31 December 2003

The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg
By Nicholas Dawidoff

Nicholas Dawidoff might better have entitled this book “The Sad Life and Death of Moe Berg.” For a man so known and so beloved in the public eye, a man with such talent and potential inside him, a man like Moe Berg, to have met his pathetic and prolonged demise in such manner does not seem appropriate. And yet, whether we like them or not, these are the facts. At least in so much as Dawidoff was able to discover them.

Dawidoff must have taken years to compile all of the information necessary to write this book. Given the seemingly pedantic nature of some of the minutiae he includes in the text, the reader must wonder at some point whether or not Dawidoff omitted anything he discovered in his interviews and research. The book’s epilogue is comprised of a list of everyone he interviewed or relied upon for information for the book, and a list of notes on his sources of quotations, which takes up over about 80 pages! At least nobody can accuse him of not being thorough.

The chosen subject, Morris Berg, would seem at first glance to be an exceedingly interesting catcher. His 15-year career as a major league catcher places him among the elite in almost any conversation, despite that he only managed to hit .243 in said career, but that’s just the beginning. Moe was Ivy League educated, graduating magna cum laude BA in modern languages from Princeton, where he was a star (not a third-string) shortstop. He also graduated from Columbia Law School and passed the bar exam, making him perhaps the first player who was truly qualified to represent himself in free agency, if such a thing had existed at the time.

As if this were not enough, Moe Berg retired from an exclusive and exciting existence as a professional athlete to embark upon perhaps an even more elite and exciting career: He became a spy for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, precursor to the CIA) during the Second World War, and traversed Europe in search of secrets regarding the German Atomic Bomb Program.

And sprinkled throughout this interesting juxtaposition of occupations, Berg somehow found the time to learn to speak or write (by varying accounts) Latin, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Russian, Sanskrit and/or Swahili. Hence the old joke that, “Moe Berg could speak a dozen languages but he couldn’t hit in any of them.”

Indeed, Berg could not hit, or perhaps would not hit much in the majors. He was not a bad player, but he was fortunate to have laid claim to his position in a time when good-hitting catchers were the exception and not the rule, as today. Interestingly, the author reports that Berg’s status as a third-string catcher was by his own design, that Berg sought the freedom and privileges of life afforded to ballplayers, but did not desire to make himself a standout amongst them, at least not for his play. Berg seemed to prefer sitting in the bullpen, chatting up the pitchers and other players, impressing them with his knowledge of law, history, art, language or other trivia, rather than actually playing consistently. Dawidoff posits the theory that Berg chose to play only when he felt spry, in an effort not to shame himself between the white lines. Ironically, it could be argued that a man of such obvious talent in college might have been a better player overall if ha had allowed himself a bit more practice. Or, as Berg feared, he might well have been washed-up before he was ready to leave, and forced to do something rash, like work for a living.

Berg’s career as a spy is able to be presented in detail by Dawidoff for two reasons: First of all, it turns out that the Germans had no more progress on the Atomic Bomb Project during WWII than they did on their Time Machine Project or on their Perpetual Motion Machine Project. If any project existed at all, it was at worst a ruse, a failed scheme-turned-distraction-to-the-Allies at best. Secondly, Berg was not a very good spy. Virtually everyone who knew him, even in his own times, knew he was a spy, and he was always doing silly things like hushing people for mentioning certain issues or hiding behind beech saplings with no leaves when someone he didn’t want to see walked by. This is not a good spy. If either of these things had not been true (i.e. if Berg had been a good spy or if the Nazis really had developed an A-Bomb) we would not be allowed to know what berg did during the war. That we can know these things is simultaneously enlightening and distressing.

But the greatest distress to be derived from these pages lies in the story of Bergs pitiful life after the War. This man of such varied talents and skills, with such a background as his, could have chosen virtually any occupation he wanted after returning from the war. Let’s face it: There aren’t many people out there who could list two Ivy League degrees, a barrister’s license, a Medal of Freedom and a baseball career spanning almost two decades, on their resumes. But Berg would have none of it. Instead he squandered his waning years, traveling constantly, dropping in on old friends unannounced, staying until he had worn out his welcome (sometimes longer), and moving on. Always moving on. He never found an occupation that suited him as well as either baseball or espionage had, and so he apparently gave up trying, and live out what would be his remaining 25 years or so in a vagabond's life, charming hospitality out of anyone he could.

The book is a comprehensive, well-written piece, but even the greatest of writers could not have made this a thoroughly interesting book without embellishing the facts a little. To Dawidoff’s credit, he provides only the facts, and does little to suppose that he knows what any of the characters was thinking at a given moment in Berg’s history. But this lack of interpretation leaves something of a void for the reader. Where you had hoped to find answers, it turns out that there may only be more, unanswerable, questions.

And even if you have the penchant for minute details that I do (to an irritating degree sometimes, my wife will tell you) this book was hard to get through at times. It took me nearly a year to finish it, and even though it was a year busy with other responsibilities, any avid reader will tell you that they’ll make the time to finish a great book. This one was merely good.