Moe Berg: “Give My Regards to the Catcher”

Moe Berg: “Give My Regards to the Catcher”

20783_946x1600In The Catch­er Was A Spy: The Mys­te­ri­ous Life of Moe Berg (1994), Nicholas Daw­id­off tells an incred­i­ble sto­ry. Back in the 1930s, Moe Berg‘s intel­lec­tu­al prowess was well-known to  base­ball fans—he was a major lea­guer from 1923 to 1939, most­ly a catch­er. Dur­ing World War II, he para­chut­ed into Yugoslavia to assess the val­ue to the war effort of the two groups of par­ti­sans. He report­ed that Mar­shal Tito‘s forces were wide­ly sup­port­ed by the peo­ple and Win­ston Churchill ordered all-out sup­port for Tito rather than Mihailovic‘s Ser­bians. Lat­er (under the code name “Remus”) Berg was sent to Switzer­land to hear  Ger­man physi­cist Wern­er Heisen­berg, and deter­mine if the Nazis were close to an atom­ic bomb. Moe slipped past  SS guards at the audi­to­ri­um, pos­ing as a Swiss grad­u­ate stu­dent, car­ry­ing a pis­tol and a cyanide pill. If Heisen­berg indi­cat­ed the Nazis were close to a bomb, Berg was to shoot him, and then swal­low the cyanide pill. Con­vinced that the Ger­mans were nowhere near their goal,  he com­pli­ment­ed Heisen­berg on his speech and walked him back to his hotel. Berg’s report was dis­trib­uted to Prime Min­is­ter Churchill, Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt and key fig­ures in the Man­hat­tan Project. Roo­sevelt alleged­ly respond­ed: “Give my regards to the catcher.”

Is some­body pulling our leg? Churchill and his biog­ra­phers make no men­tion of Moe Berg. Does any­one know of a rep­utable his­to­ri­an who sup­ports these sto­ries? I’m a great believ­er in foot­not­ing sources. —J.P., Toronto

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Moe Berg, 1933 Senators
Moe Berg, 1933 Senators

I guess a Blue Jays fan can be par­doned for not know­ing about Moe Berg. Any red-blood­ed Wash­ing­ton Sen­a­tors (er, Nation­als) fan knows all about him—the smartest guy ever to play major league base­ball, and a war hero and atom­ic spy to boot. Churchill might have avoid­ed men­tion of Berg in his mem­oirs because of U.S. secre­cy considerations.

Moe Berg was back-up catch­er for the pow­er­ful Wash­ing­ton Sen­a­tors teams of 1932-34, includ­ing the 1933 pen­nant win­ners. They were man­aged in 1932 by the immor­tal Wal­ter John­son, but own­er Clark Grif­fith let Wal­ter go in 1932 (after ask­ing his per­mis­sion!) and in 1933 went with anoth­er immor­tal, Joe Cronin, who was play­er-man­ag­er. Cronin lat­er became a leg­end with the Boston Red Sox.

The Sen­a­tors nev­er had much offense from Moe, who hit .243 career, but he was a supe­ri­or defen­sive catch­er who knew how to call a game with his pitch­ers, and had a pow­er­ful arm which dis­cour­aged base-steal­ers. But the Sen­a­tors’ “clown prince,” coach Al Schacht, nev­er­the­less called him “just an edu­cat­ed imbecile.”

Casey Sten­gel, who was still play­ing for the New York Giants when Moe broke in with the Brook­lyn Dodgers in 1923, said Berg was “just about the strangest bird” he’d ever come across. Moe was an alum­nus of three uni­ver­si­ties, a lawyer, math­e­mati­cian and lin­guist, who reput­ed­ly spoke up to 17 lan­guages. At Prince­ton, he wrote reviews of plays in Sanskrit!

His team­mates said that while he could speak in many lan­guages, he could hit in none. “Moe,” said White Sox catch­er Buck Crouse, “I don’t care how many of them col­lege degrees you got. They ain’t learned you to hit that curve­ball no bet­ter than me.”

Here’s your foot­note. Tom DeVeaux in The Wash­ing­ton Sen­a­tors 1901-1971 (Jef­fer­son NC and Lon­don: McFar­land, 2001), p112:

His eccen­tric­i­ties aside, Berg would even­tu­al­ly become one of America’s most impor­tant atom­ic spies. When teams of major lea­guers vis­it­ed Japan in the ear­ly Thir­ties, fans might have been amazed that a third-string catch­er like Berg had been sent along. He was actu­al­ly there to take pho­tos for the gov­ern­ment. Dur­ing World War II he was assigned to OSS, fore­run­ner of the CIA. He was para­chut­ed behind ene­my lines to kid­nap atom­ic sci­en­tists and bring them back to America.

For his hero­ism, Berg was to have been award the Medal of Mer­it, but he turned it down. Dark and high­ly refined in man­ner, attrac­tive in the eyes of ladies, Berg was also hon­or­able and forth­right when­ev­er it was sug­gest­ed that he was wast­ing his intel­lect on base­ball. he always answered what the most bright-eyed of Amer­i­can youths would have—that he would rather be a ballplay­er than a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Berg’s medal was accept­ed posthu­mous­ly by his sis­ter and now hangs in the Base­ball Hall of Fame in Coop­er­stown. To know this stuff you have to be a base­ball fan….

Moe Berg, USA
Moe Berg, USA

One thought on “Moe Berg: “Give My Regards to the Catcher”

  1. Hol­ly­wood should make film about this unusu­al but great and hero­ic Amer­i­can Moe Berg.

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