Friendship can be the best of distractions, and that is how it was when Flute met Remus in Switzerland in 1944. Flute, a Swiss citizen, had traveled far and met a great many people, but never had he encountered the likes of Remus. There was something irresistible about this tall, sturdy American whose eyebrows cut straight across his face in one thick stroke and whose wardrobe—charcoal-gray suit, white shirt, black tie, gray fedora—never varied no matter what the season. Languages, physics, politics, women—if there was a subject worth talking about, Remus could discuss it with acumen. Unless, of course, the subject was himself.
Riding bicycles through sun-swept Swiss villages, skiing in the Alps or just strolling beside Lake Geneva, Remus made Flute forget for a moment that his friends in the European scientific community were being ripped away from their research to build bombs for Adolf Hitler. And what the American taught him! The day after Christmas, at Flute's laboratory in Zurich, Flute spent hours diagramming atomic chain reactions. Then Remus took the pencil, sketched a diamond and proceeded to explain the American sport of baseball. Remus had played a lot of baseball, and Flute could see that he cared deeply about the game.
Flute didn't keep that sketch. Remus took it and, perhaps, sent it off to Washington with Flute's scribbled formulas. Such was Remus's obligation, and Flute understood that anything he told Remus might well end up on President Roosevelt's desk in the White House. Flute was, after all, the code name that the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA, had given to Dr. Paul Scherrer, director of physics at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and a pioneer of atomic energy research. Remus was an OSS spy whose task was to assess Nazi Germany's progress toward building an atomic bomb. Remus's real name was Moe Berg, and just three years earlier he could have been found on most any summer day seated holding his catcher's mitt in the Boston Red Sox bullpen, telling stories to the relief pitchers.
There was a protean quality to Moe Berg. He graduated with high honors in modern languages from Princeton in 1923 and then summered in Brooklyn, playing shortstop for the Dodgers. That October, he was off to Paris to study experimental phonetics at the Sorbonne. Over the next few years his time was divided between baseball and Columbia Law School in New York. He graduated and passed the New York State bar exam, but instead of signing up full time with a law firm, he devoted 13 more years to baseball, spending most of them as a third-string catcher.
His best year was 1929, when his batting average (.288) and RBIs (47) were career highs. That season he caught 106 games for the Chicago White Sox and allowed only five stolen bases. Besides a strong arm, Berg had fast reactions and shrewd judgment. The best White Sox pitchers, Ted Lyons and Tommy Thomas, always requested Berg as their batterymate. "In the years he was to catch me, I never waved off a sign," said Lyons, a Hall of Fame righthander.
When World War II began, Berg was first a U.S. goodwill ambassador in Latin America and then a spy in Europe, where, as Remus, he met Flute. They seemed an unlikely pair, but perhaps they really weren't. For Moe Berg could get along with anyone, if only for a time. "Marvelous!" he would say, adjusting his fedora. "Wonderful!" And then one of the most extraordinary characters in baseball or any other profession would vanish.
"Moe was a mysterious man," says Charles Owen, a baseball researcher and Berg specialist. "He'd be among friends, they'd turn, and he was gone. People who hadn't seen him in years would be talking in a group, and there he'd be."
After the war Berg received occasional CIA assignments, contracts from consulting firms and scraps of legal business. None of it seemed to make him any money. "Moe was indifferent to the practical side of things," wrote his older brother, Samuel Berg, of Newark, a physician who died in 1990. For 25 years the sober, hardworking Dr. Sam put a free roof over the head of his prodigal brother. "He was happy that he lived the life he loved, not caring about tomorrow or about where he would get the wherewithal," said Dr. Sam of Moe, "and you know, there is much to be said for such a life."
The real business of Moe Berg's days was reading the newspaper. "There is a majesty about the printed word. There is life to it. I consider a newspaper my friend," he said, according to Moe Berg: Athlete, Scholar, Spy by Louis Kaufman, Barbara Fitzgerald and Tom Sewell. Berg took this rather literally. Every day he purchased a collection of U.S. and foreign papers—he read a dozen languages—and woe to the man who touched a paper before Berg had finished with it. Rage would cloud Berg's black eyes, and he would refuse to look at the paper again.
