Celebrating Jewish Icons: Moe Berg, baseball player and spy (Part 2)

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Attending lectures with a pistol 

Moe Berg didn't spend the war playing ball or hiding in a classroom. As befitting a man of his intelligence, Moe joined the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs to support the war effort diplomatically. 

As the war dragged on, rumors of the Third Reich’s weapon programs grew disturbingly dark. An increasingly embattled Hitler who was now facing a losing two-front war and an eroding ability to direct and supply his forces was betting everything on theoretical super weapons. The so-called "wunderwaffe” that would swing the balance of power back in his favor. Massive cannons, new types of U-boats, experimental rockets with longer ranges and bigger payloads. And of course, the bomb.

In 1944, with America's own Manhattan project gathering steam and the full potential of what could happen if Hitler got the bomb first becoming apparent, there was panic in the OSS that America could be beaten to the punch. The Nazi's zeal for the bomb was surprisingly muted. While German scientists enthusiastically pursued rocket technology and outlandish land-based super-tanks, work on atomic weaponry seemed scattered and unfocused. But, was that a ruse? Could they be sure the German's wouldn't be the first to put it all together?

It was a race the free world could not afford to lose. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the German atomic project, the OSS made the bomb one of their top priorities. How close was the Reich to developing a bomb? What kind of materials were they using? Which scientists were driving development? How could they be sabotaged, neutralized, or captured? 

Project AZUSA was one of many secret missions dedicated to answering those questions. In this instance, the focus was on the minds behind the Nazis atomic projects. It would require an agent to take a tour of Europe's vaunted lecture halls and meet with any physicist who was speaking, holding office hours, or would agree to a cup of coffee. The job called for a spy who was also a scholar.

Given Moe's prodigious intellect and varied academic background, he stood out as the man for the job. A natural figure in a lecture hall, Moe not only understood the subject matter discussed, but the rhythms and social cues of the academic world. He knew how to infiltrate these circles, how to get close to faculty and academics, how to ask questions without tipping his hand and probe them for dirt. He attended lectures across Italy and interviewed dozens of scientists, piecing together what they knew, how far they were on their research, and anything they knew about the German wunderkind, Heisenberg.

Heisenberg was the key. The brain behind Hitler's bomb, the chief of the uranium club. If Germany was to have a bomb, Heisenberg would be the one to put it together. All eyes were on him.

In December, Moe would meet the man himself. Heisenberg, unbelievably, was holding a lecture in Zurich, neutral territory, the best chance the OSS would ever have to get close to him. Moe was to attend. The job would be the same as always, observe, assess, and dig - but with one notable exception. This time he was sent with a concealed pistol. This time his orders to observe and assess were amended. "If your assessment leads you to believe that the German's are close to a breakthrough or on the verge of developing the weapon, eliminate Heisenberg.”

Moe Berg listened to Heisenberg's lecture and studied the science. Moe Berg charmed and flattered his way into a post-lecture dinner party with Heisenberg and studied the man. Moe Berg successfully plotted and arranged to walk Heisenberg back to his hotel alone, just the spy and the scientist and the cold Swiss moon.

Moe Berg did not shoot. 

Good field work, no hit. 

The uncertainty principal

For all of his efforts during the war, Moe was offered the Medal of Freedom, but for reasons he never completely shared, he turned it down. His sister would accept it on his behalf posthumously, but it was an accolade Moe had no interest in during his life.

He was offered a chance to coach for the White Sox and the Red Sox shortly after the war as well. Both would have been dream positions for a retired ball player looking for a cozy life coming out of the war. But he turned them down too.

He never joined any firm or sought to do so. He never taught or accepted a teaching position at any of the institutions that would have gladly picked him up just to say they had such a storied man on their staff. 

The only thing Moe seemed to want to do after the war was continue intelligence work – but the OSS seemed done with him. He begged to be sent to Israel to monitor and report on the nascent country. He wrote in his journal that "a Jew must do this,” but his pleas fell on deaf ears. There were no scientists to watch, no academics to infiltrate in Israel, and the OSS (then reforming as the CIA) saw little use in sending a washed-up catcher and academic dabbler to the middle East.

After that, Moe drifted, listless. Even when the CIA, finally, called upon him again when the cold war began to heat up and they suddenly needed an academic who could assess and infiltrate Soviet scientific circles, his work lacked passion. He spent one year in Russia on the CIA's dime and never gathered a shred of substantial intelligence to justify it. At the end of his contract, they sent him home. 

Benched again, and for the last time.

Moe spent the best years of his adulthood as a professional ball player and a spy. His biography reads like the dreamy fantasy of a young boy imagining the coolest life possible. He was vastly over-educated for his baseball peers, and far too much of an everyman to ever truly feel comfortable in the elitist circles of his alma mater. He was a polyglot who traveled the world in the age of freight boats, a recurring start of a popular TV quiz show, and an almost-assassin. Just by his resume alone, the world should have been Moe's oyster. He should have gone on to wealth, fame, and recognition.

Instead, he spent the last years of his life adrift. The former pro ball player turned former spy never held down a steady job after his rocky year in Russian. He bumped from family member to family member, sleeping in guest rooms and on sofas. Slowly expending his reservoir of stories and charm until finally asked to leave, at which point he'd find another person willing to put him up. He would occasionally hint that he was still in the intelligence world, but as the years wore on, even his admires grew suspect. 

The ballgames were over, the exotic overseas trips a memory. Moe lived for his daily newspapers and to catch the occasional ball game on the radio. 

Moe Berg died, isolated from his family and remaining friends, in a nursing home. A sad end for a complicated man, but he would still have the last laugh. His last words, perfectly in character, were asking his nurse "how did the Mets do today?” He passed on before he ever heard an answer. One more question left hanging.

We'll never know exactly what kept Moe from pulling the trigger that night. Maybe he was able to guess that the German's weren't close enough to a bomb yet to merit an assassination. Maybe he suspected Heisenberg was purposely stalling the German's atomic program (which is a question all of it's own). Maybe he didn't want the blood on his hands, to be remembered as an assassin instead of a catcher. We'll never know. Just as we'll never know what shadow clung to him and darkened the last decades of his life.

What we do know is that Moe Berg is the only professional baseball player who's card is displayed at the headquarters of the CIA. That he put aside a promising career in both ball and law to help his country when it needed his unique talents. That Moe Berg was a man who gave it his all, whether he was on the diamond, in the classroom, or in the field. 

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