I am truly a horrible, horrible person. For years, I‘ve had Nicholas Dawidoff’s The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg on my invisible list of Things to Read, and yet something else has always gotten in the way. I mean, it seems so improbable that I would have let this one slip by, doesn’t it? A quick glimpse through these posts easily reveals that two of my favorite topics are espionage and baseball. (Look through my Book Index by Title page and note, for example, the number of times the word "spy" appears; as for the baseball side of things, of course there is Jonathan Eig Fest '07, the top-place-grabbing number of references to Josh Prager’s The Echoing Green and we won’t even get into what happens in Lukas’s Big Trouble). Yet I just never got around to this book until the other day, when bereft of anything else to read, and hands overfilled with the bad, the sad, and the disappointing, I stumbled upon this book again and realized that obviously now was the time.
If you were a teller of folk tales, you might invent Moe Berg. He might be the character who drops a mysterious piece of information that gets the story rolling. He might be the uninvited visitor who wreaks havoc. He might be the one who shows up at the end to solve a problem. He might be any number of things in a story because that’s how he was in true life, someone who knew something about everything, who had been a little bit of everywhere, who could talk and who could be silent, who was here and then was there. And to some degree, the sportswriters of the day did invent him, as a character nicknamed Professor Berg, who could always be found reading some odd book, ready to converse in a lost language, or expounding on an esoteric topic. They gratefully made him into a Ring Lardner character come to life but in truth he was more complicated than they even imagined.
Berg was best-known in baseball for being a catcher who happened to have graduated Princeton with a degree in linguistics and who went through Columbia Law during the off seasons; in fact, he skipped spring training a few times in order to continue his law studies, which gave him an immediate intellectual cachet lacking in most baseball players not to mention a blatant, “I don’t really need this,” air that seemed to make teams want him more. And he was wanted by his first teams, especially the White Sox, until he tore up his knee one year and never was really the same player afterwards. However, that didn’t stop him from having a sixteen year career; although Berg was thought to be exceptional at handling pitchers and teaching catchers—in 1941, he co-authored a classic Atlantic Monthly article aptly titled, “Pitchers and Catchers”—most of his roster spots were earned by virtue of his charm and likeability (people have kept jobs for worse reasons—I ineptly waded along in a temp job for three years because my employers said I provided “local color.” I am still puzzling over this).
But if intelligence and education were the only things that stood out about Moe Berg, he would be just another bright, funny athlete, the go-to guy for quotes for all the sportswriters. There were others before him like that and there have been others since. However, Berg became a spy, and that is stage two of his unusual life.
It’s so wonderful, isn’t it, how all this happened? I mean, if you told someone you were writing a novel or a screenplay about a baseball player becoming a spy, it would be a comedy, wouldn’t it? It would have to be, because the idea is so preposterous. But in the case of Moe Berg, not only did he become a spy but he became one who operated in the deadly serious arena of nuclear arms.
Most of Berg’s OSS work involved attempts to find out whether the Nazis were building an atomic bomb or not. U.S. intelligence leaders were convinced that Germany, with leading physicist Werner Heisenberg still in the country, must be working on something. The solution, in the eyes of some, was to assassinate Heisenberg. Several candidates were considered for this task, with Berg being the unlikely winner in the Whack a Physicist sweepstakes. Berg’s German was shaky and his physics knowledge negligible, but nonetheless he brushed up on both and traveled to a physics conference in Zurich, under orders to listen to Heisenberg’s lecture and if he gave any indication that he was taking a brief hiatus from bomb-making, take him out.
This was the highest and lowest point of Berg’s espionage career. He was entrusted with a task of stunning importance, one that, if all the pieces fell into place, could result in Berg saving the world from nuclear destruction. But Heisenberg gave away nothing in his lecture that would trigger an assassination attempt on Berg’s part. He made the correct decision; Heisenberg was not working on a bomb and Germany was not even close to building a nuclear program. So Berg was part of something that could have been important, but in the end really did nothing; I guess it was somewhat like being given a World Series ring when you spent most of the season on the DL.
After the war, the OSS morphed into the CIA and Berg was not invited to join the party. Nor did he pursue a career in baseball. He did not practice law. He did not become a professor. In effect, he did nothing. Yet he became even more fascinating.
The last one hundred pages or so of this book tell the story of how Berg essentially drifted for the next twenty-five years or so. That this makes for such great reading is in no small part due to Dawidoff’s skills as a writer, researcher, and detective. He tells how Berg traveled around aimlessly, attaching himself to one friend after another, the world’s greatest houseguest. He attended the breakup of marriages, assiduously accumulated piles of books in bookstores, watched baseball games, ran up nonpaid tabs in coffee shops, read newspapers, invited himself into sportswriters’ hotel rooms, dropped in to visit Joe DiMaggio and stayed for six weeks. He was undeniably strange, always wearing the same clothes, obsessively reading numbers of newspapers each day, and very, very anxious to give the impression that he was still a spy. But none of this bothered people; of the many, many people Dawidoff interviewed, almost all had favorable memories of Berg, enjoyed his company and accepted his eccentricities (I wonder if now his likeable qualities would be considered enough of a tradeoff for his odd ways; I tend to doubt it, as there seems to be less tolerance these days of people who don’t fit into a prescribed category).
One of the things that preoccupies people when talking or writing about Moe Berg is how such a brilliant, educated man with so many opportunities could have done so little. Dawidoff tackles this from the point of view that despite his talents and accomplishments, Berg was very insecure and by doing nothing, he essentially protected himself from failing. This is very reasonable. Another thing I would say, is that just from personal experience, some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met have also been the least ambitious. I don’t have a great explanation for this; my best guess is that things come so easily to them that they are not really driven in the way that us lesser mortals who have to struggle and confront failure are. I’m not saying that there aren’t geniuses who do great things—obviously, there are. But I will say that brilliance does not guarantee accomplishment.
So it’s hard to say whether Berg’s life was a tragedy of unfulfilled expectations, or a defiant, happily-ended comedy of one who led the life he wanted. Others may have wanted Berg to do more. But he did what he wanted and did it his way and not all of us can claim to have done that. I don’t know if he was happy every moment with the way he led his life, but I am pretty certain that he was better off drifting and pretending than he would have been secure as a Wall Street lawyer with a house in Westchester. He was also undoubtedly more memorable.
In a way, it’s quite funny that Moe Berg is tied to Heisenberg, because who better embodied an uncertainty principle than Berg? He was a spy; he was no longer a spy but acted as if he was. He was known as a linguist but was really not fluent in any language. He was known for being a baseball player, but rarely played. He was here, and then he was gone.
History is found in unexpected places, and the story of the catcher who was a spy is one of those luckily stumbled upon corners. Fascinating, curious, and either oddly sad or strangely happy, this book is more than worth the very brief time it took me to read, and Dear Mr. Dawidoff, I am sorry it took me so long to get to your enchanting, mysterious book and I'm sorry that this is all so badly written.