Newspapers contained information on all subjects, and if you knew something about everything, you could adjust to anyone. This was Berg's genius. He brought such warmth, such attentiveness, such life to people that he was beloved. Nobody ever really knew Moe Berg, but dozens of people considered the times they spent with him to be some of the best of their lives. "He was magical," says William Fowler, Institute Professor of Physics Emeritus at Cal Tech and the 1983 Nobel Prize winner in physics. "I'd go to Physical Society meetings in New York, and between sessions we'd all get together and be talking nuclear physics, and I'd look up and there'd be Moe, just listening, taking it all in. We always gave each other a big hug. I'd have to say, though, that most of what I found out about Moe came from reading about him."
When Chicago Tribune sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, traveling with the Cubs or White Sox, arrived in New York in the 1960s, a call would come up from his hotel lobby, without fail, 10 minutes after he checked in. "Moe knew my schedule," says Holtzman. "He stayed with me whenever I was in New York. We always went to the ballpark together and came back together. He'd sit next to me in the press box. I was delighted. I didn't want to stay three days alone. So if they hadn't given me a room with twin beds, I'd change rooms. We'd lie awake at night, and he'd tell me stories about countesses he'd known. He was a real ladies' man, though I never saw him with a woman."
I.M. Levitt, director emeritus of the Fels Planetarium at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, met Berg one day in the '30s when Levitt narrated a show at the planetarium and Berg came up afterward to ask some questions. Occasionally thereafter Berg would stay with Levitt and his wife at their home as he passed down the Eastern seaboard. At night they played a game in which Levitt would choose a word in the dictionary and Berg would have to give its derivation and meaning. "He never missed once," says Levitt.
"He was very reserved," said Dr. Sam, "as far as divulging his personal affairs with others." What Dr. Sam could be sure of was that every evening his brother was in town he would come home, bathe—he always took three baths a day—put on a black kimono and, seated beneath a cardboard sign that said I WOULD RATHER BE A POOR MAN IN A GARRET WITH PLENTY OF BOOKS THAN A KING WHO DID NOT LOVE READING, read newspapers well past midnight. In 1964 Dr. Sam asked Moe to move to their sister Ethel's larger house, about 10 blocks away, because Moe's accumulated papers no longer left any room for Dr. Sam's patients.
During all that time Dr. Sam never knew that Moe had been an atomic spy in Europe, never knew that Moe had been awarded the Medal of Freedom (and had refused it) and never could fathom why a simple game like baseball could provide a life's diversion for a man of so many talents. "[Moe] not only played with but was friendly with the famous like Wagner, Cobb, Faber, McGraw, Ruth, Foxx and many others," Dr. Sam wrote. "They were his heroes, and he gloried in the association, the Great American Game.... Even in his waning career in the bullpen or coaching, it was his life." Another time, despairing about Moe's absorption in baseball, Dr. Sam said, "All it ever did was make him happy."
Bernard Berg and his wife, Rose Tashker, came to America from the Ukraine. In 1894 Bernard arrived in New York and found work ironing in a Manhattan laundry. When Rose arrived two years later, Bernard had put aside enough money to open his own laundry on the Lower East Side. He had higher ambitions than living in a cold-water tenement, though, and began studying at the Columbia College of Pharmacy at night. By the time his third child, Morris, was born, in March 1902, Bernard was a pharmacist.
As a four-year-old, Moe tossed apples and oranges with anyone who was willing. Four years later Bernard moved his family to the Roseville section of Newark, where he opened his own pharmacy and Moe played his first organized baseball. The Bergs were Jewish, so to qualify as a member of the Roseville Methodist Episcopal Church team, Moe adopted the slightly less ethnic pseudonym of Runt Wolfe. Sometimes he tossed the ball around with a brass-buttoned patrolman named Hibler. The policeman would put aside his derby and then sweat like a thresher as the slender boy, standing one manhole—20 feet—down the street, yelled, "Harder, Mr. Hibler! Harder!"
