“The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg” by Nicholas Dawidoff

On May 1, I wrote about my visit to The National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. One featured player was catcher Moe Berg, and I read this biography to learn more about him.

Berg was a strange and interesting individual. He was uncomfortable with being Jewish, not surprising in the 1920s and 1930s. He had many valuable skills, but he never chose a profession, never “worked”, except during World War II.

Berg’s wartime service (with the agency that preceded the CIA) was part of the American effort to find out whether Germany was close to developing an atomic weapon. Berg was a high powered autodidactic and could gain a working knowledge of a field like nuclear physics on the fly. 

Intelligence reports about Germany’s “nuclear weapon” were consistent: it was never close to production or use. However, American spymasters kept returning to the issue.

Berg was sent to a conference in a neutral country where he heard a speech by physicist Werner Heisenberg. His orders were to assassinate Heisenberg on the spot if it seemed that his research would lead to production of a nuclear weapon. Berg was expected to kill himself rather than be captured after the murder. Berg made no attempt on Heisenberg’s life, and history proved his judgment to have been correct. There was no imminent German bomb. 

(This cuts close to the bone! I studied chemistry. Heisenberg is/was an iconic figure, originator of quantum mechanics and the Uncertainly Principle. Most of his groundbreaking work was accomplished before WW II, but what ideas might have been lost to us if he had not lived until 1976?)

Berg had a tough time readjusting to post war life. He often implied that he worked for the CIA. He had no occupation and no fixed residence. His personal charm was considerable, and he lived off his friends in many cities. The later part of this book disintegrated into a list of anecdotes – Berg seen here or there, Berg visiting with one person or another. I stopped reading. He ended life impoverished.

The best thing about this book is its coverage of intelligence activities in Europe during World War II. I would recommend it to historians of that period, and to those with a special interest in the interface between science and military policy.


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