Morris Berg (March 2, 1902 – May 29, 1972) was an American catcher and coach in Major League Baseball, who later served as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Although he played 15 seasons in the major leagues, almost entirely for four American League teams, Berg was never more than an average player and was better known for being "the brainiest guy in baseball." Casey Stengel once described Berg as "the strangest man ever to play baseball".
A graduate of Princeton University and Columbia Law School, Berg spoke several languages and regularly read ten newspapers a day. His reputation as an intellectual was fueled by his successful appearances as a contestant on the radio quiz show Information Please, in which he answered questions about the etymology of words and names from Greek and Latin, historical events in Europe and the Far East, and ongoing international conferences.
As a spy working for the government of the United States, Berg traveled to Yugoslavia to gather intelligence on resistance groups which the U.S. government was considering supporting. He was sent on a mission to Italy, where he interviewed various physicists concerning the Nazi German nuclear program. After the war, Berg was occasionally employed by the OSS's successor, the Central Intelligence Agency. By the mid-1950s, he was unemployed. During the last two decades of his life, he had no work and lived with various siblings.
Berg was the third and last child of Bernard Berg, a pharmacist, and his wife Rose (née Tashker), a homemaker, both Jewish, who lived in the Harlem section of New York City, a few blocks from the Polo Grounds stadium. When Berg was three and a half, he begged his mother to let him start school.
In 1906, Bernard Berg bought a pharmacy in West Newark and the family moved there. In 1910 the Berg family moved again, to the Roseville section of Newark. Roseville offered Bernard Berg everything he wanted in a neighborhood—good schools, middle-class residents, and few Jews.
Berg began playing baseball at the age of seven for the Roseville Methodist Episcopal Church baseball team under the pseudonym "Runt Wolfe". In 1918, at the age of 16, Berg graduated from Barringer High School. During his senior season, the Newark Star-Eagle selected a nine-man "dream team" for 1918 from the city's best prep and public high school baseball players, and Berg was named the team's third baseman. Barringer was the first of a series of institutions where Berg's religion made him unusual at the time. Most of the other students were East Side Italian Catholics or Protestants from the Forest Hill neighborhood. His father had wanted an environment with few Jews.
After graduating from Barringer, Berg enrolled in New York University. He spent two semesters there and also played baseball and basketball. In 1919 he transferred to Princeton University and never again referred to having attended NYU for a year, presenting himself exclusively as a Princeton man. Berg received a B.A., magna cum laude in modern languages. He had studied seven languages: Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Sanskrit, studying with the philologist Harold H. Bender. His Jewish heritage and modest finances combined to keep him on the fringes of Princeton social life, where he never quite fit in.
During his freshman year, Berg played first base on an undefeated team. Beginning in his sophomore year, he was the starting shortstop. He was not a great hitter and was a slow baserunner, but he had a strong, accurate throwing arm and sound baseball instincts. In his senior season, he was captain of the team and had a .337 batting average, batting .611 against Princeton's arch-rivals, Harvard and Yale. Berg and Crossan Cooper, Princeton's second baseman, communicated plays in Latin when there was an opposing player on second base.
On June 26, 1923, Yale defeated Princeton 5–1 at Yankee Stadium to win the Big Three title. Berg had an outstanding day, getting two hits in four at bats (2–4) with a single and a double, and making several marvelous plays at shortstop. Both the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Robins (the team became known as the Brooklyn Dodgers starting in 1932) desired "Jewish blood" on their teams, to appeal to the large Jewish community in New York, and expressed interest in Berg. The Giants were especially interested, but they already had two shortstops, Dave "Beauty" Bancroft and Travis Jackson, who were future Hall of Famers. The Robins were a mediocre team, on which Berg would have a better chance to play. On June 27, 1923, Berg signed his first big league contract for $5,000 ($76,000 today) with the Robins.
Berg's first game with the Robins was on June 27, 1923, against the Philadelphia Phillies at the Baker Bowl. Berg came in at the start of the seventh inning, replacing Ivy Olson at shortstop, when the Robins were winning 13–4. Berg handled five chances without an error, and caught a line drive to start a game-ending double play. He got a hit in two at bats, singling up the middle against Clarence Mitchell, and scoring a run. For the season, Berg batted .187 and made 21 errors in 47 games, his only National League experience.