For 30 years Bernard Berg worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Sam became a doctor, and Ethel a schoolteacher. Baby Moe, it was understood, would be a lawyer. While he was at Barringer High School, a Newark newspaper reported that Moe, an all-city third baseman, "has an arm like a whip and is a steady batter." He graduated at 16, and after a year at New York University, he transferred to Princeton.
Most Princeton undergraduates of that time came from wealthy Protestant families and had gone to prep school. As the son of Jewish immigrants, Berg walked the periphery of Princeton society. "Moe was a loner," says his former classmate Donald Griffin. "He was a scholar of distinction, and the social aspects of undergraduate life did not concern him." Berg studied Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit, and he graduated 24th in a class of 211.
His college baseball career was equally distinguished. He started for the Tigers for three seasons, and as a senior he was the star shortstop on a team that won 18 straight and handed Holy Cross's great pitcher Ownie Carroll one of his two college losses. (Berg had one of Princeton's three hits against Carroll and scored the game's only run.) Positioned toward the bottom of the batting order because he was a plodding runner, Berg hit .337. He and second baseman Crossan Cooper developed a clever method of exchanging signs with an opposing runner on second: They yelled back and forth in Latin. (Later, Berg and Lyons, a Baylor graduate, would do so in Greek.)
As a senior Berg took a course in elementary linguistics. He wanted to go on to the Sorbonne to study philology and, especially, experimental phonetics. When he graduated in June 1923, he had two job offers: one from Princeton to teach Romance languages and the other from the Dodgers to play the remainder of the season for $5,000. He had also been admitted to Columbia Law School. Berg was torn. He loved baseball and, besides, the Dodger money could be his ticket to Paris.
Finally he followed his heart, which took him south to Philadelphia, where the Dodgers were playing the Phillies. Berg singled in a run in his first major league game, to the delight of a clump of recent Princeton graduates in the stands.
After this snappy debut Berg's first summer of professional baseball was more of an ordeal. Over 49 games he hit .186. Then he was off to Paris. His French was so impressive that his tuition at the Sorbonne was waived. The Dodgers didn't sign Berg for 1924, and it wasn't until after he hit .311 for the International League's Reading Keys in '25 that he returned to the majors. In November, Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey bought him from Reading for $50,000 to play shortstop. What Comiskey got was a law student.
Berg had decided to use his baseball earnings to pursue his law degree in the off-season. When he asked for permission to report to the White Sox after spring training in 1926, in order to finish the semester, Comiskey agreed. By May, when Berg reported, rookie Bill Hunnefield had won the shortstop job. The White Sox finished fifth, and Berg hit only .221 in the 41 games he played.
Over the following winter Comiskey's patience with Berg's studies dwindled. "My dear young man," the Old Roman wrote to Berg when Berg proposed skipping spring training again, "The time has come when you must decide as to the profession you intend following." Berg appealed to a dean at Columbia Law and was granted a leave of absence for the rest of the academic year.
Behind Hunnefield, he played in only 35 games in 1927, hitting .246. Mike Gonzales, an opposing scout, watched Berg play and filed the terse, damning dispatch that would become Berg's signature: "Good field. No hit." The unofficial word was that Berg could speak a dozen languages and couldn't hit in any of them.
One afternoon late in the season, a batter's swing connected with the hand of Sox catcher-manager Ray Schalk, breaking it. Then a foul tip split one of backup catcher Buck Crouse's fingers. Shortly after that, third-string catcher Harry McCurdy fractured his finger. From the bench Schalk bellowed, "Get me another catcher. Class C, Class D, I don't care, get me a catcher!"
