Beyond  /  Biography

The Baseball Player-Turned-Spy Who Went Undercover to Assassinate the Nazis' Top Nuclear Scientist

During World War II, the OSS sent Moe Berg to Europe, where he gathered intel on Germany's efforts to build an atomic bomb.

On the eve of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Berg started exploring other professions that would support his lavish lifestyle. Despite his limitations behind home plate, Berg could still catch the attention of the powerful individuals around him, just as he always had. Nelson Rockefeller, the future vice president of the U.S., and William Joseph “Wild Bill” Donovan, a high-ranking official in President Roosevelt’s administration, introduced Berg to a line of work that would allow him to explore the world, use some of the languages he knew and fight for his country, all on the government’s dime. He jumped at the opportunity, weighing his options within the intelligence community before accepting a position with Rockefeller’s Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA) in January 1942.

That summer, Berg screened his tape of the Tokyo skyline for American officials. The recordings held little strategic value. They were “brief, amateurish panoramas made by an adventurous person using a movie camera for the first time,” writes Dawidoff. Still, the biographer adds, Berg’s tapes demonstrated that he was “an eager, well-known man” who wanted to help the war effort, separating him from “the thirsty mob of prospective dollar-a-year men” seeking to enrich themselves on wartime government expenditures.

During his stint with the OIAA, Berg traveled across the Caribbean and South America, speaking with anyone and everyone he could, often in their native French or Spanish, and gauging the morale of the soldiers stationed abroad. He quickly realized that South America wasn’t going to be one of the major staging grounds of World War II, so he requested a transfer to where the action was: Europe.

The OSS, a nascent organization headed by Donovan—a raucous, eccentric cowboy type—was better placed to fulfill this request than the OIAA. The first independent intelligence agency in the U.S., the OSS “just did not have very tight controls on [its] people,” says Kean. “People were just doing wild things all over the world.” Berg was happy to become one of those free agents, sent to Europe to gather intel on the Nazis’ nuclear program and, when possible, compel prominent scientific minds to relocate to the U.S.

Berg worked alongside Boris Pash’s Alsos mission, an Allied initiative tasked with undermining the enemy’s scientific development. The World War I veteran and his top-secret operation were everything that Berg was not. Pash was punctual, by the book and always in uniform; Berg was erratic, informal and often seen wearing a loose tie. Pash traveled with Allied forces as they liberated occupied territories; Berg generally came in after the shooting stopped and smooth-talked scientists. As Kean says, “Pash was involved in intelligence, whereas Berg was involved in spying and all the romanticism that goes along with that.”