As I have mentioned before, I am a fan of media that combines two or more of my interests. If you make a heavy metal song about Star Wars, I'll listen. If you write about hip-hop in Senegal, I'll read it. This wide array of interests usually makes it easy for people to find things I'll like. I'm not hard to buy for.
Knowing my fan interest in baseball and my professional interest in military intelligence, a few friends included "The Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg", a book by Nicholas Dawidoff, in a care package I received last summer. It was a very good call.
I had heard of former baseball player Moe Berg before. I remember reading a magazine article stating he worked for some high-level intelligence agencies during World War 2. Turns out, that magazine article, from Sports Illustrated, was also written by Dawidoff. The Catcher Was A Spy expands on the article and provides results from years of researching perhaps the most mysterious man in baseball history.
According to Dawidoff, Berg filled many roles during his life. He was at one time or another, a student, lawyer, linguist, sightseer, vagabond, advisor, babysitter, consultant, investor, writer, and of course, catcher and spy. Dawidoff weaves each of these titles into an interesting story, while attempting to reveal the secrets Berg kept from many people he knew.
In the beginning chapters of the book, Dawidoff discusses Moe Berg's professional baseball career and his baseball life intersected with his academic interests. In a nutshell, after a distinguished college career at Princeton, Berg did little at the big league level. A quick aside look-up on Baseball-Reference.com lists him as the 15th worst baseball player with a minimum of 500 games. That's bad. But yet Berg hung on, playing over 75 games three times in a 15-year career. Dawidoff stipulates that Berg's closeness with front office management allowed him to take up a roster spot that might be better given to a minor leaguer.
But although Berg wasn't playing, he was getting smarter. Which according to Dawidoff, is one of the overarching themes of the book. During the baseball chapters, Dawidoff writes about Berg's dalliance with law and business, and how Berg would wow his teammates and coaches with stories and facts few athletes took the time to learn. Dawidoff does state that Berg was also knowledgable of his craft, so much so that he became an impromptu coach during his last few seasons.
The conclusion of Berg's baseball career in 1942 ends the first part of The Catcher Was A Spy. The second part of the book details as best as possible Berg's work with the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor of the CIA). Through an index full of library research and interviews, Dawidoff pieces together Berg's travels through Europe during WWII and his attempt to acquire as much information as possible about a possible German nuclear or atomic bomb. Here the names sometimes blend together as Berg travels from country to country talking to nuclear scientists and other scientifical types. Dawidoff also writes about Berg's interactions with various intelligence personnel in the OSS, US military, and other branches of government.
By the conclusion of the very lengthy chapter on Berg's spy career, the reader is given the impression that although Berg did some good work, he thought too highly of his own worth. The impression is that Berg believed he was the best spy the CIA had, and could hence run up expense accounts and travel willy-nilly as he wanted, as long as he met with an interviewee on occasion. Dawidoff quotes other intelligence personnel who state that Berg wasn't as big of a deal as he thought himself.
Although this chapter is nearly 50 pages and Dawidoff did what he could in his research, my question is "is that all?". Was all of the Berg information declassified prior to or for the purposes of this book? What information did the CIA or other government organizations not let Dawidoff see? Would they have changed the reader's perception of Berg? Did he do anything greater or more important to national security than what is already mentioned?
Following discussion of Berg's war service, Dawidoff attempts to detail Berg's transformation into an itinerate wanderer. According to Dawidoff, Berg bounced from house to house, taking advantage of friends' kindness and compassion. Dawidoff hints at some awkward moments that give the reader the impression that Berg was a bit social inept, from the story of Berg tickling a little girl alone in a darkened room to Berg's fascination and desire to cling to friends and associates suffering from tragedy.
In the final chapter of the book, Dawidoff tries to piece together Moe Berg. Dawidoff comes to the conclusion Berg was an outsider, unable or unwilling to connect with people in a "normal" sense. Dawidoff suggests Berg's idiosynchrisies derive from his attempts to impress his father, a man who never believed Berg should pursue baseball but should stay in more honorable pursuits. Dawidoff also stipulates Berg suffered from a lack of importance after World War II and set himself adrift, successfully floating until the day he died.
With nearly a 70-page bibliography, The Catcher Was A Spy is an incredibly well-researched book. Is the mysterious Berg a subject worth the research? For sure. Berg was neither a Hall of Famer or a real-life James Bond. But he was was one of the most interesting people to ever play professional baseball and work for the CIA. Thousands of people have done one of the two. Only Moe Berg did both.