As World War II continued to rage in December 1944, German physicist Werner Heisenberg conducted a lecture at a college in Zurich. Heisenberg was thought to be the brains behind Nazi efforts to build an atomic bomb.
In the crowd sat a former Major League Baseball catcher who hit .243 during 15 seasons with just six home runs in 1,813 at-bats.
That day, Moe Berg carried a pistol and cyanide pill as an undercover member of the Office of Strategic Services — the spy-craft predecessor of the CIA. His dangerous and daring assignment: Assess whether Heisenberg and the Germans were close to solving the atomic riddle and, if so, assassinate him on the spot.
Berg, a man purported to speak as many as 12 languages, a friend or acquaintance of Babe Ruth, Albert Einstein and Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers and a national sensation on the radio quiz show “Information Please,” is the subject of the fascinating documentary “The Spy Behind Home Plate.”
The Jewish athlete who studied Sanskrit at the famed Sorbonne in Paris and was briefed on the Manhattan Project is arguably the clubhouse leader for most intriguing character in the history of sports.
In the documentary, former sports writer and HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant framed it best.
“Can you make that up?” he said.
Berg, who died in 1972 at age 70, sacrificed in the shadows during a selfless era where San Diego’s Ted Williams served in not one war but two, Bob Feller missed three seasons and abandoned a six-figure salary to man a deck gun in combat and Warren Spahn fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
As many grumble about examples of the pouting, entitled sports millionaires of today, Berg offers stirring, patriotic contrast.
Aviva Kempner, the documentary’s director who also wrote and shaped “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” compared it to former NFL player Pat Tillman enlisting after the September 11 attacks and losing his life to friendly fire.
“In the stat book, there should be asterisks,” Kempner said. “These guys sacrificed careers and lifetime records, as well as, potentially, their lives.”
Berg led the clandestine life of a James Bond-ian operative during a time of war. Fitting, since Berg worked with colleagues in the early days of the OSS that linked him to Bond creator and British intelligence officer Ian Fleming.
The recruitment of Berg undoubtedly grew from his uncommon ability to master languages. While playing baseball in college, Berg and his second baseman shared signals in Latin. When asked what he would do if Ivy League opponents also knew the language, he simply explained they would switch to Sanskrit.
The documentary chronicles a mid-1930s trip to Japan that included Berg, Ruth, Lou Gehrig and others serving as baseball ambassadors. At one point, Ruth marveled at Berg speaking Japanese. Ruth reminded Berg that he had told him he did not know the language.
Berg reportedly shot back: “Well, that was two weeks ago.”
As the war continued, Berg made a plea for peace directly to the Japanese people in their own language on international radio.
“I’m also foreign born — I know how to swear in Yiddish — but it was something he was so good at,” Kempner said. “He probably knew eight languages for sure. Maybe 10. There was the joke (from a former Washington teammate) that he spoke 12 languages, but couldn’t hit in any of them.
“I think that’s unfair. He hit .243 for 15 years. That’s not bad for a catcher, right?”
The seeds of Berg’s path began to find roots as he balanced professional baseball and an unquenchable thirst for academic exploration. A year after being picked up by the Brooklyn Robins — later the Brooklyn Dodgers — the then-White Sox player enrolled in Columbia Law School, skipping spring training and the start of the season.
When Berg, a shortstop at the time, asked White Sox owner Charles Comiskey for permission to miss spring training again because of his studies, Comiskey said no. He found a way anyway, finished and passed the bar exam.
Declassified OSS documents offer glimpses at Berg’s contributions, from recruiting Italian scientists to video shot with a camera hidden under his kimono in Japan later used to script bombing campaigns after Pearl Harbor.
“The whole world was in danger at the time,” Kempner said. “I hope our country will never be tested like that again, but we should celebrate those who stepped up. It affirms in a time of war, the sacrifices that men and women make. Moe could have had a comfortable career in sports (later as a coach or manager), but he sacrificed so we could defeat the Nazis.”
That imperiling commitment included the trip to Zurich.
Berg orchestrated a way to meet Heisenberg at a dinner party. He gauged the scientist was not an imminent threat, decided against shooting him and relayed important information that advanced the Manhattan Project.
The catcher, making a remarkable call in a remarkable life.
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