Moe Berg should have been playing baseball that day in Japan in 1934. He was on a tour of the country with the All Americans, an exhibition team of fellow professional ballplayers that included some of the game’s greatest stars, such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
But instead of joining them for a game on November 29, Berg made other plans. He switched his uniform for a kimono, slicked back his hair in a traditional Japanese style, and snuck to the top of one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo, where he shot home-movie footage of the cityscape below.
Some say this footage was later used by the United States government against Japan in World War II, as a preparation for the successful Doolittle Raid of 1942.
This theory has since taken some hits — more recent footage was likely available by then — but it’s not as hard to believe as it may sound. That’s because Berg, one of the few Jewish baseball players of his day, pursued a second career as a spy for the US during WWII.
This real-life drama was revived earlier this year with the Paul Rudd film “The Catcher Was a Spy,” based on Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 book of the same name.
Now the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, America’s unofficial shrine to its national pastime, is continuing the discussion with a new exhibit, “Moe Berg: Big League Spy,” which opened last month just ahead of the Major League Baseball playoffs.
The famed Cooperstown, New York museum tells Berg’s story in part through artifacts from his 15 seasons in pro baseball for five teams from 1923 to 1939.
There are also declassified documents relating to Berg’s career as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), where arguably his most famous assignment was to attend a talk by German scientist Werner Heisenberg and assassinate him if evidence indicated he was getting too close to inventing an atomic bomb.
Tom Shieber, the senior curator at the Hall of Fame, sees Berg as a man of mystery with multiple identities: baseball player, international spy and scholar — “wrapped up into an enigma,” he said, sounding a bit Churchillian.
The curator’s job was to unravel this enigma after learning about the Berg biopic project last August. He said that after his colleagues wondered whether the Hall of Fame could put together an exhibit based on its Berg memorabilia, he proposed looking into the collection and happily discovered enough material. (Props from the film are also included in the exhibit.)
At the heart of the exhibit are museum artifacts such as a Berg baseball card from 1933 — the team he played for that year, the Washington Senators, reached the World Series — as well as his jersey from his tour of Japan a year later.
There’s also a cap he wore for the Boston Red Sox; one of his bats; and a catcher’s mask he used while playing the position.
Other objects might look out of place in a baseball museum — including Berg’s application to the OSS, in which he listed “fair” proficiency in French, Spanish and Portuguese but only “slight” knowledge of Italian, German and Japanese; and his OSS oath of office.
“There have been other exhibits on Moe Berg in the past that were not by us,” Shieber said. “It remains a good story. Not because of the current political climate — I don’t think it has anything to do with the state of the CIA or the state of baseball. I don’t know why it happened to occur now, as opposed to 10 years ago, or 10 years from now.”
Maybe Berg holds his own unique place in history. Asked whether any other major leaguer had a second career as a spy, Shieber said, “If so, it never came out.”
“I believe there are some things [about Berg] we may never know,” Shieber said. “He was thought of as strange before he became a spy … The mystery part was consistent throughout his life.”
Born in 1902, Morris Berg showed early aptitude, winning a trophy for proficiency in French at Barringer High School in Newark, New Jersey, that is displayed in the exhibit. He went on to attend Princeton, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in modern languages in 1923.
“Princeton was not a great climate for Jewish students,” Shieber said. “A number of them faced not only racial epithets but other forms [of discrimination]. He was not happy, but did not shy away, did not make a big deal.”
Berg’s education made him as much a rarity as his Judaism when he made his major-league debut for the Brooklyn Robins the same year as his graduation.
“In his day, the average pro ballplayers mostly did not go to college,” Shieber explained. “Eighty or 90 years ago, it was uncommon. Some people might say he is remembered for being a Jewish baseball player, of which there were not a whole lot of. He should be even more remembered for being a scholarly ballplayer. At the time, Moe Berg had ‘Professor’ as his nickname in the [newspaper].”
“Professor” Berg’s teams experienced occasional success. The 1933 Washington Senators reached the World Series, although they lost to the New York Giants; Berg did not play in the series. The final team he played for, the 1939 Boston Red Sox, finished in second place in the American League thanks to star rookie Ted Williams.
Throughout Berg’s career, he enhanced his erudition, studying at the Sorbonne and earning a law degree from Columbia.
But Berg’s lack of offensive power contributed to two well-known sayings. One succinctly praised his defensive ability but not his offense: “Good field, no hit.”
The other noted that he spoke multiple languages — the number varies depending on the source — but could not hit in any of them.
“Moe Berg was a very good player. How else could he make the major leagues?” Shieber said. “But, compared to other major leaguers, he was below average. I don’t want to pooh-pooh his ability as an athlete or baseball player.”
‘The spy of the ballfield’
Berg’s saving grace was playing the position of catcher. He set a league record for consecutive games without an error (117) that lasted for 12 years.
“The catcher is the field general in baseball,” Shieber said. “You have to be a smart person. It’s certain he had the smarts, no question.”
Shieber also noted that “the catcher is the spy of the ballfield.”
“He looks for signs and gathers information that he reveals to certain players — the pitcher — and not others, like the batter,” Shieber said. “He’s looking over the field, assessing things. Some things are parallel [with being a spy]. It’s intriguing.”
Berg applied to join the OSS as a spy in 1943 — two years after the American entry into WWII.
Shieber believes that it wasn’t necessarily Berg’s faith that drove him to join the war effort — he was not a practicing Jew — but rather his American identity.
“He wanted to do it out of a general patriotic fervor,” Shieber said. “It was the right thing to do.”
As Shieber explained, “He was never in denial that he was a Jew. He connected with it at times, but it was not a big deal. I think, with his work in the OSS, it was not at all clear that he felt an obligation as a Jew to defeat the Nazi regime. Nevertheless, he did.”
The best-known example of this was a 1944 mission to Switzerland to attend a speech by Heisenberg, “who was clearly the guy heading up the [atomic bomb] project with the Nazis,” Shieber said.
It was “sort of a nebulous assignment he was given,” Shieber said, but it had a specific directive: “He was authorized to kill Werner Heisenberg if he felt they were close enough. Ultimately, he decided they were not particularly close.”
After the war, in 1946, the US awarded Berg the Medal of Freedom — “the highest honor given to civilians during wartime,” according to a profile on the Hall of Fame website.
But, Shieber said, “He turned it down for quite mysterious reasons. That’s Moe. I would not be too surprised. I think he was always hoping to get back in the [spy] business.”
However, Shieber said that by then, “the OSS morphed into the CIA. Moe liked the seat-of-the-pants OSS, where he could fulfill an assignment on his own terms. It worked out OK. When the CIA came along, it was a lot more rigorous.”
Mysterious to the end
Out of a job, Berg drifted for the last 25 years of his life until his death at age 70 in 1972.
“It’s the most mysterious time of his life,” Shieber said, adding, “It’s hard to see what he did making a living.”
Berg shuttled between living with his sister, Ethel Berg, and his brother, Dr. Samuel Berg, over his final two and a half decades.
“He had a much more difficult relationship with his brother,” Shieber said. “He knew when it was time to leave. He was always a man traveling in a suitcase, not settled down.”
Even his final resting place is an unanswered question. According to Dawidoff’s book, his ashes were interred in a Newark-area cemetery, but in 1974 Ethel Berg traveled to Israel and is rumored to have scattered his ashes over Mount Scopus.
But Berg’s memory has a home at the Hall of Fame. Ethel Berg accepted her brother’s Medal of Freedom on his behalf after his death. It is now part of the Hall of Fame exhibit, where Berg has a tribute to both his national service in WWII, and his service to the national pastime.