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, and that visit might 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 traveled to Japan 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. While the all-stars were playing an exhibition in Omiya, Japan, Berg went to Saint Luke’s Hospital in Tsukiji, to visit the daughter of American ambassador Joseph Grew. Except he never saw Grew’s daughter. Berg’s language ability allowed him to talk his way onto the roof of the hospital. Once there, he used the 16mm film camera given to him by MovietoneNews to record his trip, to instead record the city and its harbor.
Berg’s footage was used by American intelligence agents to plan bombing runs over Tokyo during the coming Second World War, including the Doolittle Raid. Berg started the war 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 was dropped 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 led to the U.S. support for Tito. Berg also was assigned to assassinate German nuclear scientist Werner Heisenberg if the Germans were working on the atomic bomb. 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 Berg 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.