Former Indians Catcher Moe Berg Recalled in New Movie
Vince Guerrieri | On 06, Jun 2018
It was once said that Moe Berg could speak seven languages – but not hit a curveball in any of them.
Berg, whose itinerant baseball career included two stops in Cleveland, didn’t have to be a good hitter in the days when catchers were more prized for their skill calling games and with the leather than with the bat. But it’s his post-baseball life that’s of interest to moviemakers.
“The Catcher Was a Spy,” based on the book of the same name by Nicholas Dawidoff, is set to be released June 22, with Paul Rudd (“Ant-Man,” “Anchorman”) playing Berg in a movie that, as the title suggests, has very little to do with baseball, although characters in the movie include Berg’s Red Sox teammates Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove and Joe Cronin.
Berg, who started playing baseball as a child in New Jersey, attended Princeton and played for the team there. He was signed as a shortstop by the Dodgers in 1923, but ended up becoming a catcher due to a succession of injuries in 1927, by which time he was with the White Sox.
The White Sox released Berg in 1931, and he was picked up by the Indians, playing in only ten games for them that season before being released. He ended up in Washington, and after the 1932 season, he made his first trip to Japan to teach the game of baseball (Berg’s language skills included Japanese). He returned to the United States and started 1933 as the backup catcher before moving to the starting role in 1934. The Senators released him that July, but Walter Johnson, who had managed him in Washington and was now the skipper in Cleveland, took an interest in Berg, making him the Tribe’s backup catcher.
After the 1934 season, Berg made a second trip to Japan, bringing with him a movie camera and filming the trip, ostensibly for a newsreel. But once the United States went to war with Japan, the films took on strategic importance, detailing locations throughout Tokyo.
The Indians released Berg, and he spent the next seven years in Boston, five as a player and two more as a coach. During World War II, Berg joined the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA, with missions in Yugoslavia and Switzerland, where he was to observe famed physicist Werner Heisenberg (the namesake for Walter White’s alias in “Breaking Bad” and one of the characters listed in “The Catcher Was a Spy”).
Berg lived a peripatetic life after the war, living for a time with his brother and then his sister. He never wrote his memoirs (he was appalled to find out a potential co-author thought he was one of the Three Stooges) but did get a few Hall of Fame votes (the photo, taken at the Maltz Museum during its baseball exhibit in 2015, is of Berg’s mask, which was property of the Hall of Fame). Berg, a bar-certified lawyer and Columbia Law graduate, once said, “I’d rather be a ballplayer than a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Berg died on May 29, 1972, in New Jersey. His last words, according to a nurse who cared for him, were “How did the Mets do today?”
Photo: Vince Guerrieri/Did The Tribe Win Last Night