The Spy Who Wore a Catcher’s Mitt

Only in America could a guy be a major league baseball player for sixteen seasons as well as a famed OSS agent during World War Two but still be penalized by the IRS for failing to pay income tax while out of the country doing his spy work. I’m referring, of course, to the legendary Morris (Moe) Berg.moe_berg

Moe was at best a very good back-up catcher for several teams during the mid 1920-‘s thru the 1930’s including the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, and Washington Senators, the latter for whom he was a vital member of a pennant winner. In 1932 and again in 1934 he visited Japan on a goodwill tour to help teach baseball to an eager Japanese youth. During the ’34 visit, he was by then secretly working as an independent consultant to the State Department taking photos and film of the landscape in various Japanese cities. This information was used in helping General Jimmy Doolitle plan the invasion of Japanese soil during World War Two. He also traveled through Europe taking notes while he rode the Trans-Siberian railway.

moe_berg2When Moe hung up his spikes after the 1939 season, he went to work full time for the Federal Government, eventually landing as a civilian agent with the OSS. His main mission was to collect as much information as possible on the German effort to build an atomic bomb. This included the possibility of assassinating German scientists whom he thought were loyal to the cause. It turned out that he never had to use a gun nor a packet of cyanide he kept on his body in case he was caught.

The reason I brought up Moe’s story was because of how he got to be an espionage agent. Berg was a master linguist. He could speak as if a native in about a dozen languages. During his playing years he was constantly reading foreign language newspapers when not warming up relief pitchers in the bullpen. Berg could tell a person where his family came from just by hearing him speak. He also would expound on the derivations and origins of just about any word in any language.

In the early 1970’s I majored in English while attending Northeastern Illinois University. I also took a few courses in linguistics mostly out of curiosity. The highlight was the class in Old Norse in which we read Leif Erikson’s logbook on his travel to the New World a few centuries before some Italian guy named Columbus did the same. In order to read it in the original, we had to learn to read and speak in Old Norse. In the past forty years, I’ve never ever bumped into an old Norwegian so I can’t tell you whether my pronunciation was any good or not.

Other than the introductory class in linguistics, the rest of the courses in this discipline were all taken with the same professor, Dr. Gary Binghamton (we’ll call him). The first time I went up to the teacher to talk to him was one day before class. I started to speak and he interrupted me and said, “your family is from …” and he named some place in Eastern Europe. I replied, “no, we’re originally from the West Side of Chicago.” He said back to me, “I mean where they originally came from- your grandparents or great grandparents.” I shrugged and thought to myself, “so what?”

Dr. Gary may have been attuned to the sounds that came out of other people’s mouths but he was totally unaware of his own idiosyncrasies. A few of my classmates and I became acutely aware very soon after a few sessions that our teacher had a tendency to say the word “okay” quite often. When it became too distracting, we started taking notes and counting the number of times in a session that the word would come up. We’d then compare scores after class. I must shamefully confess that we often egged him on by asking questions or making statements that would force him into retorting with another classic “okay”.

As for good old Moe, despite the fact that he had a big hand in saving the world for Democracy (as well as turning down the highest medal given to a civilian by the Federal Government), he was hounded by the tax man immediately after the war. He had invested in a company that had done very well to the tune of making over $250,000 during the early 1940’s. His partner decided with Moe’s approval to re-invest it all in a physical plant and machinery as there had been overtures by the government to give them an exclusive contract to make specific stationery materials. After some orders had gone through, the government abruptly stopped further requests when World War Two was declared over. And the Feds had never taken the time to sign an official contract. This action put Moe’s company out of business. He was left holding the bag to creditors as well as back taxes owed on the $250,000 profit. The IRS decided that plowing the profits back into the business did not count as a tax deduction.

I guess they are right when they say there is nothing as sure as death and taxes. Especially for a spy who carries a gun and cyanide.

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