Only one man has his professional baseball cards in the CIA museum in Langley, Virginia. The museum’s label is titled MORRIS (MOE) BERG BASEBALL CARDS and it reads in part:
Following his 15-year career with five different major league teams, the Princeton-educated Berg served as a highly successful Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operative during World War II. Among his many missions on behalf of the OSS, the former catcher was charged with learning all he could about Hitler’s nuclear bomb project…Because of his intellect, Moe Berg is considered the “brainiest” man to have played the game.”
The true story is a bit more complicated.
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent articles (or in this case a book) that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
You would be forgiven if in reading the headline, you assumed this was another rant about the cheating ways of the Houston Astros. It is not. Instead, as part of my regular “spring training” regimen, I read a book on baseball and watch the movie Bull Durham to prep for the season. This year, I turned to the entertaining and exceptionally well-researched 1995 book by Nicholas Dawidoff, The Catcher was a Spy: The mysterious life of Moe Berg. I came late to this story and missed the movie entirely. Nonetheless, I was immediately enthralled after diving into this work a few weeks ago. Baseball stories, if well crafted, can be timeless, like the game itself.
Moe Berg was seen as different from any other baseball player even during his playing career. Legendary manager Casey Stengel described Berg as “the strangest man ever to play baseball”. As Dawidoff recounts in this page-turner of a book, Berg enjoyed “being” a baseball player more than he enjoyed “playing” baseball. The rhythms of the season, the copious amount of free time both during and between seasons, the ability to sit in the bullpen and tell stories, the travel and the first-class accommodations all suited the life he wanted to build for himself. Following his stint in major league baseball, Berg — like many bright young men of the day — entered the war to fight the Nazis. Again, the life of a spy in the free-wheeling OSS fit his personality, and he worked, among other assignments, to uncover the status of Germany’s atomic bomb program. The fact that he could speak several languages and read even more, had no real personal connections to tie him down, and was bright enough to understand more physics than the average person made him a useful operator for the new spy agency. His life began to change as the war wound down and it was found that the Nazi’s did not have a real atomic program to speak of. The buttoned-down CIA was not interested in keeping a free-lancing amateur sleuth employed during the Cold War.
Depending on your outlook, Berg’s unconventional life — where he lived the last 25 years unemployed, virtually homeless, and dependent on the goodness of others, including a sister and a brother — could be seen as extremely sad and unfulfilled. And yet he had many admirers and supporters such as the publisher Sayre Ross, who kept him afloat after they first met in 1967.
“‘It was better than reading books to listen to him,’ he says. ‘He was a great storyteller. He was an embellisher, and who the hell wasn’t. His language was a weapon of description. He colored it because people were interested.'”
After his death, Berg’s sister — who was estranged from Dr. Sam, their brother — took Moe’s remains to Israel where a rabbi suggested an unknown burial place. Dawidoff states that this made “the final mystery of Moe Berg’s inscrutable life” the fact that nobody knows where he is buried. But the author turns to making sense of that life in a thoughtful and sympathetic final chapter. His immigrant father’s driving discipline clearly marked all three of his children. Berg may have lived the way he did because he did not believe the tales he told others about his life.
“He never said what he really thought of himself, but his actions suggest that he saw Moe Berg as a mediocre ballplayer, a scholar only within the unlearned community of baseball, and an intelligence agent whose work had come to nothing.”
But Berg did a great deal with his life, asserts Dawidoff.
“He gained admission to two of the most rarefied clubs in the world — professional baseball and professional espionage — and for a brief time, his service in each compared favorably with anyone’s. As a spy working in Europe for the OSS, Berg was at the center of the seminal event of his time, the building of an atomic bomb, and his performance was exemplary. Some of Berg’s other accomplishments are a matter of degree. He was no scientist, but he learned more physics than most people. He was not formally a linguist, but he was a sensitive and appreciative student of languages, and knew a lot about them.”
But his most compelling accomplishment, from Dawidoff’s perspective, is what he did after the war. Trained at Princeton and Columbia Law, he could have been an big-time corporate lawyer. With a willingness to bend to the rules, he could have been a brilliant CIA agent. Instead, he lived the life he wanted, wherever it took him.
“Berg molded himself into a character of fantastic complication who brought pleasure and fascination to nearly everyone he brushed against during his fitful movements around the world. In the end, there are few men who find ways to live original lives. Moe Berg did that.”
My spring training ritual was a little late this year…which fit perfectly with the Washington Nationals’ opening day challenges, which began late after a cancelled series due to Covid-19. However, in the end, the Nats found an original way to persevere. As Thomas Boswell wrote in The Washington Post back on April 7th, Opening Day at Nationals Park was the culmination of 18 months — and 50 years — of waiting.
“One day can encapsulate 50 years. Not often. But Tuesday at Nationals Park did it for me.
Because of an outbreak that left nine Washington players in coronavirus protocols, the Nationals were forced to call up Hernán Pérez, elevate Andrew Stevenson from reserve to starter and sign catcher Jonathan Lucroy off the street just to field an Opening Day lineup against the Atlanta Braves.
With due respect to all major leaguers, that trio was weaker on paper than the sixth, seventh and eighth hitters in the Washington lineup in its final game as the Senators in 1971 — Dave Nelson, Del Unser and Tom Ragland — or the players in those slots in the first game of the new Nats in 2005 — Vinny Castilla, Terrmel Sledge and Brian Schneider.
Three anchors. So in the second inning, Pérez singled, Stevenson crushed a bullet through Atlanta’s alarmed second baseman (ruled an error) and both scored when Lucroy doubled.“
Of course, ace Max Scherzer allowed four home runs to the the first 10 batters he faced, so you knew it wouldn’t be easy. But the Nats came back to win when young superstar Juan Soto walked off the Braves with a single in the bottom of the 9th. With that, Boswell celebrated.
“This is baseball — quintessentially unpredictable, any-day-can-astound-or-amuse-us baseball. This is the game that Washington had from 1901 through 1971, lost for 33 years and now, in the culmination of a multigenerational cycle, celebrated again in full-throated yet pandemic-bizarre fashion as the Nats raised their 2019 World Series title banner before the opener.“
Yep, it is a long strange season and much can happen. But now that I’m through spring training, it is time to play ball!
More to come…