The strangest man ever to play baseball

Posted: Feb 26, 2002 12:00 AM
Linguist, lawyer, catcher, spy. As Major Leaguers begin spring training, we might celebrate and mourn the 100th birthday of the late Moe Berg, who practiced all of those callings but ended up without hope. Born in New York City on March 2, 1902, to Jewish/Russian immigrant parents, Berg became an athletic and linguistic prodigy at Princeton. He was the star shortstop of the school's baseball team while studying seven languages, including Sanskrit. Then he turned down a Princeton teaching position to join the Brooklyn Robins (later the Dodgers) in 1923. Berg spent 15 years in the major leagues during the 1920s and 1930s, playing five different positions for five different teams. His baseball salary allowed him to indulge in further linguistic study at the Sorbonne in Paris and to earn a law degree at Columbia University. "He could speak a dozen languages but couldn't hit in any of them," one wag said, so he ended up on the bench as a rarely used third-string catcher. Berg thought about using his talents in a different way, but he liked the life of a minor Major Leaguer. He enjoyed good hotels and good food, and loved having most of the day free to read and wander around cities, stopping at bookstores. He crammed his brain with facts, fantasies and trivia, becoming in the process "the strangest man ever to play baseball," in the words of Casey Stengel (it takes one to know one). Berg appeared on the popular radio quiz show "Information, Please," and dazzled the country by answering tough questions about history, astronomy, etymology, geology, mythology and other subjects. He learned Japanese and journeyed to Japan in 1934 with Babe Ruth and an American all-star team; Berg's linguistic ability trumped his low batting average. Anticipating an eventual war with Japan, he secretly filmed Tokyo shipyards and military facilities from the roof of one of the city's tallest buildings. When World War II began, he retired from baseball and became a spy for the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA, which sent him to Switzerland to assess the progress of Germany's atomic bomb project. With fluent German and enough scientific knowledge to pose as a physics student, Berg went to a dinner party with Germany atomic physicist Werner Heisenberg. When Heisenberg implied in casual comments that he expected Germany to lose the war, Berg concluded that the Nazis would not have a nuclear bomb anytime soon. That information was relayed to President Roosevelt, who responded, "Let's pray Heisenberg is right. ... My regards to the catcher." But Berg needed more than regards; when the war ended, he was 43 and had never held a regular job. He received offers, but settling down seemed like a comedown after all his travel. Purposeless, and unwilling to commit to marriage or a specific career, he freeloaded off fans, who paid for dinner in return for stories. Berg lived with his brother Sam for 17 years, until Sam sent Moe two eviction notices to force him to move out. Berg then moved in with his sister and stayed there for eight years. Since sportswriters found him good copy, Major League Baseball gave Berg a pass that would let him into any ballpark -- but that further kept him from commitment. Over time, Berg became a wind-up toy: Put him in front of the press, and he'd offer curious cultural commentary in many languages. Reporters' reverence eventually turned to condescension, though. In 1960, Berg agreed to write an autobiography but became furious when the editor praised his movies, thinking he was talking with Moe of The Three Stooges. Berg -- sick, depressed and unreconciled with God -- died in 1972 in a New Jersey hospital. His final words were, "How did the Mets do today?" Berg's life overall is a tribute to man's need to use his talents wisely; living just to eat, drink and supposedly be merry eventually produces sadness. Ted Williams' comment on Berg sticks with me: "I don't remember ever seeing him laughing."