Posted on 16 August 2010 by Wanna Be Sports Guy
Ignore Moe Berg’s lifetime .243 average, and his woeful on-base percentage of .278. Forget the fact that he played nearly all of his days behind the plate, at a position which is almost universally unappreciated. Setting aside the fact that he was a third stringer, a distant backup used mainly for his defensive prowess.
Even taking all of the above attributes into account, Moe Berg is one of the most interesting men ever to play the game of baseball. He was an amazing linguist, with a firm command of 12 separate languages, including Sanskrit and Latin. He was a law-school graduate, a devoted student of history, and a regular treasure trove of classical trivia.
He was, unfortunately, not much of a hitter. It was often said that “Berg can speak 12 different languages and can’t hit in any of them.” Through his defensive skills and excellent handling of pitchers, however, he was able to stick around for an astonishing 14 seasons with teams such as Boston, Brooklyn, Washington, Cleveland, and the Chicago White Sox. He once, the box scores say, went 133 games without committing an error behind the plate.
As one would expect from an intellectual, he had a low tolerance for nonsense. This was on display after one particularly trying at-bat between Berg’s pitcher and a hitter named Earl Whitehill. Both the pitcher and hitter kept stepping out, in an effort to break the other’s timing. Moe, frustrated with the pace, stood up and began to remove his catching gear. He piled it all, from mask to mitt to shin guards, on top of home plate, declaring, “I’ll return when those two are ready to play ball. Right now, I’m taking a shower.”
In 1934, Berg was a last-minute addition to a team of all-star players traveling to Japan, which included the likes of Babe Ruth. No was was sure why the light-hitting catcher made the squad, until he delivered a welcoming speech and address to the Tokyo legislature in flawless Japanese. Then, rather than playing in any of the team’s exhibition games, Berg spent his time taking pictures.
But not just any pictures. Rather, they were photos of key Japanese military installations and other possible targets. His photographs would later be used by General Jimmy Doolittle in the first American strike on the island nation.
The intrigue, as it were, was only beginning in 1939, when Berg announced his retirement from the game. After his successful amateur espionage in Japan, the former catcher joined up with “Wild Bill” Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to today’s CIA, where one of his baseball cards is on permanent display). His primary endeavor consisted of assessing and monitoring Nazi Germany’s nuclear potential. In his efforts to monitor key enemy scientists, Berg undertook several dangerous missions behind enemy lines. His linguistic prowess made him a natural choice for these covert operations, several of which were rumored to include assassinations. Berg, for his part, refused to discuss the details of his work.
Following the war, the former catcher was awarded the Medal of Merit for his service. Not surprisingly to those who knew him, Berg declined the honor. In his twilight years, he fended off constant request for him to write his memoirs. He finally relented, only to have his assigned co-writer confused him with Moe Howard of the Three Stooges. In frustration, Berg stormed out.
With his death in 1972, baseball and our nation lost a quietly great man. He never married, living instead with siblings for much of his life. And, as most true intellectuals are, he could be stand-offish and moody. But whenever someone would challenge him on his choice of careers, accusing him of wasting his brain on the ball field, Berg simply replied as such:
“I’d rather be a ballplayer than a Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
His final words, as described by the nurse attending at his death, were simply, “How did the Mets do today?” As luck would have it, they had won.
- Taylor Maxwell
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