Moe Berg was an American original: a major league baseball player and a wartime spy. Born in 1902 and raised in a poor Jewish family in New York City, Moe was a bright, charismatic boy and a top student in high school. He attended Princeton on an academic scholarship, one of only a few Jewish students at the prestigious college.
At Princeton, Berg studied languages – he ultimately learned seven – and became the star shortstop on the college baseball team. He wanted to attend graduate school at the Sorbonne in France, but couldn’t afford it. Instead he chose a very different career path. After being recruited in college, Moe signed a contract to play shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
He wasn’t the best hitter, and was sent to the minors in 1924, but returned to the majors in 1926 as a catcher with the Chicago White Sox. Incredibly, he attended Columbia Law School in the off season, and earned his degree while on the White Sox. Moe played 15 seasons in the major leagues, including stints on the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox. Known as “the brainiest guy in baseball,” Moe was asked why he “wasted” his intelligence playing sports, he said, “I’d rather be a ballplayer than a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.”
In 1934, Moe joined a traveling all-star team, along with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. In Tokyo he delivered a speech in Japanese. Unknown to his fellow players, Moe had been recruited as a spy by the U.S. government, and while in Tokyo he carefully photographed the city. Moe’s images were later used by the U.S. Army for bombing raids on the Japanese capital . As a Jew, Moe wanted to fight Nazis, and he volunteered to serve when the United States entered World War II.
Moe became a Goodwill Ambassador, traveling to South America and Asia. Moe made a radio speech in Japanese to the people of Japan urging them not to fight a war they could not win. After his stint as an ambassador, Moe became an agent in the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA). He taught himself nuclear physics, then traveled throughout Europe to collect information about atomic bomb development. His fame and charisma enabled him to form intimate friendships with important military, political and cultural leaders.
Moe’s extensive spy work uncovered an atomic bomb factory in Norway that was developing the bomb for Germany. Using Moe’s intel, Allied forces bombed the factory and stopped Germany from getting the bomb. Moe was at great risk in Europe because he was Jewish, but he refused to return home, instead spending much of 1944 and 1945 helping sAmerican troops in Europe capture atomic scientists who were working with the Germans. When the war ended, Moe Berg was offered the U.S. Medal of Merit, the highest award given to a civilian during the war, but he modestly declined.
In 1951, Moe asked the CIA to send him to the newly founded State of Israel. “A Jew must do this,” he said. The request was refused but Moe was hired by the CIA to go through his old contacts from wartime to get information on the Soviet atomic bomb project. He left the agency in the early 1950’s, and for the next few decades Moe lived a quiet life. He worked as a coach for a few years, but never found another steady career.
A lifelong bachelor, Moe died in 1972 at his sister’s home in New Jersey, at age 70. Moe’s last words were, “How did the Mets do today?” His former Ted Lyons remembered, “A lot of people tried to tell [Moe] what to do with his life and brain and he retreated from [baseball]… He was different because he was different. He made up for all the bores of the world. And he did it softly, stepping on no one.”
Moe Berg’s is the only baseball card on display at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency.
For his contributions to the world of sports and to the safety of our country, we honor Moe Berg as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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