Kid from Roseville Avenue: Baseball's Brainiest Player ...and Top World War II Spy

by Nat Bodian

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He was the son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant, Bernard Berg, who became a pharmacist. He had purchased a newly-built corner house at 108 Roseville Avenue in 1908 and opened a drug store on the ground floor with living quarters upstairs.

Bernard worked the drug store 15 hours a day, seven days a week in the middle-class neighborhood and communicated with his family upstairs through a speaking tube. He did not actively practice his religion.

Morris was the youngest of Bernard's three children, born in 1902.1 There was an older brother, Samuel, later a Newark doctor, and an older sister, Ethel, later a Newark teacher.

Morris attended South Eighth Street School, and later Barringer High School.

Morris had graduated from Barringer at the age of 162 in 1918 at the top of his class. He had starred on the Barringer High baseball team as a third baseman and had been named by the Newark Star-Eagle, then a Newark afternoon paper, to an all-city team of the best players from Newark's high and prep schools.

Among his classmates at Barringer, he was known more for excellence as a student than as an athlete, and graduated with honors.

He went on to Princeton, in an era when Princeton was not known to be favorable to Jewish students. There he majored in languages. He studied seven languages, including Sanskrit. He also played baseball on a Princeton team that was one of the best in its history. Upon graduating magna cum laude in 1923, the 6-foot, 185-pound Berg was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers as "Moe Berg."

He enjoyed a 15-year career in professional baseball with five different major-league teams, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators, and the Boston Red Sox.3

Along the way, he also attended the Sorbonne in Paris where he studied philosophy, and Columbia Law School in 1926, where he earned a law degree and took advanced language studies.

When he took his New York State bar exam, he was one of 33 of the more than 500 applicants who passed and had the second best score. He was briefly associated with a Wall Street law firm.

Coaching in Japan

In 1932, Berg took leave of absence from big league baseball and went to Japan, where he coached baseball to the Tokyo Six Baseball League.4 In advance of his trip he had learned to speak Japanese.

In the course of his coaching time in Japan, Berg had his movie camera with him and did extensive filming of the Tokyo skyline and landmarks from one of the city's tallest buildings. After Pearl Harbor in 1941, Berg made his amateur films available to the U. S. military, which reportedly used them in air bombings of the Japanese capital.

Berg as Quiz Wiz

On October 17, 1938, demonstrated his knowledge when he appeared on NBC's popular radio quiz show "Information Please"5 emceed by Clifton Fadiman, in a repeat appearance, and batted out correct answers to a wide range of questions that included derivation of words and names in Greek and Latin, historical events in Europe and the Far East, current international conferences, and identification of odd-named figures participating in the latter.

Berg as OSS Operative

After two years as a Boston Red Sox coach, Berg left baseball in January 1942. It was just after the entry of the U.S. into World War II and he took a job with the Office of Inter-American Affairs, traveling extensively through Central and South America.

He parleyed this post into becoming an officer in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA, in 1943.

Among his assignments was one where he was sent to Zurich, Switzerland, to attend a lecture by a German nuclear scientist and to ascertain how far the German nuclear program had advanced. If very far, he was to assassinate the scientist-speaker behind the program. Berg was fluent in German, and after realizing that the program was not that far advanced, he abandoned the assassination plot.

Postwar Years

From 1947 until 1964, Moe Berg made his home at his brother's Newark address on Roseville Avenue, and for the final eight years of his life at the home of his sister at 88 North Sixth Street. He never held a job, but traveled extensively and always returned home to Newark to bed down.6

Ira Berkow, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and sports writer for The New York Times, wrote of Berg in early 2004 that in his later years, Berg would frequent Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium to watch the games from the press box. Recalled Berkow "I often took the opportunity to sit with him, for it was a delight and an education."

He died in 1972 in the Clara Mass Hospital in Belleville. His final words, reported by a Hospital nurse, were "How did the Mets do today?"

Immortalized in Book

Moe Berg has been immortalized in a national best-selling biography: "The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg" by Nicholas Davidoff, a writer for Sports Illustrated and the New York Times Magazine. It was a bestseller in both the cloth and paper editions. The New York Times review of the Moe Berg biography called it "relentlessly entertaining."7

Exhibit in Cooperstown Hall of Fame

A special permanent display case8 in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, contains photographs, medals, and other memorabilia of Moe Berg's fabled career as player, scholar, spy, and diplomat. Also included is the distinguished alumnus silver bowl, given to distinguished Morris "Moe" Berg, Class of 1918, by Barringer High School.

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