After the season ended, Berg took his first trip abroad, sailing from New York to Paris. He settled in the Latin Quarter in an apartment that overlooked the Sorbonne, where he enrolled in 32 different classes. In Paris he developed a habit he kept for the rest of his life: reading several newspapers daily. Until Berg finished reading a paper, he considered it "alive" and refused to let anyone else touch it. When he was finished with it, he would consider the paper "dead" and anybody could read it. In January 1924, instead of returning to New York and getting into shape for the upcoming baseball season, Berg toured Italy and Switzerland.
During spring training at the Robins facility in Clearwater, Florida, manager Wilbert Robinson could see that Berg's hitting had not improved, and optioned him to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. Berg did not take the demotion well and threatened to quit baseball, but by mid-April he reported to the Millers. Berg did very well once he became the Millers' regular third baseman, hitting close to .330, but in July his average plummeted and he was back on the bench. On August 19, 1924, Berg was lent to the Toledo Mud Hens, a poor team ravaged by injuries. Berg was inserted into the lineup at shortstop when Rabbit Helgeth refused to pay a $10 ($150 today) fine for poor play and was suspended. Major league scout Mike González sent a telegram to the Dodgers evaluating Berg with the curt, but now famous, line, "Good field, no hit." Berg finished the season with a .264 average.
By April 1925, Berg was starting to show promise as a hitter with the Reading Keystones of the International League. Because of his .311 batting average and 124 runs batted in, the Chicago White Sox exercised their option with Reading, paying $6,000 ($89,000 today) for him, and moved Berg up to the big leagues the following year.
The 1926 season began with Berg informing the White Sox that he would skip spring training and the first two months of the season in order to complete his first year at Columbia Law School. He did not join the White Sox until May 28. Bill Hunnefield was signed by the White Sox to take Berg's place at shortstop, and was having a very good year, batting over .300. Berg played in only 41 games, batting .221.
Berg returned to Columbia Law School after the season to continue studying for his law degree. Despite White Sox owner Charles Comiskey offering him more money to come to spring training, Berg declined, and informed the White Sox that he would be reporting late for the 1927 season. Noel Dowling, a professor to whom Berg explained his situation, told Berg to take extra classes in the fall, and said that he would arrange with the dean a leave of absence from law school the following year, 1928.
Because he reported late, Berg spent the first three months of the season on the bench. In August, a series of injuries to catchers Ray Schalk, Harry McCurdy, and Buck Crouse left the White Sox in need of somebody to play the position. Schalk, the White Sox player/manager, selected Berg, who did a fine job filling in. Schalk arranged for former Philadelphia Phillies catcher Frank Bruggy to meet the team at their next game, against the New York Yankees. Bruggy was so fat that pitcher Ted Lyons refused to pitch to him. When Schalk asked Lyons whom he wanted to catch, the pitcher selected Berg.
In Berg's debut as a starting catcher, he had to worry not only about catching Lyons' knuckleball, but also about facing the Yankees' Murderers' Row lineup, which included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Earle Combs. Lyons beat the Yankees 6–3, holding Ruth hitless. Berg made the defensive play of the game when he caught a poor throw from the outfield, spun and tagged out Joe Dugan at the plate. He caught eight more times during the final month and a half of the season.
To prepare for the 1928 season, Berg went to work at a lumber camp in New York's Adirondack Mountains three weeks before reporting to the White Sox spring training facility in Shreveport, Louisiana. The hard labor did wonders for him, and he reported to spring training on March 2, 1928, in excellent shape. By the end of the season, Berg had established himself as the starting catcher. In 1928, he led all AL catchers in caught-stealing percentage (60.9), was third in the AL in double plays by a catcher, with 8, and fifth in the American League in assists by a catcher, with 52. At the plate, he batted .246 with a career-high 16 doubles.
At law school, Berg failed Evidence and did not graduate with the class of 1929, but he passed the New York State bar exam. He repeated Evidence the following year, and on February 26, 1930, received his LL.B. On April 6, during an exhibition game against the Little Rock Travelers, his spikes caught in the soil as he tried to change direction, and he tore a knee ligament. In 1929, he was second in the American League in both double plays by a catcher (12) and assists by a catcher (86), caught the third-most attempted base stealers in the league (41), and was fourth in the league in caught-stealing percentage (47.7%). He had perhaps his best season at bat, hitting .287 with 47 RBIs.
