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Article 1 (July 2018): The Catcher was a Spy

July 31, 2018

When baseball greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig went on tour in baseball-crazy Japan in 1934, some fans wondered why a third-string catcher named Moe Berg was included.  Although he played with five major-league teams from 1923 to 1939, he was a very mediocre ball player.

Berg had a natural facility for languages and word origins.  In High School and at Princeton University he learned many languages.

Why did Moe Berg travel internationally with the baseball stars of his day?  The answer was simple: Moe Berg was a United States spy, working undercover with the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of today's CIA).  Moe had two loves: baseball and spying.

It has been reported that in Tokyo Berg took flowers to the daughter of an American diplomat being treated in a hospital which was the tallest building in the Japanese capital.  He never delivered the flowers.  The ball-player ascended to the hospital roof and filmed key features: the harbor, military installations, railway yards, etc.

It has also been reported that during World War II, Moe was parachuted into Yugoslavia to assess the value to the war effort of the two groups of partisans there.  He reported back that Marshall Tito's forces were widely supported by the people and Winston Churchill ordered all-out support for the Yugoslav underground fighter, rather than Mihajlovic's Serbians.


Tito's partisans

The parachute jump at age 41 undoubtedly was a challenge.  But there was more to come in that same year.  Berg penetrated German-held Norway, met with members of the underground and located a secret heavy-water plant - part of the Nazis' effort to build an atomic bomb.

His information guided the Royal Air Force in a bombing raid to destroy that plant.

 

The R.A.F. destroys the Norwegian heavy water plant targeted by Moe Berg.

There still remained the question of how far had the Nazis progressed in the race to build the first Atomic bomb.  If the Nazis were successful, they would win the war.  It has been further reported that Berg (under the code name "Remus") was sent to Switzerland to hear leading German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a Nobel Laureate, lecture and determine if the Nazis were close to building an A-bomb.  Moe managed to slip past the SS guards at the auditorium, posing as a Swiss graduate student.  The spy carried in his pocket a pistol and a cyanide pill.

 If the German indicated the Nazis were close to building a weapon, Berg was to shoot him - and then swallow the cyanide pill.  Moe, sitting in the front row, determined that the Germans were nowhere near their goal, so he complimented Heisenberg on his speech and walked him back to his hotel.

After the war, Moe Berg was awarded the Medal of Freedom – America’s highest honor for a civilian in wartime.  But Berg refused to accept it because he couldn't tell people about his exploits.

After his death, his sister Ethel accepted the Medal. It now hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown.

And, Moe Berg's baseball card is the only card on display at the CIA Headquarters in Washington, DC.

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