When Chicago Tribune sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, traveling with the Cubs or White Sox, arrived in New York in the 1960s, a call would come up from his hotel lobby, without fail, 10 minutes after he checked in. "Moe knew my schedule," says Holtzman. "He stayed with me whenever I was in New York. We always went to the ballpark together and came back together. He'd sit next to me in the press box. I was delighted. I didn't want to stay three days alone. So if they hadn't given me a room with twin beds, I'd change rooms. We'd lie awake at night, and he'd tell me stories about countesses he'd known. He was a real ladies' man, though I never saw him with a woman."
I.M. Levitt, director emeritus of the Fels Planetarium at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, met Berg one day in the '30s when Levitt narrated a show at the planetarium and Berg came up afterward to ask some questions. Occasionally thereafter Berg would stay with Levitt and his wife at their home as he passed down the Eastern seaboard. At night they played a game in which Levitt would choose a word in the dictionary and Berg would have to give its derivation and meaning. "He never missed once," says Levitt.
"He was very reserved," said Dr. Sam, "as far as divulging his personal affairs with others." What Dr. Sam could be sure of was that every evening his brother was in town he would come home, bathe—he always took three baths a day—put on a black kimono and, seated beneath a cardboard sign that said I WOULD RATHER BE A POOR MAN IN A GARRET WITH PLENTY OF BOOKS THAN A KING WHO DID NOT LOVE READING, read newspapers well past midnight. In 1964 Dr. Sam asked Moe to move to their sister Ethel's larger house, about 10 blocks away, because Moe's accumulated papers no longer left any room for Dr. Sam's patients.
During all that time Dr. Sam never knew that Moe had been an atomic spy in Europe, never knew that Moe had been awarded the Medal of Freedom (and had refused it) and never could fathom why a simple game like baseball could provide a life's diversion for a man of so many talents. "[Moe] not only played with but was friendly with the famous like Wagner, Cobb, Faber, McGraw, Ruth, Foxx and many others," Dr. Sam wrote. "They were his heroes, and he gloried in the association, the Great American Game.... Even in his waning career in the bullpen or coaching, it was his life." Another time, despairing about Moe's absorption in baseball, Dr. Sam said, "All it ever did was make him happy."
Bernard Berg and his wife, Rose Tashker, came to America from the Ukraine. In 1894 Bernard arrived in New York and found work ironing in a Manhattan laundry. When Rose arrived two years later, Bernard had put aside enough money to open his own laundry on the Lower East Side. He had higher ambitions than living in a cold-water tenement, though, and began studying at the Columbia College of Pharmacy at night. By the time his third child, Morris, was born, in March 1902, Bernard was a pharmacist.
As a four-year-old, Moe tossed apples and oranges with anyone who was willing. Four years later Bernard moved his family to the Roseville section of Newark, where he opened his own pharmacy and Moe played his first organized baseball. The Bergs were Jewish, so to qualify as a member of the Roseville Methodist Episcopal Church team, Moe adopted the slightly less ethnic pseudonym of Runt Wolfe. Sometimes he tossed the ball around with a brass-buttoned patrolman named Hibler. The policeman would put aside his derby and then sweat like a thresher as the slender boy, standing one manhole—20 feet—down the street, yelled, "Harder, Mr. Hibler! Harder!"
For 30 years Bernard Berg worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Sam became a doctor, and Ethel a schoolteacher. Baby Moe, it was understood, would be a lawyer. While he was at Barringer High School, a Newark newspaper reported that Moe, an all-city third baseman, "has an arm like a whip and is a steady batter." He graduated at 16, and after a year at New York University, he transferred to Princeton.
Most Princeton undergraduates of that time came from wealthy Protestant families and had gone to prep school. As the son of Jewish immigrants, Berg walked the periphery of Princeton society. "Moe was a loner," says his former classmate Donald Griffin. "He was a scholar of distinction, and the social aspects of undergraduate life did not concern him." Berg studied Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit, and he graduated 24th in a class of 211.
His college baseball career was equally distinguished. He started for the Tigers for three seasons, and as a senior he was the star shortstop on a team that won 18 straight and handed Holy Cross's great pitcher Ownie Carroll one of his two college losses. (Berg had one of Princeton's three hits against Carroll and scored the game's only run.) Positioned toward the bottom of the batting order because he was a plodding runner, Berg hit .337. He and second baseman Crossan Cooper developed a clever method of exchanging signs with an opposing runner on second: They yelled back and forth in Latin. (Later, Berg and Lyons, a Baylor graduate, would do so in Greek.)
As a senior Berg took a course in elementary linguistics. He wanted to go on to the Sorbonne to study philology and, especially, experimental phonetics. When he graduated in June 1923, he had two job offers: one from Princeton to teach Romance languages and the other from the Dodgers to play the remainder of the season for $5,000. He had also been admitted to Columbia Law School. Berg was torn. He loved baseball and, besides, the Dodger money could be his ticket to Paris.