Former Major League Baseball Player Moe Berg was Once a Secret Agent in the Predecessor to the CIA

Today I found out former MLB player Moe Berg was once a secret agent in the predecessor to the CIA.

Morris “Moe” Berg was originally recruited to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the CIA, in August of 1943 when he was 41 years old and had been retired from baseball for about four years.  At the time of his recruitment, he had been working for the Office of Internal-American Affairs, stationed primarily in South America, with his job being to monitor the physical fitness levels of U.S. troops there.  The OSS recruited him primarily for his ability to fluently speak multiple languages with little to no accent.    Among the languages he spoke were: German, Italian, French, Spanish, Japanese, Greek, Russian, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Latin, among others.

At first, Berg served primarily as an operations officer, but was soon recruited into the Secret Intelligence division of the OSS.  In this position, Berg was often parachuted behind enemy lines to fulfill his various missions, such as evaluating which resistant groups were most effective and providing them aid through the OSS.  For instance, he was once dropped into occupied Norway where he established contact with Norwegian guerrilla fighters.  While there, he helped them destroy a German facility that was attempting to build an atomic bomb.  He was also sent to the Soviet Union on a few intelligence gathering missions.

Another interesting mission, which was his last with the OSS, Project Larson, was one where he was trained in nuclear physics in order that he could pose as a Swiss physicist.  During this mission, he was tasked with trying to convince various top European physicists and engineers to move to the United States, as well as try to buddy up to them in order to gather information.  Principle among his information gathering goals was to learn everything he could about certain key German physicists, such as Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker and Werner Heisenberg, the head of Germany’s atomic-bomb project.  The U.S. particularly wanted information on how far along Germany was in the development of a nuclear weapon.

Nearing the end of this mission in 1944, he was sent to a lecture given by Heisenberg in Switzerland.  At this lecture, he was to determine from it if Germany was close to being able to create a nuclear bomb.  If after Heisenberg’s lecture, Berg felt the Germans were close, he had instructions to murder Heisenberg and if he wasn’t able to escape after the assassination, to take a cyanide pill to avoid being interrogated.  Lucky for Heisenberg (and possibly for Berg), he didn’t think the Germans were close and so didn’t attempt to kill him.  Although, one would think most would come up with that assessment if the price of concluding they were close was then to have to murder someone and possibly commit suicide after.  Berg continued traveling around Europe gathering information for another four months before returning to the U.S. and resigning from the OSS.

Six years later, after turning down two offers to coach for the White Sox and Red Sox (the latter team which he had already once helped coach for two years), Berg attempted to join the CIA, particularly wanting to be sent to Israel, as he was Jewish, but his request was denied.  However, a year later the CIA did hire him, wanting him to reestablish contact with various acquaintances of his in Europe in order to gather information for the U.S. on the Soviet Union, particularly on their nuclear program.  Berg accepted this mission, but supposedly ultimately did nothing but take the $10,000 offered, providing no information to the CIA and he was subsequently let go after two years.

Previous to becoming an agent for the OSS, it is thought by some of his biographers that Berg may have already been involved in spying for the U.S., though he always denied this.  For instance, while still a baseball player, he was invited to join with Major League Baseball All Stars, such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, to travel to Japan (Berg’s second such trip to Japan, the first of which he stayed behind after the other players left and spent a couple months traveling around Japan, China, Siam, India, Egypt and Berlin, among other countries).  What makes his selection for this second trip to Japan even more curious is that Berg was a mediocre player and all the rest invited were All-Stars.

Further, while in Japan this second time, Berg bluffed his way into the tallest building in Tokyo, a hospital, and managed to sneak onto the roof.  He had a motion picture camera hidden with him and he managed to get shots of all of Tokyo, which were later given to the U.S. government.  Particularly, these shots were later used by the U.S. when planning bombing raids on Tokyo during WWII.  Once again, after the other players left to return to the U.S., he stayed behind and this time traveled to the Philippines, Korea, and Moscow.  He also conspicuously traveled around a lot to other countries in the off-seasons, such as spending one off-season in Paris as an academic student, instead of working on his hitting, as he was supposed to be doing.  All this has given rise to rumors that he had been actively spying for the U.S. long before he retired, though, again, he always denied this claim and there is very little direct evidence other than taking film of Tokyo, which he may have just been doing on his own. Further, Berg later stated he only offered the footage he had taken of Tokyo to the U.S. after he was hired on with the OSS and they had not previously known about it.  So it is probable he simple just liked to travel and really wasn’t spying for the United States before being hired by the OSS.

Bonus Facts:

  • There were other famous individuals among the other 24,000 or so members of the OSS, these include: Chef Julia Child (read more about this here); Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg; Pulitzer Prize winner, historian, and special assistant to President Kennedy Arthur Schlesinger Jr.; actor Sterling Hayden, who, among other things, was in The Godfather;  John Hemmingway, son of Ernest Hemingway; Quentin and Kermit Roosevelt, sons of President Theodore Roosevelt; and journalist and one time co-host of CNN’s crossfire, Thomas Braden, among others.
  • The OSS is also responsible for the first SCUBA maritime unit in the world.  Physician Christian J. Lambertsen developed the first self contained underwater breathing apparatus and demonstrated it to the U.S. Navy, but they passed on it.  He then demonstrated it to the OSS, who then hired Lambertsen to help develop the maritime unit.
  • Berg’s academic prowess didn’t stop with languages (he had a degree in modern languages from Princeton, where he graduated magna cum laude) and physics, he also earned a law degree at Columbia Law School while he was a baseball player and passed the bar, though never practiced law.  He also occasionally appeared on the quiz show, Information, Please! primarily there as a language  and history expert. Further, for the last two decades of his life, he spent his time doing little else but studying various subjects, living first at his brothers and then later at his sisters when his brother had him evicted.
  • Berg was eventually offered the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but declined it, because he was forbidden to talk about what he had done to earn the award in the first place. It was later awarded to him after his death, with his sister accepting it on his behalf.
  • Berg began his baseball career as a utility player, known to be great defensively, but a pretty awful hitter.  By chance, he was eventually moved to catcher while with the White Sox, after all three White Sox catchers were injured in the span of a few days and he volunteered to catch and proved good at it.  This move allowed him to continue playing for much longer than most who were as poor a hitter as he was.  The one notable thing he managed to do while playing baseball was go 117 games without making an error, ending the streak on July 25, 1932; this was a record at the time.
  • Berg’s baseball card is currently on display at the CIA headquarters.  He also was voted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, despite having been a fairly poor baseball player throughout his 15 year career.
  • Berg once was sought out by a very young Ted Williams and asked for advice on what made great hitters great, particularly wanting information on Ruth and Gehrig.  Part of Berg’s reply was:  “Gehrig would wait and wait and wait until he hit the pitch almost out of the catcher’s glove. As to Ruth, he had no weaknesses, he had a good eye and laid off pitches out of the strike zone. Ted, you most resemble a hitter like Shoeless Joe Jackson. But you are better than all of them. When it comes to wrists you have the best.”
  • According to a nurse present at his death in 1972, Berg’s last words were “How did the Mets do today?”
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