By Holmes. Jay Holmes.
On March 2, 1902, the unremarkable Jewish immigrant couple in upper Manhattan had their day brightened by the birth of a healthy baby boy. They named him Morris Berg.
Morris’s father was a pharmacist, and he and his wife were more educated than the average immigrant. They read to Morris and taught him counting and basic math skills at an early age.
Before he turned four, Morris begged his parents to enter him in school. He was too young to attend, but his education at home picked up pace.
In 1906 when Morris’ family moved to New Jersey to a middle class neighborhood. Morris learned to hide his Jewish identity in order to register for the local Roseville Methodist Episcopal Church Baseball League.
Those who played baseball with Morris remembered him as being a great player and an even better person. He was universally liked on the teams he played on through his childhood. His schoolmates liked him because, in spite of his brilliance in school, he was able to fit in with any group of kids. His teachers remembered him as a leader and a peacemaker on the playground.
In 1919, Morris attended New York University. The following year, he transferred to Princeton. Morris was the star of the Princeton baseball team and graduated Magna Cum Laude after passing language tests in seven foreign languages.
In 1923, Morris “Moe” Berg began his baseball career as a short stop and utility infielder for the Brooklyn Robins. (In 1932, the team would change it’s name to the Dodgers.) During his winter vacations from baseball, he traveled to Paris and studied at the Sorbonne.
In 1925, Berg was on the Chicago White Socks roster. During his tenure with the White Sox, he was converted into a catcher when Chicago ran out of catchers due to injuries. When Berg proved to be a better catcher, he became a “permanent” catcher. He reported to the team late in order to finish his first year at Columbia University Law School.
Due to his baseball career, Berg was unable to register for and attend his classes in a normal sequence. Moe grew impatient, and before graduating from law school, he sat for the infamously difficult New York State bar exam. He passed the bar and later received his law degree from Columbia Law School.
In 1932, Japan requested that Major League Baseball send a coaching staff of pitchers and at least one catcher to teach as roving coaches at Japan’s major universities. Oddly, mediocre catcher Moe Berg accompanied the famous pitchers Lefty O’Doul and Ted Lyons to Japan.
What Berg lacked in hitting skills, he more than made up for in social skills, and he managed to befriend many influential Japanese professors and business people that winter. As spring training approached, the other players returned directly to the United States. Berg received permission to travel to Japanese-occupied Manchuria, and then to return home via stops in Peking, Shanghai, Siam, India, Cairo, and Berlin.
In 1934, Japan requested that Major League Baseball send an All Star team to tour Japan and show off their skills to young Japanese players. The All Star roster was set, and it naturally did not include the third string catcher Berg. At the last moment, and to the amusement of the All Stars, Berg was added to the roster and made the trip.
1934 All Star Team, including such greats as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and . . . Moe Berg?
Image from baberuthcentral.com.
Berg delivered (in fluent Japanese) the speech for the All Stars at the welcoming ceremony and was invited to address the Japanese legislature where he gave a charming, friendly speech.
On November 29, while his team was playing in Omiya, the team manager excused Berg to visit the daughter of the US Ambassador, who was in Saint Luke’s Hospital. At the hospital, Berg managed to sneak onto the locked roof and film the Tokyo skyline, including shipyard areas that were of particular concern to the United States Navy.
In our age of satellites and drones, it might seem like a minor accomplishment, but we should remember that Japan had closed its ports to foreigners, and few foreigners were allowed to travel in Japan. Berg managed to film new cranes at Japanese shipbuilding facilities.
Shipyards and governments will not pay for extremely expensive cranes that are larger than what would be required to build their largest ships. From the photographs Berg took, the US Navy deduced that Japan had, indeed, broken the London Naval Agreement of 1930, and was building heavier battleships than the agreement had allowed.
In 1942, Berg’s films were instrumental in planning the bombing mission for the daring Tokyo Bombing Raid launched from a carrier group commanded by Admiral Halsey and led by US Army Colonel James Doolittle.
When the USA entered WWII after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Berg accepted a position with the Office of Inter-American Affairs. His position was officially that of a health inspector for US troops in the Caribbean and South America, but he was in fact operating in a counter-intelligence role.
Berg found the work boring, and in 1943, he volunteered for work in German-occupied territory with the Office of Strategic Services (“OSS”). It was during this phase of his life that Moe Berg was able to provide his greatest service to the United States and her allies.
