Baseball season is just around the corner so it seems fitting to talk about baseball. More specifically, a mediocre baseball player that was known as the “brainiest guy in baseball.” A guy that graduated from Princeton and Columbia Law. A guy that went on to become a spy for the US government in Word War II. I’m talking about Morris “Moe” Berg.
It wasn’t until the last year or so that I heard about Moe Berg. Actually, it was when I was browsing the IMDB credits of actor Paul Rudd that first brought Berg to my attention (more on that later). If I’m only looking at his baseball career, there’s really no reason for me to know him. He was an average player that played at the beginning of the 20th century and never played for any St. Louis teams. It’s his post-baseball life that I’m surprised never caught my attention.
Berg joined the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. By this point, his baseball career was over, both as a player and a coach. Berg was seen as an asset due two previous trips to Japan with other ball players. He then went on to join the Office of Strategic Services, and the branch within the OSS called Secret Intelligence. He helped evaluate various resistance groups in Eastern Europe to determine who was the best suited to resist the Nazis.
In 1943, he was assigned to Project Larson. Project Larson was a program whose purpose was to kidnap Italian rocket and missile specialists and bring them to the US. Also part of Project Larson was Project AZUSA. AZUSA’s goal was to interview Italian physicists to see what they knew about Werner Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker. Per Wikipedia:
From May to mid-December 1944, Berg hopped around Europe interviewing physicists and trying to convince several to leave Europe and work in America. At the beginning of December, news about Heisenberg giving a lecture in Zürich reached the OSS. Berg was assigned to attend the lecture and determine “if anything Heisenberg said convinced him the Germans were close to a bomb.” If Berg came to the conclusion that the Germans were close, he had orders to shoot Heisenberg; Berg determined that the Germans were not close. During his time in Switzerland, Berg became close friends with physicist Paul Scherrer. Berg resigned from the OSS in January 1946. “Mr. Morris Berg, United States Civilian, rendered exceptionally meritorious service of high value to the war effort from April 1944 to January 1946,” reads the Medal of Freedom citation. “In a position of responsibility in the European Theater, he exhibited analytical abilities and a keen planning mind. He inspired both respect and constant high level of endeavor on the part of his subordinates which enabled his section to produce studies and analysis vital to the mounting of American operations.”
After Word War II, Berg worked for the CIA gathering information about the Soviet atomic bomb project. He was unable to deliver anything substantial.
Berg is such a fascinating guy. It’s almost as if this is straight out of a movie, and you’re not far off. That brings me back to Paul Rudd. In 2018, Rudd starred in a movie called The Catcher Was a Spy. The movie premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and had a limited release in the summer of 2018. I haven’t seen the film and the reviews aren’t that great (33% on Rotten Tomatoes), but iTunes has it for $6.99 if you want to give it a shot. There is also a book written about him with the same name.