Moe Berg: A second-rate baseball
player but a first-rate spy. When baseball greats Babe Ruth and
Lou Gehrig went on tour in baseball-crazy Japan in 1934, some fans
wondered why a third-string catcher named Moe Berg was included.
The answer was simple: Berg was a US spy, Speaking 15
languages—including Japanese—Moe Berg had two loves: baseball and
In Tokyo , garbed in a kimono, Berg
took flowers to the daughter of an American diplomat being treated in
St. Luke’s Hospital--the tallest building in the Japanese capital. He
never delivered the flowers. The ball-player ascended to the hospital
roof and filmed key features: the harbor, military installations,
railway yards, etc.
Eight years later, General Jimmy
Doolittle studied Berg’s films in planning his spectacular raid on Tokyo
Berg’s father, Bernard Berg, a pharmacist in Newark, New Jersey, taught
his son Hebrew and Yiddish. Moe, against his wishes, began playing
baseball on the street at aged four. His father disapproved and never
once watched his son play.
At Barringer High School , Moe learned
Latin, Greek and French. He graduated magna cum laude from
Princeton—having added Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit to his
linguistic quiver. During further studies at the Sorbonne, in Paris, and
Columbia Law School he picked up Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian,
Arabic, Portuguese and Hungarian—15 languages in all, plus some regional
While playing baseball for Princeton University , Moe Berg would
describe plays in Latin or Sanskrit.
During World War II, he was parachuted into Yugoslavia to assess the
value to the war effort of the two groups of partisans there. He
reported back that Marshall Tito’s forces were widely supported by the
people and Winston Churchill ordered all-out support for the Yugoslav
underground fighter, rather than Mihajlovic’s Serbians. The parachute
jump at 41 was a challenge, but there was more to come in the same year.
Berg penetrated German-held Norway, met with members of the underground
and located a secret heavy water plant—part of the Nazis’ effort to
build an atomic bomb. His information guided the Royal Air Force in a
bombing raid to destroy the plant.
The R.A.F. destroys the Norwegian heavy water plant targeted by Moe
There still remained the question of how far had the Nazis progressed in
the race to build the first Atomic bomb. If the Nazis were successful,
they would win the war.
Berg (under the code name “Remus”) was sent to Switzerland to hear
leading German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a Nobel Laureate, lecture
and determine if the Nazis were close to building an A-bomb. Moe managed
to slip past the SS guards at the auditorium, posing as a Swiss graduate
student. The spy carried in his pocket a pistol and a cyanide pill. If
the German indicated the Nazis were close to building a weapon, Berg was
to shoot him—and then swallow the cyanide pill. Moe, sitting in the
front row, determined that the Germans were nowhere near their goal, so
he complimented Heisenberg on his speech and walked him back to his
Moe Berg’s report was distributed to Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston
Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and key figures in the team
developing the Atomic Bomb.
Roosevelt responded: “Give my regards
to the catcher.”
Most of Germany’s leading physicists had been Jewish and had fled the
Nazis mainly to Britain and the United States.
After the war, Moe Berg was awarded the Medal of Merit— America ’s
highest honor for a civilian in wartime. But Berg refused to accept, as
he couldn’t tell people about his exploits. After his death, his sister
accepted the Medal and it hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in