Why and How Did Moe Berg Become a Spy? Who Recruited Him?

In Ben Lewin’s biographical war film ‘The Catcher Was a Spy,’ a celebrated baseball catcher named Moe Berg joins the Office of Strategic Services to become a spy. Moe craves fieldwork to serve his country during World War II instead of limiting himself to a desk job. When his superior Bill Donovan gets convinced about his abilities and courage, the former assigns the latter to kill Werner Heisenberg and put an end to Germany’s supposed efforts to build an atomic bomb. Even though the movie is based on a true story, there are several blanks in its narrative regarding the truth behind Moe’s recruitment as a spy!

The Visit to Japan and the OIAA

A pivotal moment in Moe Berg’s life was the 1934 Japan Tour of a group of American all-stars, who were slated to play a series of exhibition games against an all-star Japanese team. During the visit, Moe went to Saint Luke’s Hospital and climbed to see a panoramic view of Tokyo. He then took a video of the city using a movie camera, capturing shipyards, industrial complexes, and military installations around Tokyo Bay. After the start of World War II, a prominent businessman named Nelson Rockefeller founded the Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA), which handled political, economic intelligence, and propaganda in Latin America, as per Nicholas Dawidoff’s ‘The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg.’

Image Credit: The New York Public Library

After retiring from baseball, Moe started working as a consultant to Rockefeller. “This program goes much deeper. It may take in, for instance, health and athletics, nutrition and diet, and a study of the best means of promoting goodwill between the hemisphere countries. It is a long-range program that must go on for centuries,” Moe said about joining the OIAA, as per Dawidoff’s book. After joining the OIAA, Moe wanted to be in the midst of action. To earn his place, he collaborated with the Office of Strategic Services, the American version of the UK’s MI6, to screen the films he recorded during his Japanese trip several years ago.

The videos were not useful for the people who attended the screening. The recordings were eight years old, which highly affected the usability of the film reels the former baseball player recorded. However, his enthusiasm to serve his country didn’t go unnoticed. “Berg had been noticed. Less than a year before, he’d been a bullpen catcher. Now he had commanded a powerful audience in Washington,” Dawidoff wrote in his book.

Becoming a Spy

It didn’t take long for Moe to realize that Latin America is not the battlefield as far as World War II is concerned. He wanted to be a part of the action and to achieve his dream, he resigned from the OIAA. That was when the OSS became his new home. An OSS colonel, Ellery Huntington, believed that Berg was an “excellent OSS material.” In the film, Bill Donovan, the head of the OSS, personally recruits Moe to OSS. Dawidoff is not certain about it. “It is uncertain whether William Donovan had a direct hand in making an OSS man of Moe Berg, but without question, Donovan liked unusual, talented people,” reads his book.

Huntington, who served as the OSS deputy director of operations at the time, vouched for Moe’s capabilities in a memo he wrote to the chief of the Special Operations Branch, Lieutenant Commander R. Davis Halliwell, introducing the former baseball player. Meanwhile, the United States started to believe that Germany was building an atomic bomb with Werner Heisenberg as the mastermind behind the mission. The OSS wanted a spy to look into the matter who can speak several languages and Moe was eventually chosen. He was called into the office of Colonel Howard Dix, who ran the OSS technical section.

Dix’s mission for Moe was to find out whether Germany was building an atomic bomb. “They [Germany] can take us at a second to midnight if they get this thing [the bomb] first. Find out what they’re doing, and we’ve got it won,” Dix told Moe, as per Dawidoff’s book. “You’ve got a good spy like Berg, a big organization like the OSS, they probably figured it out. We told people generally what to look for without telling them why. A guy like Berg could learn more than you wanted him to. He was their hot rod, one of their best,” Robert Furman said about choosing Berg, as per ‘The Catcher Was a Spy.’

After reaching Europe, Berg was in charge of the mission to kill Heisenberg. However, there was a catch. “Berg’s assignment had been to look Heisenberg over. He was to fire only if he heard indisputable evidence that a German bomb was nearing completion,” Dawidoff wrote. Since he was convinced that Heisenberg was not a threat, the former baseball player walked away from the scientist without killing the latter.

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