In 1923, Moe Berg made his Major League Baseball debut as a catcher for the Brooklyn Robins. Upon his retirement in 1939, Berg’s whole career remained indistinguishable from any other average player.
But maybe that was all part of the plan? Let’s start at the beginning.
Berg began playing baseball when he was seven years old, but he did so under the pseudonym “Runt Wolfe”. (Oh, forgot to mention that Berg was known for his intellectual and quirky nature.) Anyways, Berg graduated from high school at 16 in 1918 and began attending college at New York University.
One year into his studies at NYU, Berg transferred to Princeton where he played on the baseball team and graduated with his B.A., magna cum laude in modern languages — he studied seven different languages during his college career, which included French, German, Greek, Italian, Latin, Sanskrit, and Spanish.
As previously stated, Berg was known for his intelligence more than his baseball talent. While he was a slow base runner and not great at hitting, Berg had an accurate throwing arm and his instincts were always spot-on when it came to the sport.
“Moe was undoubtedly the most scholarly professional athlete [I] ever knew,” said sportswriter John Kieran in an interview with The New York Times.
As a shortstop, Berg was stationed next to the second baseman, which, unbeknownst to Princeton, would work in the Tigers’ favor. Crossan Copper, the aforementioned second baseman, happened to speak Latin, just like Berg, and whenever an opposing player was on the base, he and Berg would communicate plays in Latin.
However, this style of secret-keeping was only the beginning of Berg’s espionage career. In 1934, Berg was invited last minute to join an all-star group and play exhibition games against a Japanese team. When the all-star group containing all-stars like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, and Lefty Gomez arrived in Japan, Berg made a point to say his welcome speech in Japanese.
Before the trip, Berg had obtained a camera to record shots of the Japanese landscape for a film being produced by MovietoneNews — what he captured on film would eventually become useful for the United States in counterintelligence against Japan during the height of World War II. While in Japan, however, Berg was released from his contract with the Cleveland Indians. Eventually, Berg would go on to play for two other MLB teams, and even coached a little for the Boston Red Sox, before finally hanging up his mitt.
Fast forward to 1943; WWII was well underway and Berg had started working at the Office of Strategic Services Special Operations Branch. Later that year, Berg was assigned to the Secret Intelligence branch of the OSS and began working on Project Larson, a project designed to bring Italian rocket and missile specialists to the U.S. Because of his innate nature of staying unknown, Berg was ordered to convince the head of the supersonic research program in Italy, Antonio Ferri, to instead continue his development in the U.S., and as we know, it was mission accomplished.
“I see that Moe Berg is still catching very well,” said then-President Franklin Roosevelt, which was reported by The New York Times.
Berg’s story went on to become a national bestseller and was later adapted into a movie of the same name, ‘The Catcher Was A Spy,’ starring Paul Rudd. But no matter how glamified Berg’s story has been told, he’s still the best baseball player-turned spy in history.
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