Berg’s first major success came when he parachuted in to Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia and rendezvoused with the two major resistance groups. Berg evaluated both groups in terms of strength and leadership and delivered a report to the OSS, which helped the US decide to support the Tito led partisans as the most viable anti-Nazi resistance fighters. Tito’s partisans were able to use the supplies and equipment to force the Germans to keep several extra divisions in Yugoslavia when those few extra divisions and supplies might have been used effectively in offense operations against the Soviet Army.
Later, Berg led a team of agents on kidnapping missions in Italy, where they were able to kidnap important Italian scientists and assist others in escaping to the West. The secret mission within that mission that only Berg was told about was to find out from the Italians what German physicists Von Heisenberg and the less politically connected but more brilliant Carl Wiezsaker might be doing concerning the development of an atomic weapon.
Berg was able to report that Heisenberg (the leader of the Nazi Atomic Bomb project) was going to deliver a lecture in Zurich. He used his social skills to get himself invited to the lecture and to the dinner in Heisenberg’s honor.
The OSS ordered Berg to evaluate Heisenberg. If it seemed to him that Heisenberg was on the right track, specifically, gas fusion separation of Uranium isotopes instead of the dead end heavy water method, then Moe was to “honor” Heisenberg by emptying a magazine of .32 caliber ammunition into Heisenberg’s head and chest and then rendezvous with an escape team. Just as importantly, if Heisenberg did not seem to be up to the job, then Berg was to leave him alive so as to avoid having the German Atomic Bomb project placed under the leadership of the more brilliant Carl Weizsaker.
From the lectures and the dinner conversation, Berg determined that Heisenberg was, indeed, as overrated as escaped German scientists had claimed he was, and that he lacked the brilliance in theoretical physics and mathematics necessary to make decisions about the project. Berg decided to not kill Von Heisenberg. The third string catcher had been able to see through Von Heisenberg’s pro-Nazi, bloated reputation and left him in charge of the Nazi atom bomb efforts.
Other aspects of Berg’s work in Europe in WWII remain classified. It is believed by some that he was responsible for establishing an effective channel of communication between the German scientific community and the US government, and that this channel paid dividends concerning a multitude of German research and weapons development efforts.
Medal of Freedom
On October 10, 1945, President Truman, with the approval of the US Congress, awarded Moe Berg the nation’s highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom. According to CIS sources, Berg felt that the work that he and his team had done would remain important due to a Soviet threat that many had not yet perceived. He respectfully declined the medal and asked that the matter remain quiet for the sake of the mission.
Berg’s life remains something of a mystery from 1945 to 1951. In 1951, he was back “on the books” as an employee of the CIA. He requested that he be sent to Israel, but he was instead ordered back to Europe to recruit agents for the CIA.
Moe Berg had been a fabulously successful special operations officer, and the CIA mysteriously failed to notice his lack of training for recruiting agents from peace time Europe. They apparently assumed that he would use his brilliance to work out the details for himself.
While Berg might, in fact, have been able to recruit agents, he would NOT, as a contract agent, have been practically able to insert himself into the role of senior agent recruiter and handler for US teams working in Europe. These teams would never have accepted an outsider into their niche without him or her having been brought through the normal training and acclimation that the European teams had gone through at the time. With no support from the CIA European Station Teams, and no special channels set up for him by the Agency, Berg failed miserably.
In 1953, the CIA declined to renew his contract.
Berg spent the next 18 years of his life in seeming apathy and unemployment. There are rumors that during this period he worked with contacts from within Eastern Germany and the Balkans as part of an “old boy network” outside of the Western intelligence structure to obtain intelligence on the Soviet Union’s scientific efforts. These rumors can’t be confirmed.
After Berg died on May 29, 1972 of natural causes, the United States Government requested that his sister accept on his behalf what Moe had refused in life, the Medal of Freedom. She accepted.
Perhaps Berg’s most enduring contribution to the US intelligence community was in helping it learn that deniable “contract” agents and their assets cannot be properly supported with communications and logistics by “employee” agents and their station teams who are working under diplomatic cover. That knowledge came too late to make proper use of Moe Berg’s remarkable talents during the early 1950s, but thankfully, that particular mistake was not repeated in later years.
1933 Goudey Gum Company Playing Card