Morris “Moe” Berg (1902–1972) was a Major League baseball player whose undercover career in espionage helped subvert German efforts to build nuclear weapons during WWII. A less-recognized fact about Berg is that he was also a Foundation Member of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA). To mark the June 7 release of the documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate (dir. Aviva Kempner), the LSA celebrates Moe Berg.

Berg was born in New York City to immigrants from present-day Ukraine who first opened a laundromat in the Lower East Side, and then a pharmacy in Newark. He showed early talent for baseball and languages, but faced discrimination for being Jewish. In grade school, he played baseball under the pseudonym ‘Runt Wolfe’ to hide his background, and faced anti-Semitism at Princeton University, where he majored in Modern Languages. He studied Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit under Christian Gauss and Harold H. Bender.

Berg’s love of baseball and languages, and his natural reticence, defined his career. On graduating from Princeton in 1923, Berg signed with the Brooklyn Robins, which would later become the Brooklyn Dodgers. He played admirably at shortstop, but averaged a dismal .186 in his first season (where a .250 batting average would count as mediocre). Immediately after, he spent six months at the Sorbonne studying experimental phonetics and the development of Romance languages under Jean-Pierre Rousselot.

Upon his return, Berg quietly entered Columbia Law School while still playing in the Major Leagues. He passed the bar in three years and briefly practiced law on Wall Street during the off-season. Berg was respected as ‘the brainiest guy in baseball’ who was diplomatic with umpires and well-liked by teammates, but never became more than an average player—a teammate quipped that ‘He can speak seven languages but he can’t hit in any of them’ (Acocella 2003).

Once Berg was recruited as a spy, baseball provided his cover. In 1934 he went to Japan as part of an all-star team, where he impressed the public by speaking Japanese. Then, under guise of visiting a new mother, he sneaked onto the rooftop of a Tokyo hospital to film the city’s most critical infrastructure. That footage was later used by the U.S. to plan air raids on Tokyo. Recognizing his potential, the U.S. government sent him on espionage missions to Latin America and across Europe. Berg’s key achievement as a spy was to gather intelligence about Germany’s nuclear program, as detailed in The Spy Behind Home Plate.

That much is common knowledge about the uncommon life of Moe Berg. What is less known is that he was present at the initial organizing meeting of the LSA held on 28 December 1924 (see images below). Listed among the 274 Foundation Members as ‘Mr. Morris Berg’ without affiliation, he regularly participated in LSA meetings. Berg mostly kept his knowledge to himself—in linguistics as in espionage—but occasionally one could tease it out, as in this interview with a sportswriter:

[…] the Latin word for twenty is, as you know, ‘viginti.’ The modern word for French for the same thing is ‘vingt’. To a philologist it’s instantly apparent that the ‘g’ in ‘vingt’ is in the wrong place. Tracing backwards we discover that before the Renaissance, ‘viginti’ had been corrupted or had developed into ‘vint,’ so far as the French were concerned. Scholars of the Renaissance [...] undertook to place the ‘g’ back in it. They simply got it in the wrong place, that’s all… (qtd. in Kaufman et al. 1974)

Berg died in 1972. Archibald A. Hill (LSA Secretary-Treasurer, 1951–1968 and President, 1969) eulogized Berg, writing ‘I do not know of any member who was more faithful in attending meetings, and though he never took part in public discussion, he maintained a real and continuing interest in the Society and our science’ (LSA Bulletin 1975). American descriptivist Martin Joos remembered him as ‘a soft-voiced giant [whose] sotto-voce technical comments were memorable’ (Joos 1986, p. 6). It is clear that he belonged with the LSA, even though he never produced any work—he was a lover of the science of language.

Sources

  • Acocella, Nick. ‘Spy Notes: More Info on Moe Berg.’ ESPN Classic, ESPN Internet Ventures, 13 Nov. 2003, www.espn.com/classic/s/addbergmoe.html.
  • Dawidoff, Nicholas. The Catcher Was a Spy. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.
  • Joos, Martin. Notes on the Development of the Linguistic Society of America: 1924 to 1950. 1986. languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/JoosLSA_Notes1.pdf
  • Kaufman, Louis, et al. Moe Berg: Athlete, Scholar, Spy. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1974.
  • ‘LSA Bulletin’. LSA Bulletin, No. 65 (June 1975), 1975, pp. 11–14. Linguistic Society of America, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43674689.
  • ‘Proceedings of the Linguistic Society of America at the Organization Meeting in New York, December 28, 1924’. Language 1.1: 8–13. Linguistic Society of America, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/409546.

 

Authored by Seung Hwan Kim, Boston College

(This article was suggested by John Hammer, the LSA's first professional staff member)