Saturday, May 12, 2012

Five Books to Read: The Catcher was a Spy

After completing my own book (GetItHere), I thought it worthwhile to discuss books that shaped my mindset and style, those books that meant enough to me to warrant multiple readings and quiet reflection. One of those five books (all of which will be discussed in this blog but in no particular order) is detailed below...

The first post on Nothing Like it in the World by Stephen Ambrose can be found here.
The second on 127 Hours by Aron Ralston can be found here.
The third on Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer can be found here.


As I put The Catcher was a Spy down, I was supremely irritated. The first half of Nicholas Dawidoff's biography of Moe Berg was superb. I related to the character of Berg and felt that I had an 'in a previous life'-type relationship with the man. Then, I reached the second half, and the enigmatic hero detailed in the first half becomes a sad, likely-delusional caricature of the man he once was. I was pissed.

But, I had to get over it. The story was true.

Moe Berg was born in the early 20th century to a Jewish family in New York City. He played an astounding fifteen seasons of major league baseball.. astounding in that he was a solid catcher that always seemed to find a team to play with while being a below-average hitter that seemed uninterested in bettering himself.

But, he's also the only guy with his baseball card framed and housed at CIA headquarters. He graduated from Princeton and Columbia Law School... and could have written his ticket with any of a dozen law firms. He chose to play baseball. He toured Japan, picking up the language immediately and sharing baseball with the locals... possibly single-handedly developing the sport there. He'd sit in the dugout for the White Sox, Indians, Senators, Red Sox (he played for several teams) and explain calculus to the other players. He'd talk on subjects so antithetic to baseball that he was deemed the Strangest Player in Baseball by manager Casey Stengel.

So, what does the strangest baseball player ever do when he retires from baseball? Well, he joins the OSS and spies in Italy, of course. This man that spent nearly two decades playing baseball was suddenly sharing physics discussions with Werner Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker. Berg spent the early '40s with the preeminent scientists of his generation and could hold his own in conversations with them. He even had orders to eliminate some (those behind the Nazi curtain) if they were found to be making progress on The Bomb.

He was knee deep in the beginning of the Arms Race and the Cold War. I was fascinated by this guy. He was eccentric and random. He told jokes one minute and completely ignored people the next. He was me... but Jewish. Then, the war ended. The mystique and aura of danger that his friends and family knew was gone. He had played his spy status for drinks and a warm bed to sleep on many occasions, but now what could he do? He still gave every indication that he was a spy. his friends assuming he was still in the employ of the CIA (the OSS's successor), but he wasn't. He was long gone from the CIA rolls. Still, he carried the act for years, possibly so caught up in his own lies that even he believed them. For decades, not even his closest friends and family knew what to make of the man. In hindsight, the story is depressingly sad, but he was treated as an eccentric while he lived. Relationships with his family soured, but he didn't seem to care, remaining aloof and apathetic about everything other than getting back into the field... though, it was the espionage and not baseball variety that kept his attention.

If one only reads the second half of his life, Berg was one closed door away from living on the streets. He was good-natured and friendly, and it won him dinners and spare bedrooms throughout his life. People kept him around because he was interesting. They certainly began to suspect that many of the stories he told were hyperbole, but no one cared. He was funny, exciting, and full of entertainment. Still, I wonder if he was alive today instead of 70 years ago if he would have been committed before his 60th birthday.

For the first 40 years of his life as chronicled by Dawidoff, I felt a connection with Berg and his interests. I saw the place he was in his life and saw my life reflected in it. And, as he made his decisions, decisions others saw as unusual, I thought I had found a kindred spirit given that I would have made the same choices. But, then Berg did something I feel was out of character: He chose to make something define him.

For years,he did what he wanted regardless of convention or society's definitions. If he liked it, he did it. If he was told to stop or it was seen as unacceptable, he stopped. It wouldn't matter if it was something he wanted. He'd just go find something else. He had limitless energy and interests, jumping at new topics and endeavors wholly and entirely. So, why did he latch so strongly onto the spy game that he made it define him so long after he was out of it?

I grab interests like a kid in a candy store, but it makes it so that - if one were no longer open to me - I could simply replace it with another. To find that Berg, a man I find eerily similar to myself, found something that he wasn't able to accept losing... made me question if such an activity/career exists out there that would do the same to me. What if someone told me that I couldn't run again? Couldn't write? Couldn't play baseball? Couldn't ruck? Could I accept that and move on?

Hell yes, I could... so what the hell happened to Moe Berg? The guy had everything and nothing.. and he combined the two into a strange amalgam of mystery and sadness. Read The Catcher was a Spy if you are a fan of baseball, espionage, or clinical psychosis. How's THAT for a recommendation?

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