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Post Moe Berg: Baseball Legend, Spy
Created by John Eipper on 02/03/14 7:35 AM

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Moe Berg: Baseball Legend, Spy (Richard Hancock, USA, 02/03/14 7:35 am)

This message was sent to me by my sister in Farmington, New Mexico:

Moe Berg, The Catcher

When baseball greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig went on tour in baseball-crazy Japan in 1934, some fans wondered why a third-string catcher named Moe Berg was included.
The answer was simple: Berg was a US spy. Speaking 15 languages--including Japanese--Moe Berg had two loves: baseball and spying.

In Tokyo, garbed in a kimono, Berg took flowers to the daughter of an American diplomat being treated in St. Luke's Hospital--the tallest building in the Japanese capital.

He never delivered the flowers. The ball-player ascended to the hospital roof and filmed key features: the harbor, military installations, railway yards, etc. Eight years later, General Jimmy Doolittle studied Berg's films in planning his spectacular raid on Tokyo.

Berg's father, Bernard Berg, a pharmacist in Newark, New Jersey, taught his son Hebrew and Yiddish. Moe, against his wishes, began playing baseball on the street aged four.
His father disapproved and never once watched his son play.

In Barringer High School, Moe learned Latin, Greek and French. He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton--having added Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit to his linguistic quiver,

During further studies at the Sorbonne, in Paris, and Columbia Law School he picked up Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Arabic, Portuguese and Hungarian--15 languages in all, plus some regional dialects.

While playing baseball for Princeton University, Moe Berg would describe plays in Latin or Sanskrit.

During World War II, he was parachuted into Yugoslavia to assess the value to the war effort of the two groups of partisans there.

He reported back that Marshall Tito's forces were widely supported by the people and Winston Churchill ordered all-out support for the Yugoslav underground fighter, rather than Mihajlovic's Serbians.

The parachute jump at age 41 undoubtedly was a challenge. But there was more to come in that same year.

Berg penetrated German-held Norway, met with members of the underground and located a secret heavy water plant--part of the Nazis' effort to build an atomic bomb. His information guided the Royal Air Force in a bombing raid to destroy the plant.

There still remained the question of how far had the Nazis progressed in the race to build the first Atomic bomb.  If the Nazis were successful, they would win the war.

Berg (under the code name "Remus") was sent to Switzerland to hear leading German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a Nobel Laureate, lecture and determine if the Nazis were close to building an A -bomb.

Moe managed to slip past the SS guards at the auditorium. posing as a Swiss graduate student.

The spy carried in his pocket a pistol and a cyanide pill.

If the German indicated the Nazis were close to building a weapon, Berg was to shoot him--and then swallow the cyanide pill.

Moe, sitting in the front row, determined that the Germans were nowhere near their goal, so he complimented Heisenberg on his speech and walked him back to his hotel.

Moe Berg's report was distributed to Britain's Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and key figures in the team developing the Atomic Bomb.

Roosevelt responded: "Give my regards to the catcher."

Most of Germany 's leading physicists had been Jewish and had fled the Nazis, mainly to Britain and the United States.

After the war, Moe Berg was awarded the Medal of Merit--America 's highest honor for a civilian in wartime. But Berg refused to accept, as he couldn't tell people about his exploits.

After his death, his sister accepted the Medal and it hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown.

JE comments: WAIS doesn't usually touch these viral "forwards," but Moe Berg's story is irresistibly WAIS-o-rrific.  Moreover, the above story lines up with Berg's Wikipedia biography, although it fails to mention that he spent the final two decades of his life (he died in 1972 at the age of 70) unemployed and sponging off his brother and sister. Definitely a person of brilliance and psychological complexity. Many on the 'Net have posed the question: why hasn't a film been made about Berg's life?

According to the myth-busting website "Truth or Fiction," the Moe Berg e-mail (unlike the ones about Presidential IQs or Obama's adult "love child") is factual:


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  • Moe Berg and Princeton (David Duggan, USA 02/04/14 4:24 AM)
    I recall reading Moe Berg's obituary in the NY Times shortly before I graduated from Dartmouth in 1972.  (See Richard Hancock, 3 February.)  The quip given then was that the baseball player "could speak 15 languages but couldn't hit in any of them." I don't recall reading of all of the cloak and dagger stuff in which Berg engaged, but as a Dartmouth grad, I'm personally chagrined that we didn't get him and that Princeton, at least historically the least accommodating of Jewish students among the Ivies and perhaps the least involved in the study and promulgation of foreign languages, did.

    JE comments: David Duggan and I, both Dartmouth men, exchanged follow-up e-mails on this topic.  David pointed out that Princeton has historically been seen as a "Southern Gentleman's" school. Perhaps it's the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, the Virginian who ran the University from 1902-1910.  Dartmouth, on the other hand, had a Jewish president (Kemeny) and a Jewish Chairman of the Board of Trustees (Zimmerman) in the early 1970s.  I think I've mentioned before that I took Intro to Computer Programming with Prof. Kemeny in 1983.  A brilliant man with an extraordinary sense of humor.  I should add, however, that Kemeny was a graduate of...Princeton, where he was the mathematical assistant--more or less a human calculator--of Albert Einstein.

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    • John Kemeny and BASIC (Henry Levin, USA 02/04/14 9:33 AM)

      John Kemeny was truly brilliant. (See David Duggan's post of 4 February, together with JE's comments.) He was not only a distinguished mathematician, but the developer of BASIC, a simple programming language which took over high schools in the late seventies and early eighties (as I recall). This language was a great entry point for high school students. It was easy to learn and powerful and generated enthusiasm among high school students. The problem was that it developed programming skills, habits, and thinking that reduced proficiency in learning the standard languages at the time that were more advanced such as C++. At Stanford we had many students who had received Advanced Placement in Programming from their high school classes, but the Computer Science department still required that they begin with the Introduction to Computing Course because of problems of previous students with BASIC who had challenges in C++. I don't know if BASIC is still used at any level.

      JE comments:  I've also been curious if BASIC is still used.  The first-generation MacIntosh, introduced exactly 30 years ago, rendered computing languages irrelevant--or at least invisible--for everyone but the specialists. 

      Regarding Dr. Kemeny, I found these WAIS postings from fellow Hungarian mathematicians Istvan Simon (27 April 2009) and the late Steve Torok (28 April 2009):




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      • BASIC and Visual BASIC (Jordi Molins, -Spain 02/05/14 3:08 AM)
        Henry Levin (4 February) asked if BASIC is still used at any level.

        BASIC is not among the most popular programming languages, with Python, Java and C++ taking the lead:


        However, I believe there is a lot of Visual Basic legacy code as Excel scripts (the so-called VBA), especially within the corporate/banking world.

        Even though I learned to program with BASIC, there is no reason to use it as a programming language unless you are forced to manage legacy code. Python as a generalist language, and R as a scientific programming language, are infinitely better suited for anything else.

        JE comments:  Python, according to the link above, is by far the most common programming language in use today.  The R language, specifically suited for statistical computing and graphics, was designed by Ross Ihaka and Robert Gentleman.  That's where the "R" comes from, I presume.  Here's a (to my brain, cryptic) primer:


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