While researching for my class on the Atomic Age, I came across a little-known human interest story about a man named Moe Berg. The son of a Jewish pharmacist, he was born in New Jersey in 1902. He loved baseball and was quite good at it, much to his father’s displeasure. He excelled at his high school, won a scholarship to Princeton, and played ball in the Ivy League. He majored in Romance languages and became fluent in no fewer than six.
After Princeton he was recruited by the pros—the Brooklyn Robins–for $5,000 a year ($71,000 in today’s money). More success was soon to follow, and in 1926 he earned $50,000 ($700,000 in today’s money) playing for the Chicago White Sox.
Berg was routinely late to spring training. One year, he was studying at the Sorbonne, in Paris. Other years he was working towards his law degree.
In 1934, Major League Baseball sponsored an All-Star team visit to Japan, featuring such notables as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Berg was included, as he’d done a little coaching in Japan and had managed to learn Japanese for good measure.
While skipping one game in Tokyo, Berg also blew off a meeting with an ambassador’s daughter and visited a hospital where he used a handheld movie camera to take footage of the city skyline from a tall building.
During WWII he was able to get an assignment with the OSS, the precursor of the CIA. In 1943 he was assigned to investigate Germany’s atomic bomb capabilities.
As part of the effort to slow down German progress, Berg was assigned to kill the prominent German physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Werner Heisenberg.
After months in Italy collecting useful information about German non-nuclear weapons programs, Berg learned that Heisenberg would be speaking at a physics conference in Zurich, Switzerland.
Berg managed to attend the meeting with a gun (and cyanide in case he was captured). But after attending the meeting and talking to Heisenberg, he decided that the Germans were nowhere near being able to produce an atomic bomb, and his assassination mission was aborted.
After the war his role in the new CIA was short. He faded from the espionage and intelligence scene, did little of note for the rest of his life, and died in 1970.
Where else but at OLLI can one find such interesting stories involving history, sports, science, and fascinating characters?
Bharat Pathakjee, MD, is a retired cardiologist who earned his initial degree in his native India and took additional training in Michigan and at the University of Louisville. Dr. Pathakjee enjoys reading, running, and learning history, science, and philosophy.