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SCHOLAR, LAWYER, CATCHER, SPY
Nicholas Dawidoff
March 23, 1992
Moe Berg, baseball's Renaissance man of the '20s and '30s, was a U.S. atomic spy in World War II
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March 23, 1992

Scholar, Lawyer, Catcher, Spy

Moe Berg, baseball's Renaissance man of the '20s and '30s, was a U.S. atomic spy in World War II

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"They loved him in Japan," wrote Lyons in a letter to Ethel Berg. The feeling was mutual. Berg wrote his family that he had never enjoyed anything as much as visiting Japan.

When Berg returned to Washington, he set an American League record by catching in 117 consecutive games (from 1931 to 1934) without making an error. (The record lasted 12 years.) Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson, Berg's manager with the Senators, said that "barring Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane, Berg has caught as well as any man in the American League."

In 1934 he was back in Japan. A team of American All-Stars that included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig was invited to tour the country, and Berg was asked to come along. When he boarded the Empress of Japan in Vancouver on Oct. 20, he carried a contract to write travel pieces for the Boston American, and a small 16-mm Bell and Howell movie camera. It was a highly successful trip. In the American, Berg marveled at the Japanese love of baseball. He posed with geisha girls, impressed his teammates with his Japanese and made a speech to students at Meiji University. "I someday hope that our innocent junket through Japan will serve to bring the countries whom we represent...closer together," he said. Meanwhile, Berg quietly performed his first known act of espionage.

He was seeing very little action on the field during the tour, and one day it was scarcely noticed that he failed to show up for the game. Instead, he walked to St. Luke's International Hospital, one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo, carrying some flowers. In the reception area he asked to see the daughter of the U.S. ambassador, who had just given birth. Berg was directed to the seventh floor, but he rode the elevator to the top floor, climbed to the roof and, from beneath his clothes, withdrew the movie camera. It was a powerful instrument, and as he panned across the refineries and factories of Tokyo and the shipyards of Yokohama, he also recorded an image of Mount Fuji, more than 55 miles away. Finished, he left the bouquet on the roof and departed. Eight years later, when General Jimmy Doolittle's bombers raided Tokyo, their targets were plotted by referring to Berg's film.

During the remainder of the trip Berg talked baseball with anyone who approached him, advised Mizuno on the manufacture of baseball gloves (there was a sudden demand) and enthralled Tokyo reporters, who wrote about him with glee. Today there is a Moe Berg collection at the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, and his biography, long out of print in the U.S., continues to sell in its Japanese translation. For Berg, fanatic loyalty to his country never displaced the warm feelings he had for the Japanese.

In 1935 Berg joined the Red Sox, his fifth and final team. Stouter now, he would never again bat more than 141 times in a season. But as usual he was prized by the ball club and by reporters. (He caused a mild sensation one day when he showed up for work and a copy of David Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding fell out of his wad of newspapers.) Getting along with owners was one of' Berg's specialties. One owner told the journalist Taylor Spink, "I tried to cut his salary one year, and Moe wrote me such a nice letter that I felt ashamed and gave him a raise instead."

In the late '30s the radio quiz show Information Please was one of the country's most popular programs. A panel composed of New Yorker literary critic Clifton Fadiman, poet and wit Franklin P. Adams, New York Times columnist John Kieran, pianist Oscar Levant and a guest competed to answer trivia questions. In 1939 Kieran invited Berg to appear. He dazzled listeners with his erudition. He knew what the Willy/Nicky correspondence was, and he could identify poi, soy, loy and oy. The show received 24,000 letters. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball, wrote Berg: "You did more for the image of baseball in half an hour than I have since I became commissioner."

Berg was immediately invited for a return engagement, and then a third. The following spring, on the Red Sox's barnstorming trip north from spring training, Berg's teammates created a new pastime. Whenever the team bus entered a sizable town, someone would cry out, "Information please!" and Berg would dutifully offer up the local history, listing the date of the town's founding, its most famous citizens, its principal industries and other pertinent facts. This was just one of the ways Berg entertained his colleagues. Another was to listen to a couple of sentences spoken by a stranger and then try to identify not just the person's home state but his hometown.

Berg worked as a coach for Boston in 1940 and 1941. During that time the Atlantic Monthly asked him to write an article on pitchers and catchers. His piece appeared in the September 1941 issue. After the war, Berg met another contributor to the Atlantic, Albert Einstein, at Princeton. "Mr. Berg," exclaimed the scientist after a brief recital on his violin, "you teach me baseball, and I'll teach you mathematics." He paused a moment and then added, "But let's forget it. I'm sure you'd learn mathematics faster than I'd learn baseball."

Berg's life was pleasant enough, but a war was going on, and the patriot in Berg could not abide the notion of another cozy summer at Fenway. In 1941, after much lobbying by Berg, his friend Nelson Rockefeller, then the coordinator of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, offered him a position as a goodwill ambassador. Berg requested his unconditional release from the Red Sox. Soon he was packing his bags for Brazil.

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