In the mid-1930s, baseball players Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Moe Berg (with a few others) formed an all-star group of baseball players who went on a goodwill tour of Japan to play some exhibition games. Ruth and Gehrig were already legends. Berg was a scholar with a degree from Princeton and a law degree from Columbia. He also spoke seven languages. But he wasn’t a baseball legend. He was a third-string catcher when he departed for Japan, yet his visit may have changed the world forever.
World travel was in Berg’s blood. After his first season with the team that would become the Brooklyn Dodgers, he spent time in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne. He toured Italy and Switzerland during the next year’s offseason, instead of working on his game. He was transferred to the Midwest. He improved slightly and moved up to the White Sox, where he moved from shortstop to catcher. It was as a catcher that he first traveled to Japan in 1932 to teach seminars on baseball.
Ruth and Gehrig came with Berg on his second trip to Japan. He spoke Japanese and addressed the Japanese legislature with a welcome speech. On November 29, 1934, the all-stars took the field in Omiya, Japan for an exhibition game. Berg, meanwhile, traveled to Saint Luke’s Hospital in Tsukiji. The reason? Officially, he wished to visit the daughter of American ambassador Joseph Grew. Except he never saw Grew’s daughter. Berg’s fluency in Japanese allowed him to talk his way onto the roof of the hospital, which overlooked all of Tokyo. Once there, he used a 16mm film camera to covertly record the city and its harbor.
Berg’s footage gave American intelligence agents an intimate view of the city. Some reports suggest U.S. forces later used Berg's footage to plan the Doolittle Raid bombing run over Tokyo in April 1942, though this is claim is difficult to confirm. In any case, Berg's service to his country was far from complete—indeed, it was about to become far more involved.
Berg returned to the States after his second visit to Tokyo. By 1935, he was a catcher for the Boston Red Sox though he rarely played, averaging fewer than 30 games a season in his five-season run. On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, and Berg once again entered the fray.
He began by monitoring the health and fitness of U.S. troops stationed in the Caribbean and South America for the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. In 1943, he was recruited by “Wild” Bill Donovan into the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the American CIA.
Berg parachuted into Yugoslavia to assess the strength of Chetniks loyal to King Peter and the Communist partisans led by Josip Broz Tito. His assessment of Tito’s superiority influenced the U.S. government's treatment of both sides. In 1944, Berg received orders to travel to Germany and gather intelligence on German nuclear scientist Werner Heisenberg. If Berg felt the Germans were dangerously close to completing the atomic bomb, his orders were to assassinate Heisenberg. Berg determined the Germans would not be able to develop the bomb before war’s end and let Heisenberg live.
Moe Berg was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1945 but turned it down. His war service changed him forever. Often described as “strange,” he appeared to his friends to be more comfortable alone with books than around people. Moe Berg never told anyone what he did as a spy. When asked, he would just put his finger to his lips, as if that part of his life were a secret. He tried spying on the burgeoning Russian nuclear program for the CIA but returned little information and his contract was not renewed. He lived with relatives for the rest of his quiet life. After his death in 1972, his sister accepted the Medal of Freedom on his behalf.
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This article originally appeared on We Are The Mighty.
All photos: Alchetron