For 15 seasons, from 1923-1939, an average Jewish ball player from Harlem, New York caught and coached in the big leagues for five teams. He was never what one would consider an All-Star, compiling a .243 career batting average. By the 1950s, he was unemployed and he spent the last years of his life broke and living with his sister until his death in 1972.
So why is the chest protector he wore while playing for the Boston Red Sox in the 1930s now a part of the Museum of the Jewish People’s new permanent collection in Israel, traditionally a country that has no interest or history of baseball?
It was Moe Berg’s activities off the field that have inspired endless fascination; from books (Jews and Baseball and The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg by Nicholas Dawidoff) and major motion pictures (2018’s The Catcher Was a Spy starring Paul Rudd as Berg), to documentaries (2019’s The Spy Behind Home Plate). Berg was no typical jock. He graduated from Princeton, and later Columbia Law School. Though he never formally graduated from law school (he failed Evidence), he passed the New York State Bar. Casey Stengel described him as “the brainiest guy in baseball,” and that label was pretty accurate, as was the label describing Berg as the “strangest guy in baseball.” He spoke five languages and reportedly read 10 newspapers a day. In 1932 and 1934, Berg traveled to Japan to teach and coach Japanese children; and in ’34, he played an exhibition all-star game to which he had been invited at the last minute. He brought along a 16mm camera and filmed the city of Tokyo and its bay from the roof of St. Luke’s Hospital in Tsukiji. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, like so many other ball players, Berg wanted to do his part. He volunteered (or was recruited, depending on whom you ask or which source you consult) for the US Office of Strategic Services, Special Operations (OSS). This branch of the service evolved and became the CIA following the war. He offered and turned his rare 16mm film of Tokyo and its bay over to the Allies.
He was sent on assignment to the Caribbean and to South America. He was later assigned to the Yugoslavian unit where he trained men to prepare to parachute into enemy territory. Later, he joined a team to both kidnap Italian rocket and missile specialists and bring them to the Allies to use their talent and discoveries to benefit the rest of the world and not the fascists. Later, in 1944, he was sent to Europe as a spy to convince physicists to leave Europe and bring their talents to America. After the war, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, which he declined to accept without giving any reason. His sister accepted the award after his death and donated it to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Here is where Israel comes into play: in 1951, he begged the United States government to send him to the newly created State of Israel to help shore up the fledgling country as America’s top ally because “I am a Jew, and a Jew must do this.” His request was denied, though he was hired by the newly minted CIA to use his wartime contacts to gather information about the Soviet Atomic Bomb project. He was paid $10,000, but gave the US no information. He spent the rest of his life caring about nothing but his books and his thoughts. He had no real job, and no real income, living off nephews and siblings. He was asked several times to write a memoir, but turned down all requests and accompanying money except for one, which he then quit when the writer confused him with Moe Howard from The Three Stooges. While he got a handful of votes for the Baseball Hall of Fame, he fell short of enshrinement in Cooperstown, though his medal was accepted and is displayed.
At Berg’s request, he was cremated and his ashes spread over Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem.
In recent years, baseball fever has had a spark in Israel. In 2017, for the first time, Israel had a team in the World Baseball Classic, and had a Cinderella story-like run, beating both SouthKorea and Cuba, countries with more successful track records on the international baseball scene. All of it was captured in the 2018 documentary, Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.
Though the Israeli baseball team also qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 2020, the games were sadly postponed due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, and rescheduled for 2021. As the Museum of the Jewish People began to gather materials for its new Core Exhibition celebrating the contributions and accomplishments of the Jewish people throughout history, it seemed not only appropriate, but necessary to include Moe Berg’s chest protector as a part of the ongoing Jewish story. The chest protector is on loan to the museum from Jonathan Blank of The Jewish Baseball Western Wall of Fame.