The Catcher Was A Spy by Nicholas Dawidoff

The Catcher Was A Spy

The Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life Of Moe Berg

Moe Berg went to Princeton to be a lawyer, but then decided to play baseball, which annoyed his family no end. He was a catcher for the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers), the Chicago White Sox, and the Boston Red Sox. He wasn’t very good but it was a position that seemed to be hard to fill.

During World War II he worked with the OSS. Spying for the United States. Berg’s most famous mission was meeting Werner Heisenberg in Switzerland to determine if the Germany nuclear program was going to developing an atomic bomb. If the answer was yes, Berg would shoot Heisenberg. After the war (even during the war) Berg was well liked in the spy trade, but he was also hated. It seemed many of his co-workers thought Berg was a genius. But many thought Berg was nothing but a highly skilled story teller (and liar).

Dawidoff captures the Berg the man (if anyone could). Moe Berg was a smart guy, maybe a genius, but Dawidoff deflates claims of Berg’s abilities- like Berg’s vaunted linguistic skills. He shows Berg as a loner, an unusual eccentric, and dead broke for much of his life. Berg comes across as someone suffering from a mild form of mental illness. Not enough to get Berg committed but enough to make him aimless. Later in life his mental illness takes over. Berg gets no medical help (his many friends were willing to put up with a lot.) So it’s a sad aimless tale.

453 pages

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Excerpts From My Kindle

tatterdemalion – location 3476-3476 a person dressed in ragged clothing.

Monroe Karasik, one of Berg’s colleagues at the OSS, managed to follow Berg’s career and concluded, “Moe was an amateur and quite a good amateur, but in the end an amateur. The people you won’t ever hear about are the real professionals. – location 3578-3579

Broke, disappointed, and disinclined, Berg did have one asset that no government could strip from him-his personality. People were drawn to him, they always had been. “Every success he had came from his personality,” says Harry Broley. “He was a hard man to walk away from. He was loaded with charm.” Even at the CIA, it wasn’t that anyone had disliked Berg. The CIA man who supervised Berg’s 1952 assignment says that Berg “engendered great affection. He was a delightful personality, fun to be with, a real extrovert with a high level of energy.” Berg’s personality had become an impediment to his intelligence career, but it would be an advantage elsewhere. When he couldn’t make a living at the CIA, Berg began traveling from place to place, visiting. – location 3585-3590

The better Crowley got to know Berg, the less he liked him. It was Crowley’s opinion that carrying around foreign-language newspapers was an affectation designed to announce Berg’s language skills, and he thought Berg’s habit of reading ten American papers a day was a sad waste of time. Mostly, though, Crowley was irritated by Berg because he “found him completely lacking in an aesthetic. He had no wonder of the world. I’d say most of his charge came from being a character. A unique folk hero. There he is moving through Horace, Ovid, and Virgil, but he was one of the guys in whom an education as an aesthetic experience was wasted. He might as well have gone to drafting school.” There are risks to living an unconventional life and there are lessons in it. Here it is a simple one. Nobody, not even Moe Berg, could charm everybody. – location 4173-4179

Murray Strober, the doctor who had treated Dr. Sam in 1958, and said that Berg was requesting that he be his doctor. Strober checked Berg into Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, New Jersey, and recorded his symptoms. – location 4781-4783

On May 29, 1972, he asked a nurse, “How are the Mets doing today?” and died before she could answer. It was baseball to the last. – location 4792-4793

He never said what he really thought of himself, but his actions suggest that he saw Moe Berg as a mediocre ballplayer, a scholar only within the unlearned community of baseball, and an intelligence agent whose work had come to nothing. There was no bomb, and the CIA didn’t want him. – location 4882-4884

Most compelling, however, is the way he responded to life after the war. He might have lived as most men do, with a home, a family, a driver’s license, and a profession. People were always trying to saddle him with work, and had he been inclined, he might well have enjoyed a brilliant career as a CIA agent, or a corporate lawyer, or in any number of other fields. Yet whatever quirks of constitution and spasms of uncertainty kept Berg far outside the world of biweekly paychecks, they also allowed him a crepuscular existence, which suited him. Berg molded himself into a character of fantastic complication who brought pleasure and fascination to nearly everyone he brushed against during his fitful movements around the world. In the end, there are few men who find ways to live original lives. Moe Berg did that. – location 5119-5124


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