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Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Spy Who Caught Me

"The strangest man to ever play baseball."

That's how the late-great baseball lifer outfielder/manager Casey Stengel described American League baseball catcher Morris "Moe" Berg.

While merely considered to be an average ball player who was usually the third-string catcher and thus would warm-up the bullpen pitchers during a game, Berg was known around baseball for being one of the smartest men on the diamond.

Born March 2, 1902 in New York City, New York… the city so great they named it twice - yes, an old joke, but this is about an old story… Berg was a Princeton University and Columbia Law School grad who seemed to prefer playing baseball over anything else.

He spoke several languages (could write Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Sanskrit, probably Jewish... d'oh, I mean Hebrew [Thanks, Vince] and English) and would read 10 newspapers a day.

His reputation was further cemented in baseball lore after he appeared on a NBC radio quiz program called Information Please (it ran between 1938-1951)… and then for four months in 1952 on television.

To win, a listener would submit questions that had to stump the radio show's panel of experts. A listener received $2 if a question was used, and $5 if they stumped the brainiac. Prizes awarded went up to as much as $10 and $25 in later years.

Along with three regular smarties: Oscar Levant, Franklin P. Adams and John Kieran, a fourth special guest brain was always present.

Guest brains included Boris Karloff (who probably had Igor dig one up for him), Orson Wells (a Martian brain) and even Basil Rathbone (Dr. Watson's)… and of course, our Moe Berg.

On the show, Berg answered sent-in questions about the derivation of words and names from Greek and Latin, historical events in Europe and the Far East and more.

As for baseball? Well, while playing for the Princeton baseball team as a Shortstop - whenever there was a runner on 2nd Base, he and the Second baseman Crossan Cooper would discuss plays in Latin. Kind of like nowadays. Not.

Looking for the next great Jewish hope in baseball, with both the New York Giants and Brooklyn Robins (later Brooklyn Dodgers) after him to create appeal to their market's large Jewish community, Berg signed with the Robins on June 27, 1923… mostly because that team wasn't very good, so he'd have a better chance to play.

He signed for $5,000, which is about $69,000 in 2016 money… so while that was a great deal of money, it's still no where close to what the worst player in MLB makes today. So either ball players then were woefully underpaid, or today's ball players are woefully overpaid. Discuss.

Here's his career stats:

Teams: Brooklyn Robins - 1923; Chicago White Sox - 1926-1930; Cleveland Indians - 1931; Washington Senators - 1932-1934; Cleveland Indians - 1934; Boston Red Sox-1935-1939.

Batting Average: .243
Hits: 441
RBI: 206

A cursory glance will tell you that despite having a big brain, Berg had a tiny bat.

Let me clarify, however, that even the worst professional baseball player is still many times better than the non-professional, armchair player.

Still… in 1924, while playing in the minor leagues, the Brooklyn Robins (later Dodgers) were interested in calling him up, but scout Mike Gonzalez sent them a telegram with the famous but short and sour note: "Good field, no hit." He also spent 1925 in the minors.

I know, I know… where's the Japan connection… wait for it… later.

1933 Goudey baseball card showing Berg with the Washington Senators.
Anyhow, at the conclusion of the 1923 season - his first in the MLB - Berg sailed from New York to Paris, got an apartment overlooking the Sorbonne River and then enrolled in 32 different classes.

In 1926, he told the Chicago White Sox that he would be late for the season, missing Spring Training and the first two months of the season because he was finishing his first year of law school at Columbia University.

White Sox owner Charles Comiskey offered Berg more money if he would show up for Spring Training in 1927, but Berg said he would once again be late because of law school.

In anticipation of problems in 1928, a professor of Berg's encouraged him to take extra classes in the Autumn, and that he would help him arrange a leave of absence in the Spring, so Berg could be on time for baseball Spring Training.

But he was still a bit late… however, thankfully the White Sox suffered a slew of injuries to their three catchers, so instead of sitting on the bench as a non-playing shortstop, Berg was used as a catcher...

… except that before he played a game at the position, the White Sox manager went out and got another catcher—Frank Bruggy. With Bruggy set to catch Sox pitcher Ted Lyons, Lyons refused to pitch to him citing how overweight Bruggy was… when asked, Lyons opted to pitch to Berg.

I have no idea what the heck Lyons was talking about... here's the stats line for Bruggy in his final MLB season in 1924 (four years earlier.... oh... four years...): batting average .265 in 50 games, six doubles, eight walks and four stolen bases... odds are against a fat guy stealing four bases in 50 games... that's a seasonal average of 12... which is pretty good even by today's standards for an average ball player. But... yeah... Bruggy was asked to come back and catch four years after his last professional game... he probably was a bit overweight.

Lyons, of course, was a knuckleball pitcher, which the only equivalent I can come up with is like you or I trying to catch a butterfly in a hurricane with mittens on. Oh yeah… he also had to call pitches against the New York Yankees featuring Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The White Sox beat the Yankees 6-3, holding Ruth without a hit.

Let's skip ahead… In 1932, three baseball players were asked to go to Japan (Japan!) to go and teach baseball seminars at various Japanese universities (Meiji, Waseda, Rikkyo, Todai, Hosei and Keio - all members of the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League (東京六大学野球連盟 Tōkyō roku daigaku yakyū renmei).

These three American ball players were: Berg, Lyons and Lefty O'Doul. After the assignment, everyone went home… except for Berg… who decided he wanted to see the country… plus Manchuria (now mostly in China and a bit of Russia), Shanghai, Peking (now Beijing), Indochina (an area that includes Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Vietnam)  Siam (Thailand), India, Egypt and Berlin.

Despite wanting to stay in Japan, he returned to the Washington Senator's team in 1933.

Moe Berg's actual 1934 MLB All-Star Japan Tour baseball jacket.
In 1934, Berg got to go to Japan again. This was for the 1934 MLB All-Stars, which included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Fox and more. See the photo at the very top of this blog... Berg is immediately to the right of the kimono-clad woman's right elbow.

It was actually, all American League players, because the National League refused to allow its players to go over… it's why a third-string catcher named Moe Berg was asked to go along—plus he already had cultural experience in Japan.

Among the items Berg took with him to Japan were a 16mm movie camera and a letter from MovietoneNews, a newsreel company, who had contracted with Berg to film the trip.
I spy with my camera eye... people in stolen hotel bathrobes.
Like I said… Berg already had some cultural advantages over his fellow baseball all-stars, so when they arrived in Japan, Berg gave a speech to the crowd in Japanese, and later addressed the Japanese legislature.

I was in Japan for three years, and I could sort of order a cheeseburger at McDonalds. I wanted a Big Mac, but it was close enough.

On November 29, 1934 with the All-Stars playing against the Japan all-stars in Omiya-shi in Saitama-ken, Berg went to Saint Luke's Hospital in Tsukiji to visit the sick daughter of U.S. ambassador Joseph Grew… but instead of doing that, once at the hospital, he snuck onto the hospital's roof—one of the tallest buildings in Japan at the time—and filmed the cityscape and waterscape of Tokyo Bay et al with his movie camera.

Blah-blah-blah… baseball career over… the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor in U.S. protectorate of Hawaii on December 7, 1941… Berg, despite enjoying his time in Japan wants to do his part in the war against Japan… oh yeah, and the rest of the Axis of Evil who had been at war for two plus years earlier.

Blah-blah-blah, in 1942 he screened that movie he shot atop the hospital roof for a viewing by the U.S. military… as it provided the war machine with great details of Tokyo Bay…

Unconfirmable, it was said that the film may have played a part in helping Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle plan his famous Doolittle Raid (the Tokyo Air Raid on April 18, 1942 to show Japan that it was vulnerable to major retaliation from the Allies.

Later, in 1943 he parachuted into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia to determine the Allies next best move in that region.

In 1944 with German atomic physicist Werner Heisenberg giving a talk in Switzerland, Berg was sent in to determine if Heisenberg and Nazi Germany were close to developing "THE BOMB"… and if so, Berg was told to assassinate him. Really! Heisenberg was a pioneer of quantum mechanics theory.

But, Berg determined that Germany was not a threat in achieving atomic weaponry any time soon.

On October 10, 1945, Berg was awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom - but he rejected it… it was only later accepted by his sister after he died.

After the war, Berg was offered a coaching position by Chicago White Sox manager Ted Lyons (his former pitching teammate). He rejected it.

Red Sox owner Thomans Yawkney also offered Berg a job. He rejected it.

He didn't practice law. He didn't teach.

But, in 1951 he asked the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) to send him to Israel, but they rejected his request.

In 1952 and armed with a three-year contract with the CIA, he was asked to make nice-nice with his old WWII contacts to try and learn as much as possible about the USSR atomic research. He brought back no information, with the CIA agents considering him 'flaky'.

After the CIA contract expired in 1954, Berg did not have a job again for the next 20 years, moving between and freeloading off relatives and friends. When they asked what he did for a living, he pressed his index finger to his lips, implying he was still a spy.
1940 baseball card - Berg wasn't playing, but he was a Red Sox coach.  
In 1960 when he finally agreed to write his memoirs, he quit after his co-writer thought he was Moe Howard of the Three Stooges. Oh, a wise guy, eh?

Berg died on May 29, 1972 after falling at a nursing home. His last words were reportedly: "How did the (New York) Mets do today?"

Officially, Moe Berg's baseball cards are the only ones displayed at the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA.

Andrew "I ain't Lyons" Joseph
PS: This blog was inspired at 6:30 in the AM while I was sitting on the toilet squinting at a 20-year-old baseball historical book… lacking my contact lenses, I pulled the book closer and dropped my head lower and was able to read an entry on a guy named Moe Berg.
I knew of a Moe Berg who played some wicked rock and roll - bought the albums of The Pursuit Of Happiness - but was convinced of kismet once again when the 10 line biography mentioned that the baseball Berg had been a spy in Japan. And that, dear reader, is how one gets inspired to write this crappy blog

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