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The Homefront, Then and Now

From Behind the Plate to Behind the Lines

In 1942, when Gen. Jimmy Doolittle prepared to bomb the Japanese mainland, (See my Blog Post Jan. 2, 2014) he consulted films shot from the roof of a Tokyo hospital that rose among the city’s tallest buildings. The photographer was just an amateur with his 16-mm movie camera; although some fans questioned whether he earned it, his salary came from being a Major League baseball catcher.

Catcher Morris (Moe) Berg played for 5 teams between 1923 and 1939, and they all found him mediocre on the field. But after hours he showed a genius his fellow players were hard-put to understand. He read 10 newspapers every day. A magna-cum-laude graduate of Princeton, he knew Hebrew, Yiddish, Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Sanskrit, Indian, Arabic, Portuguese, Hungarian, Korean, and – more importantly – Japanese. In 1934, when stars such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had toured baseball-enthused Japan, Berg was asked to go along. Using his language skills, he responded to the Mayor's welcoming speech and spoke to the legislature. Using the cover of taking flowers to the hospitalized daughter of an American diplomat, Berg sneaked up to the roof and filmed sights such as the harbor and railway yards that could become military targets.

After war was declared, Berg screened his Tokyo footage for U.S. intelligence officers, and it was an available resource when Doolittle planned his raid. By that time Berg was working for the Office of Strategic Services (today's CIA) and ended up on the Balkans desk. Berg, now age 41, agreed to parachute into occupied Yugoslavia to gauge the strength of two partisan groups and recommend support go to Marshall Tito. Then he penetrated Italy where he sought to learn what progress the Germans were making toward building a nuclear bomb.He befriended Italian physicists and tried to recruit them to go work in America. Learning the German physicist Werner Heisenberg was to lecture in Switzerland, Berg masqueraded as a Swiss graduate student to gain admittance. Armed with a pistol, Berg had orders to kill the scientist if he was close to creating a bomb. But Berg judged the Germans were nowhere near success, so he complemented Heisenberg on his speech and told the Allies they could concentrate on their own essential effort to be the first to develop the fearful new weapon.

When peace had been won, Morris Berg was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for civilian service during wartime. Always reluctant to release personal information, he refused to accept the honor, possibly because he was not free to explain what he had done to deserve it. After his 1972 death his sister accepted the medal. Today it hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. And CIA Headquarters in Washington, DC, displays one, and only one, baseball card, that of mediocre catcher Moe Berg

For more information consult The Catcher Was a Spy by Nicolas Dawidoff.
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