"What do you mean, Class C, Class D?" came a low, even voice. "You've got a big league catcher sitting right here." It was Berg speaking. He was referring to first baseman Earl Sheely, who had caught in the minors. Schalk, however, thought Berg was talking about himself and sent him into the game. Berg had never caught before, but he performed flawlessly. "Now, I'll tell ya, Moe Berg was as smart a ballplayer as ever come along," said Casey Stengel. "Guy never caught in his life and then goes behind the plate like Mickey Cochrane."
Berg caught in nine more games that year and in 73 games in 1928. In 1929, after he graduated from Columbia Law, Berg became the White Sox's starting backstop. "Being allowed to catch is the best break I've ever had," Berg said.
That May he learned that he had survived New York State's brutal bar exam. He dined out alone the night the results were published, ordered a bottle of wine and drank a toast to his parents. The Manhattan law firm of Satterlee & Canfield hired him to do international contract litigation during the off-season. When journalists asked him about it, he said, "I don't want to be known as a ballplayer who read a book, and I don't want to be known as a lawyer with a bat on my shoulder. I practice law in the winter and I play ball in the summer, and I am careful to keep the two separate in my life."
In the spring of 1930 he tore ligaments in his knee when he caught his spikes in the dirt. Berg became so slow that, in Stengel's estimation, "a turtle could beat him to first base."
It would have been the perfect time to make a permanent transition to the law, but Berg did no such thing. He played 20 games for Chicago in '30, 10 for Cleveland in '31, and then he joined the Senators. Shirley Povich wrote in The Washington Post, "The average mental capacity of the Washington Ball Club was hiked several degrees by the acquisition of the eminent Mr. Moe Berg." Bernard Berg was disgusted. Standing outside the pharmacy one day, Dr. Sam tried to reason with him. "Look, Pa," he said, "we are in a depression, and Moe is making good money. Many of his Princeton classmates are janitors or are borrowing money from Moe."
Bernard spat on the sidewalk and said, "He's just a sport. He doesn't have a profession." Bernard died in 1941, never having attended a baseball game. The black tie that Moe wore every day for the rest of his life was to honor his father.
Baseball was as fascinated by Berg as he was by the game. "Moe was really something in the bullpen," an anonymous teammate told The Sporting News in 1972. "We'd all sit around and listen to him discuss the Greeks, Romans, Japanese, anything. Hell, we didn't know what he was talking about, but it sure sounded good."
Still, people wondered. "Most people in baseball passed bons mots about him," says Joe Cascarella, a teammate of Berg's on his next team, the Red Sox, in the late '30s. "What was this man doing playing baseball? Very puzzling. He was very, very closemouthed about any of his activities. It was hard to press him."
Berg just liked to play. "I seek no other man's shoes," he once said. "Even grandmothers should experience the pure excitement of covering home plate with an ape charging home, cleats flying high."
There was more to it, though. At heart Berg was a sybarite, and baseball was a steady job that paid well, permitted extensive travel, put him in contact with a vast variety of people and left most of each day free for reading, bathing and adventure. "It left him time to do what he did best, and that is read," says Levitt. "He wasn't, tied down." Berg traveled with two suitcases, one filled with clothes and baseball equipment, the other with books and periodicals. When the Senators played at home, Berg liked to skip up to Baltimore, where his favorite poet, Edgar Allan Poe, was buried. Berg had memorized many of Poe's verses and would stand beside the grave and recite them.
Berg's twin personas, the ballplayer and the intellectual, gave him a special cachet, and so his friends included Catholic nuns and Will Rogers, the postmaster general and the Marx brothers. For contemporary baseball writers, Berg provided material beyond their dreams, and they shamelessly embellished the exploits of "beetle-browed barrister Berg, the linguist who says 'Il fait chaud' to umpires."
"During an evening's walk," wrote Arthur Sampson in the New York Herald, "[Berg] will point out' planets, discuss politics, law, economics, music, art, drama, literature [and] current events with specialists in any of these fields."