He was back in the starting lineup on May 23, 1930, but was prevented from daily play because of his knee. He played in 20 games during the whole season and finished with a .115 batting average. During the winter, he took a job with the respected Wall Street law firm Satterlee and Canfield (now Satterlee, Stephens, Burke & Burke).
— Dave Harris, Senators' outfielder, when told that Berg spoke seven languages
The Indians gave him his unconditional release in January 1932. With catchers hard to come by, Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, invited Berg to spring training in Biloxi, Mississippi. He made the team, playing in 75 games while not committing an error, and was second in the AL in double plays by a catcher, with 9, and in caught-stealing percentage, at 54.3%. When starting catcher Roy Spencer went down with an injury, Berg stepped in, throwing out 35 baserunners while batting .236.
Retired ballplayer Herb Hunter arranged for three players, Berg, Lefty O'Doul, and Ted Lyons, to go to Japan to teach baseball seminars at Japanese universities during the winter of 1932. On October 22, 1932, the group of three players began their circuit of Meiji, Waseda, Rikkyo, Todai (Tokyo Imperial), Hosei, and Keio universities, the members of the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League. When the other Americans returned to the United States after their coaching assignments were over, Berg stayed behind to explore Japan. He went on to tour Manchuria, Shanghai, and Peking, China; Indochina, Siam, India, Egypt, and Berlin, Germany.
Despite his desire to return to Japan, Berg reported to the Senators training camp on February 26, 1933, in Biloxi. He played in 40 games during the season and batted a disappointing .185. The Senators won the pennant, but lost to the Giants in the World Series. Cliff Bolton, the Senators' starting catcher in 1933, demanded more money in 1934. When the Senators refused to pay him more, he sat out and Berg got the starting job. On April 22, Berg made an error, his first fielding mistake since 1932. He had an American League record of 117 consecutive errorless games. On July 25, the Senators gave Berg his unconditional release. He soon returned to the big leagues, however, after Cleveland Indians catcher Glenn Myatt broke his ankle on August 1. Indians manager Walter Johnson, who had managed Berg in 1932, offered Berg the reserve catching job. Berg played sporadically until Frankie Pytlak, Cleveland's starting catcher, injured himself, and Berg became the starting catcher.
Herb Hunter arranged for a group of All-Stars, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, and Lefty Gomez, to tour Japan playing exhibitions against a Japanese all-star team. Although Berg was a mediocre, third-string catcher, he was invited at the last minute to make the trip. Berg had contracted with MovietoneNews, a New York City newsreel production company, to film sights from his trip; he took a 16-mm Bell & Howell movie camera and a letter from the company attesting to this. When the team arrived in Japan, Berg gave a welcome speech in Japanese; he also was invited to address the legislature.
On November 29, 1934, while the rest of the team was playing in Omiya, Berg went to Saint Luke's Hospital in Tsukiji, ostensibly to visit the daughter of American Ambassador Joseph Grew. Instead, Berg went up to the roof of the hospital, one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo, and filmed the city and harbor with his movie camera. This provided American intelligence with rare photos of the city. He never did see the ambassador's daughter. From the US, the Cleveland Indians notified him of his unconditional release. Berg continued to travel to the Philippines, Korea, and Moscow of the Soviet Union.
On February 21, 1939, Berg made his first of three appearances on the radio quiz show Information, Please. Berg had a dazzling performance. Of his appearance, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis told him, "Berg, in just thirty minutes you did more for baseball than I've done the entire time I've been commissioner". On his third appearance, Clifton Fadiman, the moderator, started asking Berg what the latter thought were too many personal questions. Berg did not answer any of them and never appeared on the show again. Regular show guest and sportswriter John Kieran later said, "Moe was the most scholarly professional athlete (I) ever knew."
After his playing career ended, Berg worked as a Red Sox coach in 1940 and 1941. Berg punctuated his career in baseball with "Pitchers and Catchers," a widely admired valedictory essay on the meaning and playing of the game, published in the September 1941 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. A 2018 profile of Berg in The New York Times described the essay as "still one of the most insightful works ever penned about the game."
With the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, the United States was thrust into World War II. To do his part for the war effort, Berg accepted a position with Nelson Rockefeller's (OIAA) on January 5, 1942. Nine days later, his father, Bernard, died. During the summer of 1942, Berg screened the footage he had shot of Tokyo Bay for intelligence officers of the United States military. (At one time it was thought his film may have helped Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle plan his famous Doolittle Raid, but the raid was conducted well before the summer, on April 18, 1942.)
From August 1942 to February 1943, Berg was on assignment in the Caribbean and South America. His job was to monitor the health and physical fitness of the American troops stationed there. Berg, along with several other OIAA agents, left in June 1943 because they thought South America posed little threat to the United States. They wanted to be assigned to locations where their talents would be put to better use.
On August 2, 1943, Berg accepted a position with the Office of Strategic Services Special Operations Branch (SO) for a salary of $3,800 ($56,800 today) a year. He was a paramilitary operations officer in the part of the OSS that developed as the present-day CIA Special Activities Division. In September, he was assigned to the OSS Secret Intelligence branch (SI), and given a spot on the OSS SI Balkans desk. In this role, based in Washington, he remotely monitored the situation in Yugoslavia. He assisted and helped prepare Slavic-Americans recruited by the OSS to go on dangerous parachute drop missions into Yugoslavia.
In late 1943, Berg was assigned to Project Larson, an OSS operation set up by OSS Chief of Special Projects John Shaheen. The stated purpose of the project was to kidnap Italian rocket and missile specialists in Italy and bring them to the U.S. Another project hidden within Larson was called Project AZUSA, which had the goal of interviewing Italian physicists to learn what they knew about Werner Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. It was similar in scope and mission to the Alsos project.
From May to mid-December 1944, Berg hopped around Europe, interviewing physicists and trying to convince several to leave Europe and work in the United States. At the beginning of December, news about Heisenberg giving a lecture in Zürich reached the OSS. Berg was assigned to attend the lecture and determine "if anything Heisenberg said convinced him the Germans were close to a bomb." If Berg concluded that the Germans were close, he had orders to shoot Heisenberg; Berg determined that the Germans were not close. During his time in Switzerland, Berg became close friends with physicist Paul Scherrer. Berg resigned from the OSS after the war, in January 1946.
In 1951, Berg begged the CIA (which replaced the OSS) to send him to the recently founded nation of Israel. "A Jew must do this", he wrote in his notebook. The CIA rejected Berg's request. But in 1952 Berg was hired by the CIA to use his old contacts from World War II to gather information about the Soviet atomic bomb project. For the $10,000 plus expenses that Berg received, the CIA received nothing. The CIA officer who spoke with Berg when he returned from Europe said that he was "flaky".
For the next 20 years, Berg had no real job. He lived off friends and relatives who put up with him because of his charisma. When they asked what he did for a living, he would reply by putting his finger to his lips, giving them the impression that he was still a spy. A lifelong bachelor, he lived with his brother Samuel for 17 years. According to Samuel, Berg became moody and snappish after the war, and did not seem to care for much in life besides his books. Samuel finally grew fed up with the arrangement and asked Moe to leave, even having eviction papers drawn up. Berg next moved in with his sister Ethel in Belleville, New Jersey, where he resided for the rest of his life.
He received a handful of votes in Baseball Hall of Fame voting (four in 1958, and five in 1960). When he was criticized for "wasting" his intellectual talent on the sport he loved, Berg replied, "I'd rather be a ballplayer than a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court".
Berg received many requests to write his memoirs, but turned them down. He almost began work on them in 1960, but he quit after the co-writer assigned to work with him confused him with Moe Howard of the Three Stooges.
Berg died on May 29, 1972, at the age of 70, from injuries sustained in a fall at home. A nurse at the Belleville, New Jersey, hospital where he died recalled his final words as: "How did the Mets do today?" (They won.) By his request, his remains were cremated and spread over Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, Israel.
“Mr. Morris Berg, United States Civilian, rendered exceptionally meritorious service of high value to the war effort from April 1944 to January 1946. In a position of responsibility in the European Theater, he exhibited analytical abilities and a keen planning mind. He inspired both respect and constant high level of endeavor on the part of his subordinates which enabled his section to produce studies and analysis vital to the mounting of American operations.”