A Carefully Crafted Life

Mark Richardson —


Catcher was a Spy“Moe could speak twelve languages, but he couldn’t hit in any of them.” Such was the scouting report on Moe Berg, the subject of Nicholas Dawidoff’s The Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg.”  

Berg was a notoriously poor hitter, a defensive wizard behind the plate who played in the major leagues for fifteen years , and most notably, a spy for the government of the United States. The much-traveled journeyman played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Chicago White Sox, the Washington Senators, the Cleveland Indians, and the Boston Red Sox during a career that spanned the years from 1923 to 1939. He hit .243 with a grand total of six home runs during this period, where it was often said that his I.Q. was higher than his batting average. He was regarded as a strange fellow by those who knew him, a man whose daily routine and quirky demeanor were so at odds with the behaviors of his teammates that he would never be supposed an athlete by those who did not recognize him. He visited various news stands each day, buying as many as twenty papers daily, printed in such languages as Russian and Japanese. He would then retire to a park bench where he would spend the hours before the ballgame began perusing the news of the world in all its various dialects.

Berg held himself aloof from his fellows, allowing no one close enough to be able to say they really knew him. To further separate him from those at the adjoining lockers, he was a college man at a time when the big leagues were largely populated by Southerners with sixth grade educations. Moe had been educated at Princeton and the Sorbonne, so he was just never going to be regarded as one of the boys. But while he was looked upon by many of his teammates as a man who kept his hand close to his vest, his greatest secret was one that none of them ever suspected. For Moe Berg was a spy, working for the OSS, forerunner to today’s CIA. In fact, today Moe is the only player whose baseball card is on display at the CIA’s headquarters, according to Dawidoff.

In the 1930s, a major league All-Star team was selected to go to Japan to play a series of exhibition games against the Japanese All-Stars. It struck many as odd that Moe was chosen for the team, given that he was a weak hitter who had been relegated to a back-up role on his own team. But he spoke fluent Japanese, fell into conversation with other intellectuals quite easily, and was known to love photography. So no questions were asked when Moe began to wander around Japan snapping photos day after day like a tourist trying to capture wonderful memories on film. How could the Japanese know that those photographs would provide invaluable information to Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle and his men when they set off during World War II to bomb Tokyo?

After his baseball career ended, Moe began to live life like a nomad, imposing himself on such acquaintances as Joe DiMaggio and Albert Einstein, abusing their hospitality until he had worn his welcome out, whereupon he would then move on to another generous friend. He would ask everyone he met a series of questions, but would refuse to answer any questions asked of him, carefully protecting the many layered cover he had spent his life constructing. He became rude to the point of offending most of those who had befriended him, and when he died, very few took notice.

Dawidoff’s book is meticulously researched, deeply informative, and highly entertaining.  It mixes baseball and espionage, not a normal pairing, and it makes for a wonderful read. This book is highly recommended for those who like baseball, history, or just a well-spun story.

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