A Look Back … Moe Berg: Baseball Player, Linguist, Lawyer, Intel Officer
It’s baseball season. Fans are filling stadiums from coast to coast to watch America’s pastime. They hope to see their favorite player in action, relive childhood memories, and – perhaps – catch a fly ball.
For well over a century, summer in America has been synonymous with baseball. The greats – Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Joe DiMaggio (to name just a few) – have earned a place in history for their skill and for their dedication to the sport. But there is one – Morris “Moe” Berg – whose spot in American history comes not from baseball, but from espionage. He was a catcher who put his multitude of talents to work for his country as an intelligence officer.
The Brainiest Man in Baseball
Moe was born in New York City on March 2, 1902. He began playing baseball as a child, and while majoring in modern languages at Princeton University, he played shortstop on the school team. After graduating from college in 1923, Moe was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. He started his career as a first baseman and shortstop. But, Moe was a man of many skills (he spoke 12 languages), and baseball was by no means his only passion.
Off the field, Moe studied French at the Sorbonne in Paris and then decided to attend Columbia University Law School. In 1926, Moe joined the Chicago White Sox, and changed positions from shortstop to catcher. When asked how he did it, Moe replied that “they didn’t call me the brainiest man in baseball for nothing.”
He received his law degree and was admitted to the New York State bar in 1928. He joined the law firm of Satterlee and Canfield and kept playing ball for the White Sox. Moe injured his right knee in 1930, which eventually limited his playing time. In 1931, Moe was traded to the Cleveland Indians, and then to the Washington Senators. The move to Washington would change his life.
Joining a Different Kind of Team
Being a baseball player with vast intellectual gifts, Moe was frequently invited to embassy dinners and parties. He impressed many with his exceptional language ability and quick wit. He soon became very well known around town and caught the attention of the Roosevelt administration.
Moe played with the Senators until 1934; that year, he toured Japan with the American All-Star baseball team. While in Japan, the Japanese-speaking ball player filmed Tokyo Harbor, military installations, and other facilities for the US government.
When he returned from Tokyo, Moe began playing with the Boston Red Sox. While with Boston, Moe played in the inaugural Baseball Hall of Fame game in 1939. He played and coached for the Boston Red Sox until his retirement in 1942.
Shortly afterward, Moe toured Latin America with the Office of Inter-American Affairs, an agency set up to counter Axis propaganda in Latin America. During this trip, Moe used his linguistic talents to meet government officials, journalists, and businessmen.
In 1943, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the forerunner of the CIA – recruited Moe into its ranks. Although he got off to a rocky start in the OSS, he was sent to Switzerland to collect intelligence on Germany’s efforts to build an atomic bomb. He met German physicist Werner Heisenberg, who – during a lecture – let slip his belief that Germany would lose the war and that the Nazis were not close to developing the bomb.
Moe provided the United States with incredibly helpful intelligence during World War II.
Life After World War II
Moe stayed with the OSS until it was dissolved in 1945. Afterward, he served on the staff of NATO’s Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development.
Known as a man of mystery, Moe planned to write a book detailing his career as an intelligence officer. He never wrote the book, and many of his secrets will never be known.
Before his death in 1972, he said, “Maybe I’m not in the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame like so many of my baseball buddies, but I’m happy I had the chance to play pro ball and am especially proud of my contributions to my country. Perhaps I couldn’t hit like Babe Ruth, but I spoke more languages than he did.”