The Man Who Almost Shot Heisenberg

The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg
By Nicholas Dawidoff
Pantheon, 453 pp.

Some books are said to be spellbinding, so good they root you to an armchair for hours on end. This one does that and more. It’s the literary equivalent of sodium pentothal, the truth drug of espionage novels. It’s so good you spend a week telling everyone you know all about it.

It’s a biography of so fanciful a life that if this were a novel no one would believe it. Here it is in a nutshell: Moe Berg was a big-league ballplayer for 16 years – then, as now, a remarkable stretch to spend in the majors. He played from 1923 until 1939, ending up as a catcher and then coach for the Boston Red Sox. He also happened to be a Princeton-educated multilingual polymath who had studied at the Sorbonne, held a law degree from Columbia University and worked for a Wall St. firm in the off-season. That alone made him a sportswriter’s dream.

And if that weren’t enough, Moe Berg had yet another career. He was a spy and very nearly an assassin. Even better, his intelligence work dealt with the most sensitive, confidential and explosive secret of World War II: the building of an atomic bomb.

By all accounts Berg was an exceedingly charming man, a raconteur who could discourse on everything from etymology to astronomy, a bon vivant with a taste for the high life, a celebrity who kept the company of people like Chico Marx and Anita Loos, author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Before the war, he made winning guest appearances on Information, Please! – a highbrow radio quiz show whose regular experts were Franklin P. Adams, the Algonquin Roundtable wit, John Keiran, the erudite New York Times columnist, and pianist and composer Oscar Levant. His Atlantic Monthly essay, “Pitchers and Catchers,” Nicholas Dawidoff notes, “remains the most concise adult primer on the essential art of baseball” and is anthologized to this day. He was, in short, a media sensation.

It was his celebrity that first proved useful to his country. Even before Pearl Harbor, the United States felt vulnerable. The nations of South and Central America were particularly worrisome. They were often anti-American and, in pockets, potentially pro-fascist. Washington feared they might provide ports for Nazi U-boats or a base for an assault on the Panama Canal. Berg was recruited in 1941 by Nelson Rockefeller’s brand-new Office of Inter-American Affairs, an outfit that was supposed to encourage neighborly relations between the U.S. and the other Americas.

Rockefeller sent the suave Ivy League ballplayer on a much-publicized tour that was designed to wow the locals, boost the morale of American troops posted in the region and quietly gather intelligence on which way the political winds were blowing. An honorable schoolboy, Berg proved to be the perfect spy.

He jumped shortly thereafter to the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA. The OSS had been set up under World War I hero “Wild” Bill Donovan, who liked agents more in the mold of James Bond than George Smiley. Moe Berg, smooth operator, was tailor-made.

By 1944, with Allied troops on the European continent, German propaganda was growing ever more hysterical. Among the wonder weapons the Reich claimed to be developing was what Joseph Goebbels called “the uranium torpedo,” a bomb so powerful it could lay waste to half the world. The Washington Post astutely observed that the Nazi radio broadcasts hinted at “the release of atomic energy.”

To most Americans, this was just Nazi bluster, but to the tiny community working on the Manhattan Project – who knew such a weapon was possible – it was terrifying. As Berg’s OSS superior told him: “They can take us at a second to midnight if they get this thing first.”

Besides Goebbel’s rantings, there were other indications the Germans were working on something. They controlled Czechoslovakia, where fissionable material might be mined. They were stepping up heavy-water production in Norway. And none other than Neils Bohr had reported that Werner Heisenberg – the world’s reigning atomic theorist, who had refused to flee Nazi Germany, and the man after whom the “uncertainty principle” was named – had built a chain-reacting pile in 1941.

If the Germans were working on a bomb, the Allies needed to know. And if the Nazis were anywhere close to completion, their project had to be beheaded. Enter Moe Berg.

How he managed to end up there is a rich and complicated tale all by itself, but on Dec. 18, 1944, briefed on the physics of atomic weaponry and therefore privy to the best-kept secret in the U.S. arsenal, Berg sat in a Zurich lecture hall with a pistol in his pocket while Werner Heisenberg delivered a lecture on the abstruse topic of S-matrix theory. If Berg caught the slightest whiff that the Nazis were advanced on their bomb project and that Heisenberg was pivotal to its success, the former Red Sox catcher was supposed to shoot him dead on the spot.

In fact, there was no Nazi bomb, which is why Heisenberg lived and Berg, curiously, ceased to. As crucial as the mission was at the time, it was stunningly anti-climactic. Berg had done his bit for the war effort, but in a way he couldn’t talk about afterward, and that even in the telling amounted to nothing.

After the war, the OSS was disbanded and the CIA took its place. But the new agency wanted regimented, buttoned-down types and had little use for the flamboyant Berg. Out in the cold, he might have returned in civilian life to the law or to coaching baseball. Instead, he did nothing. Absolutely nothing. For the remainder of his days, he was on sabbatical.

Berg’s life might have had no third act, but his biography does. For many people who lived through it, World War II was the high point of their lives, and nothing afterward could quite match the experience. But in Dawidoff’s hands, Berg’s listless, itinerant existence until his death in 1972 is as fascinating as the earlier glory days.

Like Oskar Schindler, he came to depend on the kindness of acquaintances. There were so many people who were so happy to keep the company of the famous and mysterious Moe Berg that he rarely picked up a cheque and never lacked a place to stay. Joe DiMaggio once invited him to spend the night; Berg moved in for six weeks.

But if he was a freeloader, he always made it worthwhile. People delighted in his stories and his company. Few felt used or put upon. And he could move in almost any circle. He introduced Casey Stengel to General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project. At parties in Princeton, he conversed with Einstein and knocked back martinis with Johnny Von Neumann, the father of the computer. But while Moe Berg knew everyone, no one knew the real Moe Berg. From start to finish, he was a cipher.

As far back as his Princeton undergraduate days, he never had any really close friends. His baseball teammates liked him fine, but he was always apart. Even his OSS colleagues had no idea what made him tick. I suspect the closest we’ll ever come to understanding Berg’s inner psyche is Nicholas Dawidoff’s reconstruction.

The book is far more nuanced than this brief characterization suggests. It considers Berg’s Jewish heritage. It explores his relations with his siblings, in particular his brother, Dr. Sam, a respected physician whose home Berg used as a hostel until Sam threw him out in 1964. It examines his relations with women, which ranged from chaste friendship to sexual advances so lewd and inappropriate that today they would get him arrested.

For more details, however, you’ll have to buy the book. You won’t be disappointed. It’s exceedingly well-researched and extremely well-told. And stories like this don’t just tell themselves. Riveting biographies, like fascinating lives, aren’t just born. They’re

  • Montreal Gazette September 9, 1994