March 15, 2009

WHEN FLUTE MET REMUS:

Scholar, Lawyer, Catcher, Spy: Moe Berg, baseball's Renaissance man of the '20s and '30s, was a U.S. atomic spy in World War II (Nicholas Dawidoff, 3/23/1992, Sports Illustrated)

Friendship can be the best of distractions, and that is how it was when Flute met Remus in Switzerland in 1944. Flute, a Swiss citizen, had traveled far and met a great many people, but never had he encountered the likes of Remus. There was something irresistible about this tall, sturdy American whose eyebrows cut straight across his face in one thick stroke and whose wardrobe—charcoal-gray suit, white shirt, black tie, gray fedora—never varied no matter what the season. Languages, physics, politics, women—if there was a subject worth talking about, Remus could discuss it with acumen. Unless, of course, the subject was himself.

Riding bicycles through sun-swept Swiss villages, skiing in the Alps or just strolling beside Lake Geneva, Remus made Flute forget for a moment that his friends in the European scientific community were being ripped away from their research to build bombs for Adolf Hitler. And what the American taught him! The day after Christmas, at Flute's laboratory in Zurich, Flute spent hours diagramming atomic chain reactions. Then Remus took the pencil, sketched a diamond and proceeded to explain the American sport of baseball. Remus had played a lot of baseball, and Flute could see that he cared deeply about the game.

Flute didn't keep that sketch. Remus took it and, perhaps, sent it off to Washington with Flute's scribbled formulas. Such was Remus's obligation, and Flute understood that anything he told Remus might well end up on President Roosevelt's desk in the White House. Flute was, after all, the code name that the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA, had given to Dr. Paul Scherrer, director of physics at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and a pioneer of atomic energy research. Remus was an OSS spy whose task was to assess Nazi Germany's progress toward building an atomic bomb. Remus's real name was Moe Berg, and just three years earlier he could have been found on most any summer day seated holding his catcher's mitt in the Boston Red Sox bullpen, telling stories to the relief pitchers.

There was a protean quality to Moe Berg. He graduated with high honors in modern languages from Princeton in 1923 and then summered in Brooklyn, playing shortstop for the Dodgers. That October, he was off to Paris to study experimental phonetics at the Sorbonne. Over the next few years his time was divided between baseball and Columbia Law School in New York. He graduated and passed the New York State bar exam, but instead of signing up full time with a law firm, he devoted 13 more years to baseball, spending most of them as a third-string catcher.

His best year was 1929, when his batting average (.288) and RBIs (47) were career highs. That season he caught 106 games for the Chicago White Sox and allowed only five stolen bases. Besides a strong arm, Berg had fast reactions and shrewd judgment. The best White Sox pitchers, Ted Lyons and Tommy Thomas, always requested Berg as their batterymate. "In the years he was to catch me, I never waved off a sign," said Lyons, a Hall of Fame righthander.

When World War II began, Berg was first a U.S. goodwill ambassador in Latin America and then a spy in Europe, where, as Remus, he met Flute. [...]

Travel was always invigorating to Berg. He first went to Japan with Lyons and Dodger outfielder Lefty O'Doul in 1932. Baseball was just catching on in that country, and the three men gave pitching, catching and hitting clinics together at six Japanese universities. Berg studied some Japanese before he left the U.S. and kept it up on the way over. He learned enough to flatter his hosts and to needle the irrepressible O'Doul. In a restaurant one day Berg wrote some Japanese characters on a napkin and handed it to a waitress, who recited phonetically, "O'Doul is ugliest mug I have ever seen. He is also lousy ballplayer. Some day he will get hit with fly ball and get killed."

"They loved him in Japan," wrote Lyons in a letter to Ethel Berg. The feeling was mutual. Berg wrote his family that he had never enjoyed anything as much as visiting Japan.

When Berg returned to Washington, he set an American League record by catching in 117 consecutive games (from 1931 to 1934) without making an error. (The record lasted 12 years.) Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson, Berg's manager with the Senators, said that "barring Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane, Berg has caught as well as any man in the American League."

In 1934 he was back in Japan. A team of American All-Stars that included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig was invited to tour the country, and Berg was asked to come along. When he boarded the Empress of Japan in Vancouver on Oct. 20, he carried a contract to write travel pieces for the Boston American, and a small 16-mm Bell and Howell movie camera. It was a highly successful trip. In the American, Berg marveled at the Japanese love of baseball. He posed with geisha girls, impressed his teammates with his Japanese and made a speech to students at Meiji University. "I someday hope that our innocent junket through Japan will serve to bring the countries whom we represent...closer together," he said. Meanwhile, Berg quietly performed his first known act of espionage.

He was seeing very little action on the field during the tour, and one day it was scarcely noticed that he failed to show up for the game. Instead, he walked to St. Luke's International Hospital, one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo, carrying some flowers. In the reception area he asked to see the daughter of the U.S. ambassador, who had just given birth. Berg was directed to the seventh floor, but he rode the elevator to the top floor, climbed to the roof and, from beneath his clothes, withdrew the movie camera. It was a powerful instrument, and as he panned across the refineries and factories of Tokyo and the shipyards of Yokohama, he also recorded an image of Mount Fuji, more than 55 miles away. Finished, he left the bouquet on the roof and departed. Eight years later, when General Jimmy Doolittle's bombers raided Tokyo, their targets were plotted by referring to Berg's film.

During the remainder of the trip Berg talked baseball with anyone who approached him, advised Mizuno on the manufacture of baseball gloves (there was a sudden demand) and enthralled Tokyo reporters, who wrote about him with glee. Today there is a Moe Berg collection at the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, and his biography, long out of print in the U.S., continues to sell in its Japanese translation. For Berg, fanatic loyalty to his country never displaced the warm feelings he had for the Japanese.



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