Berg, Moe : Jews In Sports @ Virtual Museum

Berg, Moe

Morris Berg

There has never been anyone like him: a long-time major league catcher who was an intellectual genius (with degrees from Princeton, Columbia Law School, and the Sorbonne), spoke many languages fluently, and was one of America's top atomic spies, working secretly for the O.S.S. during World War Two. He was also an ambassador to Latin America. Journalist Frank Graham spoke for many when he wrote that "Berg is without a doubt the most remarkable man baseball has ever known." On July 12, 2000, ESPN classic television aired a documentary film about this astonishing ballplayer. Moe is also the subject of several biographical books.

Moe was born in New York in a cold-water tenement in a poor section of the city (East 121st Street). Hia parents were Ukrainian immigrants. His father, a pharmacist, moved the family to Newark, where Moe attended Barringer High School. To his father's dismay, Moe was obsessed with baseball, playing games whenever and wherever he could. "Moe was simply a genetic deviant," observed his brother Sam, himself a doctor. "The Berg family tree shows it produced about 25 doctors during the first half of this century, but Moe didn't like the sight of blood. Ever since he was two years old it was, 'Hey, Sam, let's catch.' It could be a ball, an orange, anything."

After graduating Barringer High at the top of his class, Moe was accepted at Princeton University, an extraordinary achievement at the time for a poor Jewish boy. Moe became an immediate celebrity on the storied Ivy League campus, both as a brilliant linguistic scholar who could speak several languages fluently, and as the star shortstop who hit .337 and had a rifle arm. Moe's Tiger team was the greatest in Princeton's history -- led by Berg, the squad won 19 games in a row. Moe and his second baseman, Crossan Cooper, used to call signals to each other in Latin. Once, Moe was asked what he would do if the other team's coach understood Latin. Berg replied simply, "Switch to Sanskrit."

The ultimate example of an intellectual in sports, Berg was without question the smartest man in history to be a professional athlete. Berg was a genuine genius. In addition to his fluency in at least a dozen languages, he discussed physics with Einstein, and was a renowned scholar in a number of fields, particularly linguistics. While a catcher for the Chicago White Sox, he still found time to attend Columbia Law School -- and finished second in his class!

Moe Berg stories are legion, and legend. While barnstorming in Japan with a group of unlettered major leaguers, Moe addressed his Japanese hosts in fluent Japanese; he even accepted an invitation to lecture at Osaka University. He also secretly took photos that were later used in Jimmy Doolittle's famous bombing raid of Tokyo during World War II -- and found time to teach a Japanese waitress to sweetly inform slugger Lefty O'Doul, in English, that he was "a lousy hitter and lucky to be in the American League." Once, encountering a sick teammate with the Washington Senators, Berg solemnly told the ailing player that he had "a touch of intestinal fortitude," and to take some aspirin and a nap. When the rested player saw Berg later, he cheerfully called out, "Hey, Moe, I got rid of that intestinal fortitude!" Moe once saved a lost team bus by getting out, looking at the stars, and then navigating for the driver. He also correctly diagnosed a sick child in the hospital when none of the doctors could determine what was wrong with her. He stunned the American nation when, as a guest on the popular radio show "Information Please", he correctly answered every question tossed at him. When a panel of experts tried to stump him on a subsequent show, Moe not only answered everything accurately, on every subject -- he even corrected a misphrased question!

Then there was Casey Stengel's famous comment: "Look at him: man knows a dozen languages, and can't hit in any of 'em." Stengel's joking aside, Berg was good enough to be a major leaguer for sixteen years. And he was a popular player. He never felt that his superior intellect made him a better person than his fellow ballplayers. In fact, what he appreciated about the game, as he himself put it, was that "In baseball, a player stands on his own feet, and the fact that he can talk in five or six languages avails him nothing when he is up there at the plate with the bases filled and two out."

Birth and Death Dates:
March 2, 1902 -- May 29, 1972

Career Highlights:
In 1929, he had such a sterling season for the Chicago White Sox that he received votes for Most Valuable Player in the American League. He was the league's top defensive catcher, committing only 7 errors all season, while hitting a sturdy .288. Then he seriously injured his leg in a game, and never quite reached that level again. But he had further career highlights. Playing for the Boston Red Sox, he hit .286 in 1935, and .333 in 1938 (in only 10 games, though).

Career Dates:
1923, 1926-39

Catcher. He started his big-league career as a shortstop, and also played some second base. Played four games at third base and one game at first base.

Physical description:
6'1", 185 lbs. Right-handed.

Career Statistics:
Games: 662
Batting Avg.: .243
Slugging Avg.: .299

At-bats: 1812
Hits: 441
Doubles: 71
Triples: 6

Home Runs: 6
Home Run %: 0.3
Runs: 150
RBI: 206

BB: 78
Strike Outs: 117
Stolen Bases: 11

Pinch Hitting
At-bats: 28
Hits: 5

Fielding Statistics
Put-outs: 1858
Assists: 557
Errors: 67
Double-plays: 90

Total Chances per Game: 3.9
Fielding Avg: .973

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Also, read a chapter from Jewish Baseball Stars by Harold U. Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow