The mysterious career of Moe Berg is subjected to investigative touch

July 19, 1994|By Jerome Holtzman | Jerome Holtzman,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- The mystery of Moe Berg, 22 years after his death, has been unraveled by a 31-year old author, Nicholas Dawidoff, in a wonderful and fascinating biography, "The Catcher Was a Spy" (Pantheon $24).

Berg had an undistinguished 15-year major-league playing career. He was an excellent receiver but had only one good season, in 1930 with the White Sox when he batted .288. He finished with a .243 average and would have been forgotten in the fog of time if not for his academic brilliance.

In a day when most ballplayers didn't go beyond high school, if that, Berg was a beacon of scholarship. He was a graduate of Princeton and the Sorbonne, passed the New York bar, was a founding member of the American Linguistic Society and an espionage agent with the OSS during World War II.

In an exhaustive two-year pursuit that took him to Japan, Italy and Switzerland, Dawidoff separates fiction from fact and concludes with a readable and believable psychological analysis. Movie producers have been chasing the Berg legend for years. We should be grateful that Dawidoff won the race.

Despite the repeated objections of a stern father who never saw him play and who regarded sports as frivolous, Berg began a five-year stay with the White Sox in 1926 and was the favorite catcher of Ted Lyons, who was among the dozens of ballplayers who were his lifelong friends. To the end, Berg preferred the company of former ballplayers; he didn't like most of his fellow eggheads.

In 1927, teammate Red Faber, then in his 15th season with the Sox, was honored with a "Day" by fans who presented with him a purse of $572. The Chicago Jewish community, delighted with Berg's presence, later raised $25,000 for a "Moe Berg Day."

Berg turned it down with the explanation, "I've done nothing to merit it and besides, it would be an affront to a great player like Faber."

Berg's baseball career went into decline in 1930 when he hurt his knee running the bases. But Dawidoff emphasizes that even before the injury, Berg was torn between the library and the diamond. In several seasons, including two with the White Sox, he was occupied with his studies and didn't report until mid-May.

Berg enjoyed the nomadic life of a ballplayer and was content as a reserve catcher. He was a coach with the Boston Red Sox in 1940 and '41, when Joe Cronin was the Boston manager. Ted Williams, then a rookie, has fond memories of Moe.

The legend began several years earlier when he accompanied an all-star team that toured Japan. Moe was fluent in a half-dozen languages. As the team departed, Babe Ruth asked, "Do you speak Japanese?"

Moe said he knew just a few words but was studying the language. Later, overhearing Moe conversing in Japanese, Ruth said to him, "You told me you didn't speak Japanese."

Replied Moe, "That was two weeks ago."

It was during this trip that Moe took his much-publicized photographs of Tokyo Bay. Moe went to a hospital rooftop, extracted a Bell and Howell camera from his kimono and panned the city, including the shipyards, industrial complexes and military installations.

Moe embellished the story, claiming he was on a government mission, that the films were later used as a guide in Jimmy Doolittle's bombing raid. Not true, insists Dawidoff; Moe's films were outdated.

Dawidoff confirms that while in the OSS, Moe was ordered to attend a lecture in Zurich by Werner Heisenberg, Germany's leading physicist. If Heisenberg indicated he was close to developing an atomic bomb, Moe was to shoot him, on the spot. It was not necessary. Moe kept the gun in the pocket of his trench coat.

Because of his passion for privacy, Moe had the ideal persona for espionage. After the OSS was abandoned, he worked briefly for the successor, CIA, was cut loose, and never was employed thereafter, living off the bounty of dozens of friends who enjoyed his companionship.

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