By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
MOE BERG, MAN OF MYSTERY
The release of the film, “The Catcher Was a Spy,” has caused an uptick of interest in the
career of Morris “Moe” Berg, the brilliant intellectual who also played baseball - or was
it the other way around?
The ranks of those with personal memories or him as a player are rapidly thinning. He
reired after the 1939 season, yet he remains a well-known, yet unknowable character. He
was well-practiced in the art of keeping secrets, especially those about himself.
Berg in fact was a spy for the United States government in World War II, involved in all
manner of derring-do at the highest levels of intrigue. For more information on that, see
the movie, or, better still, read the book on which it is based (same title).
It is his long career as a major league baseball player (1923-1939), albeit a third string
catcher, that fascinates me. He jumped right into the major leagues after graduating
magna cum laude from Princeton University with a degree in modern languages, but that
was not the end of his intellectual pursuits; it was just the beginning. During off-seasons
he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and then earned a law degree from Columbia
University. He loved languages, history, science, and you-name-it. He also loved
baseball, and he loved the baseball life. It is that life to which he kept returning in the
spring of every year when he could have been doing any number of other things.
He was an enigma, a man of mystery.
Upon passing the bar examination, he was hired by a Wall Street law firm, but found that
he disliked the nitty-gritty of practicing law as opposed to the intellectual pursuit of
learning about it in a classroom; so he gave it up in favor of sitting on the bench for a
baseball team. He had a standing offer to teach at Princeton, but he was happier warming
up pitchers in the bullpen.
In his years with the Red Sox he became a semi-regular at Sunday mass in the Cathedral
of the Holy Cross on Washington Street in Boston’s South End. It wasn’t for spiritual
nourishment that he went there; he was Jewish, but he loved the sound of the Latin
language in which mass was said in those days. So off to church he’d go.
His fellow players were not at all put off by his intellectual pursuits, he was both affable
and approachable; and he didn’t seem to mind that he spent the vast majority of his time
in the big leagues as a bench warmer. He had only one strict rule for his fellow players -
and everyone else, for that matter; no one was to touch any of the ten or more newspapers
he read every day – no one. They were living things and not to be disturbed, he insisted.
When Dom DiMaggio was a rookie, he was assigned to room with Berg, then a coach.
When Manager Joe Cronin came to his room to discuss something with Dom, Moe had
carefully stacked his papers on the room’s only chair. Cronin casually tossed them aside
and took a seat. Sometime later Dom left the room to get something to eat. When he
returned, the newspapers were gone as were all of Moe’s possessions. In their place was a
note, “Dominic, you have too many friends. My newspapers are too important to me.”
Someone had broken his rule, and that was enough for Berg to move out.
Unlike most bench players who are constantly lobbying to get more playing time, Moe
was perfectly content to sit on the bench and talk baseball, or anything else, while the
game was going on. The other players all liked him and were captivated by his
inteligence, but none of them knew him very well. After the game (they were all day
games back then) he was off pursuing other interests with other people.
He was a competent catcher, good at handling pitchers and possessed of a strong,
accurate arm; but he was slow – really slow. Casey Stengel likened him to a turtle
running to first base. Added to that, he wasn’t much of a hitter, .246 lifetime. And,
although a big, muscular guy, he was six one and more than 200 pounds, he had little
power. In fifteen big league seasons he had a total of just 6 home runs. It was said of him
that he could strike out in ten different languages.
For all that, he was perhaps the most well-known third string catcher in baseball history.
He was a great favorite of sports writers because of his baseball smarts, his wide range of
interests, and his ability as a story teller. They gave him more publicity than most
starting players back then ever got. Yet none of the writers knew him any better than the
players did. He’d be sitting with them, charming and impressing them, and then,
suddenly, he’d be gone, off to who knew where.
Most people were well aware of who Moe Berg was, but not everyone knew. An agent
put together a book deal in which Moe would tell his life story. A young book editor,
very excited about the project, met with him. But when it turned out that the editor
thought he was talking, not with Moe Berg, the baseball player, but with Moe Howard of
the Three Stooges, the deal fell apart.
It’s just as well, book deal or not, Moe Berg was never going to tell all of his secrets to anyone.