It was true, at least, that Berg enjoyed an evening's stroll, but most likely he was arm in arm with an attractive young woman. He was a man of striking good looks, 6'1" and 185 pounds. In Washington he was a regular at black-tie embassy parties, where the Strauss waltzes, free meals and well-bred foreign women agreed with him. "Moe generally lived at the Wardman Park [Hotel] and never had to buy a meal as he dined at all the embassies, where he talked their languages and kissed the hands of more women than Valentino," said Thomas, the White Sox pitcher, to the authors of Moe Berg: Athlete, Scholar, Spy. Berg never married, but he did share a New York apartment before the war with a high-society pianist. Eventually she married someone else. "I think [Moe] was kind of happy that she got married," wrote Dr. Sam. With women, as with all people, for a brief spell he was extremely attentive. Then he was gone.
Travel was always invigorating to Berg. He first went to Japan with Lyons and Dodger outfielder Lefty O'Doul in 1932. Baseball was just catching on in that country, and the three men gave pitching, catching and hitting clinics together at six Japanese universities. Berg studied some Japanese before he left the U.S. and kept it up on the way over. He learned enough to flatter his hosts and to needle the irrepressible O'Doul. In a restaurant one day Berg wrote some Japanese characters on a napkin and handed it to a waitress, who recited phonetically, "O'Doul is ugliest mug I have ever seen. He is also lousy ballplayer. Some day he will get hit with fly ball and get killed."
"They loved him in Japan," wrote Lyons in a letter to Ethel Berg. The feeling was mutual. Berg wrote his family that he had never enjoyed anything as much as visiting Japan.
When Berg returned to Washington, he set an American League record by catching in 117 consecutive games (from 1931 to 1934) without making an error. (The record lasted 12 years.) Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson, Berg's manager with the Senators, said that "barring Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane, Berg has caught as well as any man in the American League."
In 1934 he was back in Japan. A team of American All-Stars that included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig was invited to tour the country, and Berg was asked to come along. When he boarded the Empress of Japan in Vancouver on Oct. 20, he carried a contract to write travel pieces for the Boston American, and a small 16-mm Bell and Howell movie camera. It was a highly successful trip. In the American, Berg marveled at the Japanese love of baseball. He posed with geisha girls, impressed his teammates with his Japanese and made a speech to students at Meiji University. "I someday hope that our innocent junket through Japan will serve to bring the countries whom we represent...closer together," he said. Meanwhile, Berg quietly performed his first known act of espionage.
He was seeing very little action on the field during the tour, and one day it was scarcely noticed that he failed to show up for the game. Instead, he walked to St. Luke's International Hospital, one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo, carrying some flowers. In the reception area he asked to see the daughter of the U.S. ambassador, who had just given birth. Berg was directed to the seventh floor, but he rode the elevator to the top floor, climbed to the roof and, from beneath his clothes, withdrew the movie camera. It was a powerful instrument, and as he panned across the refineries and factories of Tokyo and the shipyards of Yokohama, he also recorded an image of Mount Fuji, more than 55 miles away. Finished, he left the bouquet on the roof and departed. Eight years later, when General Jimmy Doolittle's bombers raided Tokyo, their targets were plotted by referring to Berg's film.
During the remainder of the trip Berg talked baseball with anyone who approached him, advised Mizuno on the manufacture of baseball gloves (there was a sudden demand) and enthralled Tokyo reporters, who wrote about him with glee. Today there is a Moe Berg collection at the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, and his biography, long out of print in the U.S., continues to sell in its Japanese translation. For Berg, fanatic loyalty to his country never displaced the warm feelings he had for the Japanese.
In 1935 Berg joined the Red Sox, his fifth and final team. Stouter now, he would never again bat more than 141 times in a season. But as usual he was prized by the ball club and by reporters. (He caused a mild sensation one day when he showed up for work and a copy of David Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding fell out of his wad of newspapers.) Getting along with owners was one of' Berg's specialties. One owner told the journalist Taylor Spink, "I tried to cut his salary one year, and Moe wrote me such a nice letter that I felt ashamed and gave him a raise instead."
