Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Guest post - review of "The Catcher Was a Spy" by Sports Book Lady

This book was another Goodreads discussion and was a very interesting story. Here is the Sports Book Lady's review of "The Catcher Was a Spy."

As a baseball fan, I have always bled Cubbie blue without a doubt; yet, my favorite non Cub players have always been Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg. As a Jew with few Jewish stars to cheer for, I get excited every time a Jewish athlete makes headlines. The team Israel entry to the World Baseball Classic two years ago? My son and I woke up diligently at 4:00 to watch their games? Watching the Houston Astros’ Alex Bregman turn into a bonafide star has me kvelling, not to mention seeing Ian Kinsler get traded to the Boston Red Sox last season and then win a World Series ring with the team. Known as people of the book, Jewish stars are few and far between, so I keep my feelers out any time a Jewish athlete does something special, on or off of the playing field. That is why the Moe Berg, a back up catcher during the 1920s and 1930s has always been an intriguing character to me. Recently, there had been a movie produced about Berg’s life, so I jumped at an opportunity to read the book first, The Catcher Was a Spy by Nicholas Dawidoff. 

Moe Berg was born in 1901, the third child of Bernard and Rose Berg. Although the Bergs were ethnically Jewish and all who knew them could easily tell by their physical features, Bernard Berg tried to distance himself as much as possible from any Jewish acquaintances. An immigrant, pharmacist, and self made man, Bernard Berg moved his family to the Roseville section of Newark, New Jersey as soon as he had the means to leave the Bronx, a neighborhood that had too many Jews for his liking. His children Sam, Rose, and Morris, all common Jewish names during the generation, attended public school, had few Jewish acquaintances, and did not attend religious school. Bernard pushed his children to achieve, instilling in them that they could make something of themselves in America if they studied and became a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or nurse. Sam and Ethel followed their father’s advice and became a doctor and teacher respectively, but Morris, known as Moe, the most precocious of the three, although a stellar student from an early age, decided that he would achieve great heights by playing baseball. 

Although Bernard Berg distanced himself from Jews, he could not understand why his son would rather play a kids’ game than be a scholar. Yet, Moe Berg was a scholar, earning a place in the National Honor Society in high school and earning admission in Princeton University. Bernard Berg wanted his son to be a lawyer yet by the time Moe attended Princeton, he was both a top baseball player and excelling at learning foreign languages. He was also a loner having no close friends and learned how to make himself scarce. One minute, Berg could work a crowd, regaling party goers with his exploits on the baseball diamond, and the next he would have disappeared. By the time Berg graduated Princeton with high marks in 1923 and had offers to play ball from multiple teams, he had already had an eye on his future profession, a spy during World War II. Upon graduation, Berg first played for the Brooklyn Robins, later the Dodgers, as the team sought a Jewish star to appeal to Brooklyn’s population. Yet, Berg could not decide whether to pursue baseball or the law, and, as a result, his ball playing skills fell off. 

Moe Berg eventually received his law degree by attending courses at Columbia during off seasons. Yet, his passion was baseball. It was the only profession, he reasoned, where he could travel the country, play a game for three hours a day, and explore cities at his leisure while the rest of his teammates pursued other, unwholesome activities. Berg shattered his knee in 1929, and during the 1930s stayed on major league rosters for the Washington Senators and Boston Red Sox as a third string catcher turned bullpen coach. He established a habit of reading a minimum of ten newspapers a day, walked everywhere, and spoke seven languages well and understood countless other. Berg became known as Professor Berg to sportswriters and developed lifelong relationships with John Kieran of the New York Times and Jerome Holtzman of the Chicago Tribune. Both writers realized that Berg possessed a combination of knowledge and intelligence rare in a major league ball player, and these relationships, as well as his flare for spinning stories kept Berg in the league with Red Sox well after his talents diminished. 

Following off season trips to Japan and the Far East after the 1932 and 1934 seasons that allowed Berg to travel the world, he became relatively proficient in Japanese. When the United States entered World War II, Berg enlisted and gained admission into the Office of Secret Service once officers discovered his penchant for languages and secrecy. Moe Berg was born to be a spy, yet, according to Dawidoff, he was not necessarily an adept one. Berg’s key assignment during the war was to engage axis power physicists to see if Germany had learned how to split an atom and develop a bomb. Berg was likable and developed relationships with all the scientists he met, yet also wrote excessively and failed to keep expense accounts. Because all of Dawidoff’s interviews were second hand, as a reader it is tough to know whether Berg’s stories or Dawidoff’s opinions are closer to the truth. Was Berg a key player in the OSS who was denied a career in the CIA or a man on the fringes who the government wanted to rid themselves of once the war years ended? The truth was probably somewhere in between given Berg’s idiosyncratic behavior, yet like the spy he wrote about, Dawidoff’s readers will never know the full truth of Berg’s wartime exploits. 

Nicholas Dawidoff wrote The Catcher Was a Spy more than twenty years after Moe Berg’s passing. Most of his family and acquaintances were also dead so the author repeats himself and uses the last hundred pages of the book to mention anecdotes of Berg’s postwar travels. These last hundred pages dragged a bit, and at the essence paint a picture of a man denied the job of his dreams who could not reintegrate into civilian life. Moe Berg was the rare scholarly ball player who was a sportswriter’s dream and spoke more languages than most people could even imagine. Yet, with average ball playing skills and a penchant for being a loner, Berg faded from society until Dawidoff published this volume. While today Jewish kids can look up to Alex Bregman, nearly one hundred years ago Jewish kids were kvelling over the ball playing skills of Moe Berg, a Jew and person who chose to live life on the fringes. 

3.5 stars

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