Monday, June 19, 2017

What A Player!

Today marks 171 years since the first official game of baseball was played on June 19, 1846. In honor of this anniversary, today’s Jewish Treat presents a brief biography of a unique Jewish baseball player: Moe Berg.

Berg, who was born in Manhattan and raised in Newark, NJ, began playing baseball as a kid (when he assumed a fake name, Runt Wolfe, because most of the other kids were not Jewish). But Berg was also a scholar who earned a place at Princeton University, where he studied modern languages. A true polymath, Berg was fluent in Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit. He later learned Japanese.

On the field, Berg was an unexceptional player who had some exceptional moments, such as the Yale-Princeton Game of 1923, in front of the scouts from the Big Leagues. Berg graduated and joined the Brooklyn Robins (predecessors to the Dodgers).

Berg could catch. Berg could throw. But, Berg was not particularly good at hitting. This, and the fact that he frequently skipped spring training for other pursuits such as studying at the Sorbonne in Paris and getting his law degree from Columbia, made Berg a very dispensable player. Over the course of his professional career, he was frequently traded, and played for six different major league teams.

While passionate about his baseball playing, Berg had a second secret career as well. Moe Berg was working as a spy for the American Government. While some surmise that this began during his 1934 All-Stars trip to Japan (when he managed to make a film of Tokyo harbor), Berg said that he gave that info to the government only after he was recruited in 1942. Working for the agencies that would eventually become the CIA, Berg was sent to Yugoslavia to assess the resistence there. His report encouraged the United States to support Tito. His other major assignment was trying to lure Axis scientists to America, as well as determining how close Germany was to “building the bomb.”

After World War II, Berg remained with the CIA until 1954, during which time he tried to get assigned to Israel stating: “A Jew must do this.” The CIA disagreed. After the CIA, Berg seems to have become a recluse who lived with his brother and then his sister. He passed away on May 29, 1972.

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