelled, graduating magna cum laude in philology, proficient in at least seven languages, including Sanskrit.
Princeton invited him to stay and teach, and there was some talk of his going on to the Sorbonne. But he had another love, baseball, and the Brooklyn Dodgers made him an offer. He joined the team as a shortstop in 1923. He was a weak hitter and prone to errors in the field, yet would remain in the game for 19 years, wandering from team to team, switching from shortstop to catcher and eventually coach, while spending most of his time on the bench. Off-season he studied at Columbia Law School, passed the bar and joined a Wall Street firm. He would never practice law full-time, preferring the diamond. Exactly why a man who might have accomplished so much chose a career in which he did so little confounded all who knew him. "I call him the mystery catcher," Casey Stengel once said. "Strangest fella who ever put on a uniform."
Sports writers loved him regardless. He was such a freak of nature to them – an extremely bright, widely-read Jewish lawyer in the dugout, the egghead in a world of jocks and hicks. If nothing was happening in the game, they could always get him to spout some Latin, French or Greek. Joe Kieran, who wrote the daily "Sports of the Times" from the late 1920s to 1942 for the New York Times – the paper's first signed column – built a humorous, long-running legend around "Professor Moe," in which Berg discussed higher math with Einstein, lived in a house completely lined with books in all languages, and went on the road with a trunk stuffed with international newspapers and massive scholarly tomes. The thing was, much of it was true.
In 1932 and 1934, Berg traveled to Japan with groups of "baseball ambassadors." Most of his traveling companions were stars like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and how the benchwarmer got in with them was another mystery. But Berg loved Japan and the Japanese loved him back, marveling at how quickly he learned to get by in their language. By the second trip political relations between Japan and America were souring, however, and Japanese authorities were on guard for American spies with cameras posing as tourists. Berg put on a Japanese robe and geta (wooden sandals), slicked back his hair, and wandered around in this disguise shooting 16-mm film footage. He was caught doing it in Japanese-held Korea, where police confiscated some of his film and briefly detained him. From there he took the Trans-Siberian railroad to Moscow, where officers in Red Square relieved him of some more film, and again as he crossed into Poland. A few years later there would be much speculation on what he'd been up to.
Berg's time in baseball ended with the 1941 season. After Pearl Harbor he prowled Washington offering his services where he thought he'd be of most use – intelligence. He recorded a personal message to be broadcast in Japan, telling the Japanese people that by attacking Pearl Harbor "you have lost face and are committing national seppuku." He read it in Japanese. In July 1942 he screened his 1934 film footage of Tokyo for representatives of all the intelligence agencies. This led to a popular myth that Berg's footage was used in planning Jimmy Doolittle's B-25 raids on Tokyo, Yokohama and other cities. In fact, those raids took place the previous spring, and were planned using much more recent maps and photography than Berg's eight-year-old home movies. Nevertheless such was the power of Professor Berg's legend that the story persisted for decades.
Donovan hired Berg as a full-time spy in 1943. None of Donovan's dilettantes was more amateurish than Moe Berg, but none was more enthusiastic either, and he did get some results. One of his last assignments put him at the center of the biggest secret of the war: the race to develop an atomic bomb.
Through the war years the Allies had been trying and failing to get a clear picture of how far along physicist Werner Heisenberg was in developing atomic weapons for Hitler. (Heisenberg had ample opportunity to leave Germany in the 1930s when many other scientists and intellectuals did. He stayed because he was a patriotic German, and while never himself a Nazi, he was not exactly anti-Nazi either.) By 1944 the tide of war was turning against Germany, and the chance of Heisenberg's succeeding seemed remote. Still, the specter of a losing Hitler taking all of Europe down with him in a nuclear Armageddon was frightening.
The OSS decided to send the brainy, multi-lingual Moe Berg to see what he could find out. After boning up on physics, Berg made his way to Rome on June 6 1944 – D-Day in France, and one day after Rome's liberation. There he met a few Italian atomic physicists who were anti-fascists but, rather like Heisenberg, had opted to stay in Italy when Enrico Fermi and others left for the US in the late 1930s. He also tracked down the aeronautics scientist Antonio Ferri, a leading expert on supersonic flight. When the Germans occupied Rome in 1943, Ferri had sneaked into his lab and destroyed as much equipment and paperwork as he could, then went underground and joined the resistance. Berg found him and arranged for him to go to the US, where the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics was very pleased to greet him. He would go on to teach at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, work with NASA, and found the General Applied Science Laboratory on Long Island, where he died in 1975.
Early in December 1944 the OSS learned that Heisenberg would be giving a lecture at a technical college in neutral Zurich later that month. Berg and another OSS agent went to Switzerland to attend. Berg's brief was to determine if Heisenberg was anywhere near to completing an atom bomb – and if so, to assassinate him. Berg was maybe the least likely assassin in the OSS. He carried a pistol, but was not familiar or comfortable with firearms and had previously embarrassed himself by letting his handgun fall out of his pocket or belt in public places. He also carried an "L pill" – a cyanide capsule to take if he was captured.
He got into the lecture pretending to be a Swiss physics student. Heisenberg looked small and frail to him. Although Berg's German was rusty, and his knowledge of physics superficial, by the end of the lecture he concluded, no doubt with some relief, that Heisenberg was no threat and there was no need to assassinate him.
Later that week, Berg attended a dinner party at which other physicists harangued a defensive Heisenberg for working inside Hitler's Germany. At the end of the evening Berg walked out with Heisenberg. Still playing the Swiss student, he strolled Zurich's dark streets with the scientist and "pestered" him, Heisenberg later recalled, with questions. By the time they parted ways Berg had reconfirmed his opinion that there was no need to assassinate the man. Events would eventually prove him right; at the end of the war it was revealed that the Nazis had been nowhere near to developing a bomb.That was about it for Berg's spy work during the war. After the war, President Truman, who disliked Donovan, ended the OSS, created the CIA, and froze Donovan out. The end of the war left Moe Berg a man without purpose, no longer in baseball, no longer a spy, still a blur. He would hold no serious job and indeed do very little of anything for the rest of his life. In the early 1950s he conducted a little low-priority snooping for the CIA. But otherwise he drifted through his last quarter-century as a kind of celebrity hobo, constantly on the move, mooching off friends and fans, his life as mysterious as in his spy days but nowhere near as dramatic. When he died in 1972 he left no estate, no heirs, and a legacy that's still mostly questions and vagueness.
Published April 23rd, 2016
John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.