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Columnists Remarkable Providences
Linguist, lawyer, catcher, spy. As major leaguers head to spring training, it's time to bake a cake to celebrate and mourn the 100th birthday of the late Moe Berg, who practiced all of those callings but ended up without hope.
Berg spent 15 years in the major leagues during the 1920s and 1930s, playing five different positions for five different teams; he was mostly a catcher. But what made Berg "the strangest man ever to play baseball," in the words of Casey Stengel (it takes one to know one), was a brain crammed with knowledge of languages, different cultures, and fantasies.
Born in New York City on March 2, 1902, to Jewish-Russian immigrant parents, he grew up loving baseball despite the opposition of his pharmacist father, who viewed the sport as useless and would never watch his son play. Berg became an athletic and linguistic prodigy at Princeton, becoming the star shortstop of the school's baseball team while studying seven languages, including Sanskrit.
He turned down a teaching position at Princeton in order to join the Brooklyn Robins (later the Dodgers) in 1923. Berg's baseball salary allowed him to indulge in further linguistic study at the Sorbonne in Paris and to earn a law degree at Columbia University. "He could speak a dozen languages but couldn't hit in any of them," one wag said, so he ended up on the bench as a rarely used third-string catcher, beloved by Boston sportswriters who found good copy in "Professor Moe Berg of the Red Sox Department of Languages and Obscure Sciences."
His father kept complaining that Berg was wasting his mind and throwing away his life, but the son liked the life of a minor major leaguer. He enjoyed good hotels and good food, and loved having most of the day free to read and wander around cities, stopping at bookstores. He appeared on the popular radio quiz show Information, Please and dazzled the country by answering tough questions about history, astronomy, etymology, geology, mythology, and other subjects.
Berg learned Japanese and journeyed to Japan in 1934 with Babe Ruth and an American all-star team; Berg's linguistic ability trumped his low batting average. Anticipating an eventual war with Japan, he secretly filmed Tokyo shipyards and military facilities from the roof of one of the city's tallest buildings. When World War II began, Berg made a speech to Japan over short-wave radio: "I ask you, what sound basis is there for enmity between two peoples who enjoy the same national sport? ... But you betrayed your friends-you made a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor ..."
By then Berg had retired from baseball and was becoming a spy for the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA. Once, the OSS sent him to Switzerland to assess the progress of Germany's atomic bomb project. With fluent German and enough scientific knowledge to pose as a physics student, Berg went to a dinner party with German atomic physicist Werner Heisenberg. When Heisenberg implied in casual comments that he expected Germany to lose the war, Berg concluded that the Nazis would not have a nuclear bomb anytime soon. That information was relayed to President Roosevelt, who responded, "Let's pray Heisenberg is right ... my regards to the catcher."
But Berg needed more than regards; when the war ended he was 43 and needed a purpose for his post-baseball and post-spying life. He found none. Unable or unwilling to hold a regular job or commit to marriage, he freeloaded off fans who would pay for dinners in return for stories. Berg lived with his brother Sam for 17 years, until Sam sent Moe two eviction notices to force him to move out. Berg then moved in with his sister and stayed there for eight years.
Since he was so helpful with sportswriters, major-league baseball gave Berg a pass that would let him into any ballpark. He became a wind-up toy-put him in front of the press and he'd make incisive cultural comments in many languages-but reporters' reverence eventually turned to condescension. In 1960 Berg agreed to write an autobiography but became furious when the editor praised his movies, thinking he was talking with Moe of The Three Stooges.
Berg, apparently unreconciled with God, died in 1972 in a New Jersey hospital. His final words were, "How did the Mets do today?" Berg's life overall is a tribute to man's need to use his talents wisely; living just to eat, drink, and supposedly be merry eventually produces sadness. Ted Williams's comment on Berg sticks with me: "I don't remember ever seeing him laughing."