Moe Berg, Class of 1923: Baseball Player, World War II Spy

The Manuscripts Division has recently received a large portion of the personal papers of Morris “Moe” Berg (1902–1972) as a gift from Dr. William Sear. Berg is best known as a Major League Baseball player who became a spy during World War II and participated in a plot that almost resulted in the assassination of the German physicist and Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg in 1945. The Moe Berg Papers offer researchers a glimpse into his mysterious life and complex personality.

Born in Harlem to Jewish immigrants, Berg spent his childhood in the Roseville section of Newark, New Jersey. At Princeton University, Berg played shortstop on the university baseball team while studying several languages. He became captain of the baseball team his senior year, and just before he graduated magna cum laude in June 1923, he accepted an offer to play for the Brooklyn Robins (later the Brooklyn Dodgers). He went on to play catcher for four Major League teams. Between seasons, he studied at the Sorbonne and Columbia Law. As a player, Berg was better known as “Professor Moe,” the most learned man in baseball, than for his exploits on the field. The scout Mike Gonzalez coined the phrase “good field, no hit” for Berg in the early 1920s, though Berg did accompany Babe Ruth to Japan for an all-star exposition tour in 1934.

Galvanized by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Berg left baseball in January 1942 for a post under Nelson A. Rockefeller in the Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA), working in South America. In 1944 he was accepted into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), where he spent the next two years reporting on scientific advancements being made by Germany and Italy.

Berg returned to the United States after the war. He drifted from place to place, ultimately living with his siblings in Newark. He never married or held another full-time job, and maintained a secretive and solitary lifestyle until his death on May 29, 1972.

The Moe Berg Papers consist of correspondence, handwritten notes, photographs, newspaper clippings, financial materials, and items about Berg collected by others. Official correspondence, which comprise the bulk of the papers, relates mainly to Berg’s time with the Office of Strategic Services. Many of the materials are carbon copies of letters and documentation sent by government pouch during World War II, as well as drafts of cables, official orders, and scientific documentation acquired for or during Berg’s many assignments. The collection includes letters from Nelson A. Rockefeller, Vannevar Bush, and General Leslie R. Groves, as well as love letters from Berg’s only known long-term romantic interest, Estella Huni.

The Papers also contain Berg’s copious notes from the 1930s through the 1960s, which range from scribbled names and dates to elaborate memoirs. Some notes relate directly to his government work; others record his social life, tracing a vast network of friends in all capacities of baseball, government and law, and society on the East Coast. Notes on linguistics and books Berg read reflect his continued interest in academic pursuits, while later notes contain autobiographical reflections.

Finally, the photographs—snapshots, professional press images, and copy prints from the 1980s—capture the events and people most commonly associated with Moe Berg: his baseball career, pre-war trips to Japan, experiences abroad during World War II, and his relationships with friends and family, including fellow baseball players Babe Ruth, “Lefty” O’Doul, Joe Cronin, and Hollis Thurston.

The Moe Berg Papers were featured in a recent article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and selected items are currently on display as part of the exhibition “A Fine Addi­tion: New & Notable Acqui­si­tions in Princeton’s Spe­cial Col­lec­tions” in the Main Gallery of Firestone Library. The Papers join several other Moe Berg collections at Princeton: the Moe Berg Collection (AC326) and the Dr. and Mrs. Arnold S. Breitbart Collection on Moe Berg (AC388), both at the Mudd Manuscript Library.

Berg, right, with player-manager and friend Joe Cronin in the Boston Red Sox dugout, circa 1937. Not to be reproduced without permission of the Princeton University Library.

Berg poses with Allied military officials in Oslo, Norway, in June 1945. Not to be reproduced without permission of the Princeton University Library.