In the late '30s the radio quiz show Information Please was one of the country's most popular programs. A panel composed of New Yorker literary critic Clifton Fadiman, poet and wit Franklin P. Adams, New York Times columnist John Kieran, pianist Oscar Levant and a guest competed to answer trivia questions. In 1939 Kieran invited Berg to appear. He dazzled listeners with his erudition. He knew what the Willy/Nicky correspondence was, and he could identify poi, soy, loy and oy. The show received 24,000 letters. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball, wrote Berg: "You did more for the image of baseball in half an hour than I have since I became commissioner."
Berg was immediately invited for a return engagement, and then a third. The following spring, on the Red Sox's barnstorming trip north from spring training, Berg's teammates created a new pastime. Whenever the team bus entered a sizable town, someone would cry out, "Information please!" and Berg would dutifully offer up the local history, listing the date of the town's founding, its most famous citizens, its principal industries and other pertinent facts. This was just one of the ways Berg entertained his colleagues. Another was to listen to a couple of sentences spoken by a stranger and then try to identify not just the person's home state but his hometown.
Berg worked as a coach for Boston in 1940 and 1941. During that time the Atlantic Monthly asked him to write an article on pitchers and catchers. His piece appeared in the September 1941 issue. After the war, Berg met another contributor to the Atlantic, Albert Einstein, at Princeton. "Mr. Berg," exclaimed the scientist after a brief recital on his violin, "you teach me baseball, and I'll teach you mathematics." He paused a moment and then added, "But let's forget it. I'm sure you'd learn mathematics faster than I'd learn baseball."
Berg's life was pleasant enough, but a war was going on, and the patriot in Berg could not abide the notion of another cozy summer at Fenway. In 1941, after much lobbying by Berg, his friend Nelson Rockefeller, then the coordinator of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, offered him a position as a goodwill ambassador. Berg requested his unconditional release from the Red Sox. Soon he was packing his bags for Brazil.
Berg's job was to tour U.S. bases in Latin America, handing out Softball equipment, books and fishing tackle to both soldiers and local citizens. The region was rife with pro-Axis political sentiment, so Berg was also sending back to Rockefeller memos marked SECRET AND CONFIDENTIAL that evaluated potential dangers to the U.S. from fascists in Central and South America and offered suggestions on wooing neighboring countries to the U.S. side. Working without precise orders, Berg enjoyed himself immensely, picking up, among other things, news of Mussolini's failing health, a middling proficiency in Portuguese and plenty of women in Rio. Rockefeller wrote him in April 1943, "Only someone with your experience and knowledge of international as well as human problems could have handled this situation with such tact and effectiveness." By summer Berg was over in Europe.
General Wild Bill Donovan, the father of the OSS, created a bohemian intelligence operation staffed by a sparkling group of amateurs that included lawyers, professors, businessmen, lotharios, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Julia Child and members of Murder Inc. Donovan wanted daring men and women who liked adventure and could keep a secret. In many ways, Moe Berg was the ideal OSS agent.
Donovan initially found Berg appealing probably because of his linguistic skills. Berg took an oath of secrecy, was issued a revolver and a capsule of cyanide, and was given a variety of assignments in Italy, Switzerland and Sweden. Easily his most significant work was in atomic counterintelligence. The British were confident that Hitler's scientists were nowhere near completion of an atomic bomb, but Donovan and Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project—the U.S. bomb effort—wanted their own confirmation. In preparation, Berg had immersed himself in nuclear physics. This enabled him to attend a lecture given in 1944 in Zurich by the leading German atomic scientist, Werner Heisenberg. Berg had orders to kidnap or assassinate Heisenberg if a German atomic bomb project was flourishing. Masquerading as a student, Berg listened to Heisenberg's talk, which had nothing to do with weapons production. Afterward, Berg strolled about gathering information and ultimately decided to let Heisenberg be.
A recently declassified memo written in 1946 by Colonel Howard Dix to recommend Berg for the Medal of Freedom says that Berg's attendance at the meeting "yielded the most important information snatched from under the cloak of secrecy which the Germans maintained on this subject. This and other information sent back by Mr. Berg and obtained by him while under continual risk of exposure and retaliatory action, was used in guiding, the U.S. operation in this field and in determining...the pressures to be placed upon U.S. scientists for rapid progress towards ultimate completion of the Manhattan Project."
