Mysterious Moe

Charlie Graham’s friend and fellow catcher wasn’t just clever behind the plate. He was an undercover agent for the OSS.

Charlie Graham’s friend and fellow catcher wasn’t just clever behind the plate. He was an undercover agent for the OSS.

The baseball career of Charlie Graham 1898 spanned four decades as a player, manager, and owner in the Pacific Coast League, most notably as longtime owner of the beloved San Francisco Seals. Over that time his path crossed with many of the game’s most famous, and most singular, personalities—including Moe Berg, the longtime big league catcher, graduate of Princeton University and Columbia Law School, and who may have not only spied on Japan and Germany, but also been sent on an assassination mission during World War II.

One anecdote that didn’t make it into the article on Charlie Graham in the print edition of the Spring/Summer 2015 Santa Clara Magazine is this: It is August 1945, and Fran Smith, S.J., ’56 and his brother Mike Smith ’54 are listening to the radio at home. A news bulletin interrupts the airwaves, announcing that the United States has dropped an atomic bomb on Japan.

The Smiths’ grandfather, Charlie, bursts into the room and asks them to turn up the volume. As he listens, Charlie sits down and shakes his head: “Moe was right,” he says.

Charlie tells his grandsons that just the day before, Moe Berg had been at Seals Stadium and, while discussing current events with Graham—his friend and fellow former catcher—Berg made a cryptic remark that the war would be over very soon. Unknown to Graham was that Berg had been serving as a spy throughout World War II for the Office of Strategic Services (later called the CIA).

The story of Moe Berg’s career, from ball and bat to cloak and dagger, was recently told by filmmakers Christina Burchard and Daniel Newman in their short film Spyball—part of ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series.

Santa Clara Magazine caught up with the filmmakers to find out more about another clever catcher.

SCM: Charlie Graham and Moe Berg were two very smart guys who took to catching. What is it about this taxing and dangerous position that attracts intelligent people?

Daniel Newman: Catching is a multitasking position and a solitary one. Among a catcher’s duties is to call pitches, watch for baserunners, align the infield and outfield, take orders from the dugout, sweet talk the ump, and dodge flying bats all the while. It is no wonder that catcher’s gear is often referred to as “the tools of ignorance.”

Christina Burchard: The pitcher and the catcher are the two most cerebral positions on the field. If a player is not a natural born pitcher, then I imagine the logical choice for a player who is also highly intelligent would be catching. Catching puts them in a position to analyze, strategize, and be a part of calling the game. It engages both their intellect and their skill as a player. And like Daniel mentioned, it’s ironic that these highly intelligent men would put on their “tools of ignorance” and brave bats and 100 mph balls zooming towards their head. But that’s the fun part, right? The adrenaline, the danger, being right up in the middle of the game. Makes sense that Moe Berg wouldn’t be deterred by the potential dangers in espionage.

SCM: How did you discover the story of Moe Berg?

DN: I first heard about Moe as a child, in baseball card and memorabilia circles … In the days of pre-Internet it was nearly impossible for me to find much useful information about Mysterious Moe. So my imagination ran wild and I envisioned Moe with a Minox-like spy camera in his catcher’s mitt taking rolls of pictures throughout the 1934 Tour of Japan from behind the plate during games.

CB: When Daniel told me about Moe Berg I thought it was an unbelievably fascinating story. I had also just finished some additional editing on a film called Citizenfour which is about the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. I was looking for another project to sink into and Spyball seemed like a natural progression. Today, intelligence gathering is largely conducted by someone sitting behind a computer deciphering information. But with Moe Berg we loved the idea that he was a a sort of gentleman spy, a man who had to have boots on the ground and use his wit to cipher information. Moe captured our imagination and we had a great time making the film together.

SCM: What’s your favorite Moe Berg anecdote?

DN: Allegedly, Moe would collect dictionaries and spend his free time combing them for errors/omissions … for whatever reason, I find this anecdote even more ludicrous than his belief that newspapers were alive.

CB: I love the idea that Moe would sit in the dugout and read newspapers in foreign languages. Just seems so ludicrous to look over and see a man in uniform and cleats reading the daily news. Other players really loved him. In between innings he would tell outrageous stories about his travels and he’d have these farm boys in stitches.

SCM: Do you think Berg was a better catcher, spy, or storyteller?

DN: Moe was a great “spoatchryteller”—a catcher, spy, and storyteller all rolled into one … but perhaps he was best at being an enigma.

CB: I think Daniel nailed it! Moe was a “spoatchryteller”!

SCM: Berg has been called both the strangest and smartest person to play baseball. Which do you think he was?

DN: It depends on your definition of strange—Dude Esterbrook, Hughie Jennings, The House of David, Spec Bebop, Richard “King Tut” King, Jackie Price, Bill “Spaceman” Lee (our narrator for Spyball), and countless other players in the history of the game of baseball were/are equally eccentric. There’s been a number of smart players too—but I’d reckon that Moe is a serious contender for being the most intelligent … at least as far as book smarts are concerned.

SCM: Finally, if you had to send one of today’s professional athletes on a spy mission, who would you choose?

DN: [San Francisco Giants Manager] Bruce Bochy.

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