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When Major League Baseball players retire, they pursue all kinds of careers: manager, analyst, Congressman, actor, even photographer. Moe Berg decided to become an international spy.
Berg was a Princeton grad who appeared on quiz shows and was fluent in multiple languages—up to 12, some sources say. A New York Times columnist once called Berg “the most scholarly athlete I ever knew.” Berg's baseball skills were never quite as strong as his academic prowess, however. After 15 rather mediocre seasons in the major leagues, Berg accepted a position with the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA.
The job offer may have resulted from Berg’s first foray into international intelligence in the 1930s, when he, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and other baseball luminaries traveled to Japan for exhibition games. Fluent in Japanese, Berg managed to finagle his way onto the top floors of a Tokyo skyscraper, where he used a video camera to film the city’s shipyards. According to the CIA, the U.S. “reportedly” (wouldn’t the CIA know?) used Berg’s footage to plan raids during WWII.
His successful mission led to others. In 1945, he was given the tall task of figuring out if Germany was close to having a nuclear weapon. Again, using his linguistic skills, Berg posed as a Swiss visitor and got into a lecture in Zurich by Third Reich physicist Werner Heisenberg. Though he determined that Heisenberg had “sinister” eyes, Berg didn’t believe the physicist was close to developing nukes. He confirmed this several days later, when he accompanied Heisenberg back to his hotel after a dinner party and chatted him up. Had the Germans been further along in nuclear weapon development, Berg’s mission would have changed—he was under orders to assassinate Heisenberg to prevent the Nazis from using his brain for their cause.
Though he was able to use yet another foreign language skill to gather intelligence in the Soviet Union, the OSS chose not to renew Berg’s contract in 1954. Part of their reluctance may have due to the fact that he was a bit of a real-life Maxwell Smart, repeatedly dropping his gun at the most inopportune times and forgetting to take his OSS-issue watch off before embarking on top secret missions.
There was a biography about Berg's fascinating life in the works, but he ended up nixing it when he discovered that the writer believed he was Moe Howard from The Three Stooges. Angry about the confusion, Berg backed out of the project.