Friday, April 1, 2011

Pitchers and Catchers

Moe Berg (1902–1972)
From Baseball: A Literary Anthology

In 1932 Washington Post reporter Shirley Povich learned that Moe Berg had been invited to spring training by the Washington Senators. He asked outfielder Dave “Sheriff” Harris for his opinion of the team’s new catcher, who so far had a notably second-rate career. “We’ll find out tomorrow,” Harris responded. “I just wanted to tell you he speaks seven languages,” Povitch said. “Yeah, I know,” Harris retorted, “and he can’t hit in any of them.”

During the next few years, according to biographer Nicholas Dawidoff (The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg), Povich delighted his readers with anecdotes about the brainiac who had invaded the ranks of baseball. “The average mental capacity of the Washington Ball Club was hiked several degrees with the acquisition of the eminent Mr. Moe Berg.” And, until his death in 1972, Berg made himself available to reporters, willingly fashioning a legend that far outsized his career as a catcher—and certainly as a hitter. “More profiles of Berg were published than of any other journeyman ballplayer in history,” Dawidoff contends.

Yet, in spite of his mediocrity as a player, Berg became a member of the 1934 traveling American All-Star baseball team. A summary for the PBS program Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies describes what gives this trip its historical interest:
Fellow teammates and baseball fans wondered why a player with a lifetime average of only .243 was chosen for the All-Star team with the likes of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Why he was chosen was never disclosed, yet significantly, while the All-Star team was in Tokyo, Berg, who spoke Japanese, slipped away and took covert movies of the Tokyo skyline, Tokyo harbor, and munitions facilities from the top of the city's tallest building. The movies were later used in the planning of U.S. bombing raids over Tokyo in 1942.
Some have conjectured that Berg may have begun his second career as a spy during his baseball career—although Berg himself later insisted he didn’t become an employee of the Office of Strategic Services (which later became the CIA) until he turned over the Tokyo footage in 1942, three years after his retirement from baseball.

The year before he was hired as a spy, Berg wrote for the Atlantic Monthly an article on baseball that displays his erudition—from the Latin phrase in the opening paragraph (ne quid nimis: “nothing in excess”) to the Shakespearean allusion of its last sentence. Recommended by Story of the Week reader Ryan Ross, of Champaign, Illinois, it is “not only a classic essay on the intricacies and strategies of our nation’s pastime, but it is also a fitting introduction to the man Casey Stengel called ‘the strangest fellah who ever put on a uniform.’”

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Baseball men agree with the philosopher that perfection—which means a pennant to them—is attainable only through a proper combination of opposites. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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