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Berg was catcher and spy

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Spy Notes
More Info on Moe Berg

By Nick Acocella
Special to

Signature Game
August 5, 1927 - Ever since Berg signed with Brooklyn in 1923, he had been an infielder. But, languishing on the Chicago White Sox bench, he needed something to boost his career. He got it, thanks to injuries to others.

Manager and part-time catcher Ray Schalk had been hurt in a play at the plate in late July. Then regular backstop Buck Crouse split a finger in Philadelphia. Finally, in the third inning of today's game against the Red Sox, a Boston runner ran over second-string catcher Harry McCurdy.

Schalk, out of catchers, looked around in despair. Berg told him there was a major league catcher sitting on the bench. According to one version of the story, Berg meant first baseman Earl Sheely; according to another, he was referring to himself. In any event, Berg got the nod.

"If the worst happens, kindly deliver the body to Newark," he quipped.

Although the Red Sox won 4-1 and Berg went hitless in two at-bats, he handled himself more than adequately. It was the start of a career move for Berg.

Moe Berg by the numbers

Career Statistics
1923 129 .186 9 24 0 6 .198 .240
1926 113 .221 4 25 0 7 .261 .274
1927 69 .246 4 17 0 4 .288 .304
1928 224 .246 25 55 0 29 .302 .317
1929 352 .287 32 101 0 47 .323 .307
1930 61 .115 4 7 0 7 .129 .164
1931 13 .077 1 1 0 0 .143 .154
1932 195 .236 16 46 1 26 .266 .303
1933 65 .185 8 12 2 9 .232 .323
1934 183 .251 9 46 0 15 .283 .301
1935 98 .286 13 28 2 12 .320 .398
1936 125 .240 9 30 0 19 .264 .288
1937 141 .255 13 36 0 20 .281 .291
1938 12 .333 0 4 0 0 .333 .333
1939 33 .273 3 9 1 5 .314 .394
Totals 1813 .243 150 441 6 206 .278 .299

Odds 'n' Ends

  • The day after making his catching debut, Berg started behind the plate as the White Sox beat the Yankees, 6-3. Besides going 1-for-4, he competently handled Ted Lyons' dazzling array of pitches, including a knuckleball. He also made a spectacular play, scooping an off-line throw from the outfield, spinning, and tagging Joe Dugan trying to score.

  • As a junior in college, Princeton lost an exhibition game to the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds when it blew a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth.

  • After hitting .235 and .230 his first two seasons at Princeton, he batted .337 as a senior and led the Tigers to an 18-game winning streak and 21-4 record.

  • His last game for Princeton was played at Yankee Stadium on June 26, 1923. Though Berg went 2-for-4 and made several spectacular plays at shortstop, Yale won, 5-1, to take the Big Three title.

  • The day after the Princeton-Yale game, Berg signed with Brooklyn, receiving a $5,000 bonus. He had been courted by both Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson and Giants manager John McGraw.

  • Berg's mother reveled in his baseball career, but his father thought it was frivolous and wanted him to concentrate on a law career.

    Berg's best day at bat came with the Reading Keys of the International League when he went 8-for-8 in a doubleheader against Providence on Sept. 20, 1925.

  • Berg was a favorite of sportswriters and to them he exaggerated his linguistic skills, sometimes claiming to speak as many as 27 languages fluently. The most transparent of his boasts was that he spoke Sanskrit, a dead language.

  • On the 1934 trip to Japan, Berg and Babe Ruth often hung around together away from the ballpark.

  • Early in 1938, Berg appeared on the radio show "Information, Please!" He missed his first question but performed brilliantly thereafter, answering questions on history, sports, literature and philosophy.

  • Even before he officially became a coach in 1940, Berg had served as Boston manager Joe Cronin's unofficial assistant for several years. Among his chores were to room with rookies Ted Williams (in 1939) and Dom DiMaggio(in 1940) and serve as their mentors in the major leagues.

  • While working for the O.S.S. in Europe, Berg discovered an article on nuclear fission in a German scientific journal. He flew back to the United States so he could give it to a University of Chicago physicist, who, it turned out, had a subscription to the periodical.

  • Even as a player, Berg was secretive and elusive. After he retired and assumed his second career, he was downright mysterious, often slipping away in the middle of conversations.

  • In 1946, Berg declined the Medal of Freedom, which was offered him for his outstanding service during the war.

    In the postwar years, he moved from place to place, never making close friends, hardly talking about his past, and not letting anyone into the shell he built around himself.

  • Berg read half a dozen or more newspapers a day, and, when he fell behind, he stacked them neatly where he was living until he could get to them - sometimes for weeks at a time.

  • Two of Berg's baseball cards, one in a Washington uniform and the other in a Boston uniform, hang in the CIA Exhibit Center in Langley, Va., just above a pistol and silencer that belonged to O.S.S. Director Wild Bill Donovan.


  • "He can speak seven languages but he can't hit in any of them." --Assessment of Moe Berg by a teammate

    In September 1941, Berg's last year in baseball, Atlantic Monthly published his "Pitchers and Catchers," a scholarly treatise on baseball. Sprinkled with Latin and French phrases, it also contained such witty insights as:

  • "Good fielding and pitching, without hitting, or vice versa, is like Ben Franklin's half a pair of scissors -ineffectual."

  • "The players are not interested in the score, but merely in how many runs are necessary to tie and to win. They take nothing for granted in baseball. The idea is to win. The game's the thing."

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