Berg's other intelligence work was eclectic. He interviewed scores of European scientists. He helped confirm that the Germans did not have a sophisticated bacteriological warfare program. He worked on codes, translated documents and sent in reports on Axis glider factories, radar, optics, and radio-controlled missiles. He arranged for prominent scientists to escape to the U.S., most notably Antonio Ferri, Italy's great aeronautical engineer. When news of Ferri's arrival in Virginia in 1944 reached President Roosevelt, he said, "I see Berg is still catching pretty well."
Some CIA scholars hold his work in considerable esteem. "He sent back reports that were much fuller and humanly more revealing than was customary for intelligence agents," says Thomas Powers, whose book Heisenberg's War will be published by Knopf early next year. "Berg was interested in what was going through a man's mind. He could be very imaginative in the ways he'd find people and talk to them. And no man ever knew more languages and said less in them."
When he was first told that he was a likely recipient of the Medal of Freedom, Berg requested permission to tell people what he had done to merit it. He was told that this was classified information. He then refused the medal on grounds that it would "embarrass" him, and he took most of his secrets to his grave. After he died, Ethel Berg wrote to the government and claimed the award. The medal is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Coopers-town, N.Y.
Charlie Wagner, an old Red Sox teammate, saw Berg shortly after he returned home from the war. "He seemed like he knew what he was doing but was a little off-center," says Wagner. The last 25 years of Berg's life were marked by increasingly erratic behavior. At first it was hardly noticeable. Berg began carrying an umbrella on sunny days. But then he'd always had his own sartorial ideas. Various disappointments in the next few years, however, exacerbated matters.
Before leaving for Europe, Berg had invested what money he had in a pair of companies: Novelart, a stationery manufacturer, and Novelview, which made films. When he got back in 1946, he found that not only had both firms gone under, but his partner in the two companies had run off, leaving him without assets and responsible for a healthy sum of back taxes. It took years for Berg to settle with the IRS, and the acrimony involved deflated his spirits.
The CIA left him despondent, too. Berg liked spying as well as anything he'd ever done, including playing baseball. When the OSS was disbanded by President Truman and replaced by the CIA, the tenor of American intelligence changed, becoming more bureaucratic. There wasn't much room for a colorful improviser like Berg. He received occasional CIA assignments that had to do with atomic intelligence in Europe. Most often, however, when Moe arrived at Dr. Sam's house and asked if there was a letter for him from the government, the answer was no.
Berg had always, somewhat compulsively, filled hotel stationery, small notebooks, even paper napkins, with jottings, but at this point the habit became obsessive. He holed up for a spell in a Washington hotel and filled about 500 pages of letter stationery with a complex plan for revising the U.S. intelligence network in Eastern Europe.
Berg dabbled in other things. Rockefeller briefly made him president of Equity International Company in Dover, Del., but office life didn't agree with him, and he was forced to resign. He took on occasional legal chores, yet never worked for a firm again. Mostly he was a vagabond.
Sometimes it was Levitt who put Berg up for a night or two. Other times it might be Joe DiMaggio or Berg's old Princeton teammate Cooper. "I said to come on over and have dinner and spend the night with us," related Cooper. "He came, he had dinner, spent the night and stayed six weeks." Berg traveled with only a razor and toothbrush in a ditty bag. At night he washed his clothes in the sink and hung them over the bathtub to dry.
People were sympathetic and baffled. Some lent him money or bought him clothes. "I can't understand why, with his abilities, he would be impoverished," says Levitt. The answer was that Berg never tried to earn a living. "He didn't want to live his life scurrying for a train every day," says Holtzman. "He lived his life the way he wanted to. He beat the game."
