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Moe Berg

Sport: Baseball

Born: March 2, 1902

Died: May 29, 1972

Town: Newark

Morris Berg was born March 2, 1902 in Manhattan to Bernard and Rose Berg, and moved with his family (including an older brother and sister) to Newark before his first birthday. His father, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, opened a pharmacy and the Berg’s made a comfortable home in the city’s Roseville section, instead of the city’s Jewish Weequahic neighborhood. Moe was bright and studious, but also loved physical activity. He began playing baseball for a local church team and signed up as Runt Wolfe so as to obscure his Jewish roots. That was no longer necessary by the time Moe enrolled at Barringer High School, where he became the team’s third baseman. He had a lively bat and a powerful arm that earned him All-Newark recognition.

Moe completed his studies at Barringer at the age of 16. After attending NYU for a year he was accepted at Princeton, where he studied to become a lawyer. As one of only a handful of Jewish undergrads, he kept mostly to himself and occupied his time learning new languages and playing ball for legendary manager Boileryard Clarke.. Although he was named team captain as a senior, he did not remember his Princeton experience as a particularly happy time. The school offered him a chance to stay on as a language professor and he refused.

After graduating in 1923, Moe put his law career on hold signed as a shortstop with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He batted .186 in 49 games and was shipped to the minors. Moe regained his batting stroke and made it back to the majors in 1926 with the White Sox. In 1927, catcher-manager Ray Schalk broke his thumb and the team’s two other backstop were injured. Desperate, Chicago signed fellow New Jerseyan Frank Bruggy, who had retired years early. Bruggy showed up hopelessly out of shape, so Schalk threw the job open to anyone in clubhouse. Moe volunteered and became the everyday receiver. His strong arm and head for the game outweighed a mediocre bat and he was the main man behind the plate for the Sox in 1928 and 1929. He attended Columbia Law School in the off-seasons and received his degree in 1930.

After playing the 1931 season with the Indians, Moe joined the Senators in 1932. He returned to Cleveland midway through 1934 and then finished his career with five seasons as the backup catcher for the Red Sox. He stayed with the team as a coach until World War II.

Following the 1934, Moe had joined a contingent of All-Stars on a tour of Japan. During that trip, he took home movies of Tokyo from the roof of a hospital, which were of later use in the planning of the Doolittle Raid in 1942. During World War II, Moe was recruited by the forerunner of the CIA. His talent for languages made him ideal for several daring assignments, including an evaluation of partisan forces in Yugoslavia and a potential suicide mission to Switzerland, where he was tasked with determining whether Germany was close to developing an atom bomb. After the war he was offered the Medal of Merit but refused it when he realized he wouldn’t be allowed to tell anyone how he got it. He wanted to work for the CIA in the newly formed state of Israel but the agency rejected the idea, regarding Moe as being too idiosyncratic.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Moe lost himself in his books and attended the odd Giants or Mets game. He lived with his older brother for several years and accumulated so much junk that his brother literally had to evict him. He moved in with his sister in Belleville. Moe owned an office supply company that expanded too quickly after some initial success and went out of business. He never married and passed away at the age of 70, after a fall in Belleville. His siblings followed his wishes and cremated him, spreading his ashes in Israel. Moe was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom. His baseball card is on display at CIA headquarters.

Moe was remembered as a scholar and was regarded during and after his playing days as the smartest man in baseball. He cultivated mysterious, enigmatic persona that only intensified after he left the spotlight of public life.

 

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