The Catcher Was a Spy

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When first issued a pistol as an intelligence agent, Morris “Moe” Berg could not keep it from slipping out of his pocket into the lap of the man next to him on an airplane. Seven months later he was assigned the job of killing Werner Heisenberg, the premier German atomic scientist. Berg was a major-league baseball player turned spy for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the World War II forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Berg’s life story has been written before, by a trio of writers with the cooperation of Berg’s brother Sam, and again by his sister Ethel. Since Ethel threatened to sue Sam if her name appeared in the former, and since she refused to mention Sam in her book, however, these earlier biographies are incomplete and distorted. Moe lived with Sam for fourteen years and with Ethel for at least six, and Moe’s brother and sister had nothing to do with each other—despite living a few blocks apart in Newark, New Jersey. Furthermore, Moe Berg lived a large chunk of his life apart from his siblings. He had hundreds of acquaintances but no close friends. He never married and never stayed in close touch with any one person for an extended period. It has taken an assiduous researcher named Nicholas Dawidoff to piece his life together.

Berg earned a reputation early as one of the most unusual of major-league baseball players and, despite a mediocre career, one of the most celebrated, for he was a bona fide intellectual in a sport that harbored few such in the 1920’s and 1930’s. A mystery man to his teammates, he nurtured the mystique that grew up around him as a result of the efforts of the various sportswriters whom he charmed, especially the polymath John Kieran of Information, Please fame. Berg had been graduated from Princeton University, achieved a law degree in the off-season, and was reputed to speak a dozen languages.

He began his baseball career as a shortstop but lacked mobility and was shifted to catcher, where his flat feet and slowness did not handicap him. He had an excellent throwing arm, seldom made an error, and won the confidence of the pitchers whom he handled. Although an injury suffered in 1929, when he was twenty-seven, turned him into a perennial second- or third-string catcher, it seems that Berg was destined to be such and wished to be no more. He loved to be around baseball parks, but unlike most bench warmers, he did not burn with the desire to play regularly. Instead he entertained relief pitchers in the bullpen with his tales and cultivated sportswriters, who made him famous as “Professor Berg.” The legend of Moe Berg had been created long before he bowed out as a player in 1939.

Though Berg was much better equipped than most athletes of his day to live a successful life after his retirement from the sport, he seemed to neglect his most obvious opportunities. Despite his law degree, Berg never practiced law formally, though he occasionally gave legal advice to friends. Early in 1942, he accepted a position monitoring health and fitness in Central and South American republics for the Office of Inter-American Affairs, an agency that was attempting to counter any Nazi influence south of the border. After a year and a half, he resigned for a greater challenge: service with the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA. Indeed, Berg possessed many of the qualities a good intelligence officer needed. He could mix in any crowd, he was linguistically gifted, and he had cultivated a habit of disappearing under people’s noses. At any given time, hardly anyone knew where Moe Berg was.

There were times in the next two years when even his new employers did not know where Berg was, but he performed valuable service for the OSS. Under the leadership of William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the OSS numbered among its paramount concerns the determination of the state of the German atomic energy program. The head of the OSS technical section, Colonel Howard Dix, ordered Berg to Italy to try to learn what Italian scientists knew of the matter. The evidence that Berg and others gathered suggested that the Nazis were not close to the development of an atomic bomb, but no one was comfortable relying on educated guesses about the matter. Still, Berg’s superiors considered the information that he sent back important.

Meanwhile, Colonel Leslie Groves, the military director of the American bomb program, and Major Robert Furman, his subordinate, were concocting a plan to murder Werner Heisenberg, the German scientist most likely to produce a feasible bomb. Two European scientists, Paul Scherrer...

(The entire section is 1882 words.)