Berg attended meetings of the American Philosophical Society, read all day in used-book stores, went out for dinner with people and often let them pay the check. Berg drank Bloody Marys in blowsy bars with reporter Jimmy Breslin, dined out with Stengel and Groves, and chased about town with an entourage that included sports editor Harry Grayson, sportswriter Murray Olderman and various Runyonesque characters, including a horseplayer named Andy and a tough guy from the Bronx named Tony.
Berg's primary base of operations remained baseball. He owned a lifetime major league pass and was a regular in the Yankee Stadium press box, where he watched the game and ate from the spread set out for the reporters.
In the late 1960s, now past 60 years of age, Berg met the publisher Sayre Ross of the Sayre Ross Company. "He came to me in a black tie and baggy pants," says Ross. "I later learned that he had this huge hernia he never attended to. I kept insisting, 'Let the Army hospital do it,' and he kept saying, 'To hell with them. I won't let the Army do anything for me.' One morning he arrived at my office at 8:45 a.m. I walked in, and he was sitting there. He had seven newspapers from all over the country. 'Look,' he says, 'I don't want anybody to touch them.' That was the beginning of Moe Berg's stacks." Over the next few years Berg came to Ross's every day that he wasn't traveling. He never paid a dime of rent or did much of anything but fill the office with piles of newspapers, flirt with Ross's secretaries and, when Ross needed them, provide the telephone numbers of people like Stengel and DiMaggio. Ross loved having him.
Berg's behavior in his last few years became so strange that Dr. Sam concluded that he was senile. After Dr. Sam asked him to leave his house, Moe shared Ethel's Newark house.
By all accounts Ethel Berg was a harridan. Like her brothers, she never married. She despised Dr. Sam, managing to live about 10 blocks from him for 50 years without exchanging so much as a greeting. Later, when she learned that Dr. Sam was cooperating with Moe's biographers, she rejected their request for an interview and told them she would sue if her name appeared in the book. Instead, she published her own book—more a collection of Moe's papers, slightly annotated—titled My Brother Morris Berg: The Real Moe. She loved her baby brother, but she wore on him as she did on everyone else. "There were times that Moe had to board elsewhere for weeks at a time to get away from the aggravation and tension," wrote Dr. Sam. "But Moe had no money, so he had to make the best of things with Ethel."
Berg was in reasonably good health for a man of 70 when, in a hurry to get to the bathroom one day, he accidentally fell against the corner of a table, jabbing his midsection. He lay in bed for days until Ethel forced him to go to the hospital. Berg died three days later of internal bleeding. His last words to his attending nurse were a question: "How did the Mets do today?"
Bernard and Rose Berg are buried in a Newark cemetery. According to Owen's research, the urn containing Moe's ashes was interred with his parents, and his name was engraved on their tombstone. He didn't stay there long, though. Ethel had the urn exhumed and took it with her to Israel. She buried the urn herself somewhere outside Jerusalem. She died in 1987, so the final mystery of Moe Berg's life is that nobody knows where he is.
COURTESY OF CHARLES A. OWEN JR.
Mementos of a double life: Berg's OSS pistol, his catcher's mitt, the camera with which he filmed Tokyo, and the program from the '34 Japan tour.
COURTESY OF LELAND'S AUCTION HOUSE
[See caption above.]
COURTESY OF CHARLES A. OWEN JR.
Berg was a skillful defensive catcher, but teammates knew him best as a bullpen savant and entertainer.
COURTESY OF CHARLES A. OWEN JR.
On his first tour of Japan, in '32, Berg espied geishas and ballplayers; on his second, he also spied.
NATIONAL BASEBALL LIBRARY, COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.
The civilian Berg won the Medal of Freedom for his undercover work for U.S. forces in Europe.
THE MORRIS (MOE) BERG PAPERS, THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
[See caption above.]
COURTESY OF CHARLES A. OWEN JR.
After the war, Berg and Scherrer—Remus and Flute—met again as friends in Switzerland.
COURTESY OF CHARLES A. OWEN JR.
In Berg (center, with Stengel and Groves), the worlds of baseball and atomic warfare met.