SI Vault
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Friendship can be the best of distractions, and that is how it was when Flute met Remus in Switzerland in 1944. Flute, a Swiss citizen, had traveled far and met a great many people, but never had he encountered the likes of Remus. There was something irresistible about this tall, sturdy American whose eyebrows cut straight across his face in one thick stroke and whose wardrobe—charcoal-gray suit, white shirt, black tie, gray fedora—never varied no matter what the season. Languages, physics, politics, women—if there was a subject worth talking about, Remus could discuss it with acumen. Unless, of course, the subject was himself.

Riding bicycles through sun-swept Swiss villages, skiing in the Alps or just strolling beside Lake Geneva, Remus made Flute forget for a moment that his friends in the European scientific community were being ripped away from their research to build bombs for Adolf Hitler. And what the American taught him! The day after Christmas, at Flute's laboratory in Zurich, Flute spent hours diagramming atomic chain reactions. Then Remus took the pencil, sketched a diamond and proceeded to explain the American sport of baseball. Remus had played a lot of baseball, and Flute could see that he cared deeply about the game.

Flute didn't keep that sketch. Remus took it and, perhaps, sent it off to Washington with Flute's scribbled formulas. Such was Remus's obligation, and Flute understood that anything he told Remus might well end up on President Roosevelt's desk in the White House. Flute was, after all, the code name that the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA, had given to Dr. Paul Scherrer, director of physics at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and a pioneer of atomic energy research. Remus was an OSS spy whose task was to assess Nazi Germany's progress toward building an atomic bomb. Remus's real name was Moe Berg, and just three years earlier he could have been found on most any summer day seated holding his catcher's mitt in the Boston Red Sox bullpen, telling stories to the relief pitchers.

There was a protean quality to Moe Berg. He graduated with high honors in modern languages from Princeton in 1923 and then summered in Brooklyn, playing shortstop for the Dodgers. That October, he was off to Paris to study experimental phonetics at the Sorbonne. Over the next few years his time was divided between baseball and Columbia Law School in New York. He graduated and passed the New York State bar exam, but instead of signing up full time with a law firm, he devoted 13 more years to baseball, spending most of them as a third-string catcher.

His best year was 1929, when his batting average (.288) and RBIs (47) were career highs. That season he caught 106 games for the Chicago White Sox and allowed only five stolen bases. Besides a strong arm, Berg had fast reactions and shrewd judgment. The best White Sox pitchers, Ted Lyons and Tommy Thomas, always requested Berg as their batterymate. "In the years he was to catch me, I never waved off a sign," said Lyons, a Hall of Fame righthander.

When World War II began, Berg was first a U.S. goodwill ambassador in Latin America and then a spy in Europe, where, as Remus, he met Flute. They seemed an unlikely pair, but perhaps they really weren't. For Moe Berg could get along with anyone, if only for a time. "Marvelous!" he would say, adjusting his fedora. "Wonderful!" And then one of the most extraordinary characters in baseball or any other profession would vanish.

"Moe was a mysterious man," says Charles Owen, a baseball researcher and Berg specialist. "He'd be among friends, they'd turn, and he was gone. People who hadn't seen him in years would be talking in a group, and there he'd be."

After the war Berg received occasional CIA assignments, contracts from consulting firms and scraps of legal business. None of it seemed to make him any money. "Moe was indifferent to the practical side of things," wrote his older brother, Samuel Berg, of Newark, a physician who died in 1990. For 25 years the sober, hardworking Dr. Sam put a free roof over the head of his prodigal brother. "He was happy that he lived the life he loved, not caring about tomorrow or about where he would get the wherewithal," said Dr. Sam of Moe, "and you know, there is much to be said for such a life."

The real business of Moe Berg's days was reading the newspaper. "There is a majesty about the printed word. There is life to it. I consider a newspaper my friend," he said, according to Moe Berg: Athlete, Scholar, Spy by Louis Kaufman, Barbara Fitzgerald and Tom Sewell. Berg took this rather literally. Every day he purchased a collection of U.S. and foreign papers—he read a dozen languages—and woe to the man who touched a paper before Berg had finished with it. Rage would cloud Berg's black eyes, and he would refuse to look at the paper again.

Newspapers contained information on all subjects, and if you knew something about everything, you could adjust to anyone. This was Berg's genius. He brought such warmth, such attentiveness, such life to people that he was beloved. Nobody ever really knew Moe Berg, but dozens of people considered the times they spent with him to be some of the best of their lives. "He was magical," says William Fowler, Institute Professor of Physics Emeritus at Cal Tech and the 1983 Nobel Prize winner in physics. "I'd go to Physical Society meetings in New York, and between sessions we'd all get together and be talking nuclear physics, and I'd look up and there'd be Moe, just listening, taking it all in. We always gave each other a big hug. I'd have to say, though, that most of what I found out about Moe came from reading about him."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Related Topics
Real Moe 1 0 0
Moe Berg 2 0 0
Ethel Berg 1 0 0
Bernard Berg 1 0 0
United States 8021 0 232