Text written by Albert Kilchesty
Spy Catcher Brand (private collection)
It was said of the erudite Moe Berg that “he can speak twelve languages, but he can’t hit in any of them.” A Princeton graduate with a genius for languages, Berg (1902‒1972), who would later pass the New York bar exam, began his career as a shortstop with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1923. After failing as an infielder because of his inability to hit, Berg moved to catcher, a position that appealed to his natural intelligence, and served as a second-string receiver for a handful of generally dreadful teams. So when he was selected to an All-Star team of American players about to tour Japan in 1934, many scratched their heads in puzzlement. This man clearly had no place in the same locker room, let alone on the same field, with the likes of Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Al Simmons and other greats of the day. What no one knew, however, was that Berg had been approached by the U.S. government to spy on Japan. Equipped with a motion picture camera Berg surreptitiously filmed military and industrial sites in Tokyo and other cities that were later used to identify bombing targets during WWII. Moe became a member of the OSS, the CIA’s predecessor, and was assigned to covert operations. During the war, he was instructed to assassinate Nazi nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg, who was leading Germany’s research into atomic weapons. When Berg realized that the Germans weren’t remotely close to manufacturing the bomb, he let Heisenberg live. Later in life, Berg was named to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but when he learned that his espionage exploits abroad were still classified, he passed on the honor. That medal is now on display at the Hall of Fame. Berg remained a cipher to the last, frequently dismissing former acquaintances with a finger to his lips indicating “Shhhh, I can’t talk about what I’m doing.” Casey Stengel, who met plenty of odd birds during his life, called Berg “the strangest fella I ever met.” Strange but true. Maybe.
Roy Campanella (1921‒1993) was one of the finest catchers in National League history. The son of an Italian father and a black mother, Campanella spent his teenage years with the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro Leagues. The catching prodigy inked a minor league deal with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946 and made his debut with the big club in 1948, the year after his teammate Jackie Robinson broke the so-called color line. The team he joined was about to enjoy an unprecedented streak of success. From 1949 through 1956, the Dodgers were five-time NL champs spearheaded by Campanella’s three MVP campaigns in 1951, 1953 and 1955. An exact contemporary of the hated Yankees’ Yogi Berra, Campy’s Dodgers won their only World Championship in 1955 after failing in their other World Series appearances. He was preparing to move with the Dodgers to Los Angeles during the 1957 off-season when his career was tragically ended by a car accident, which left him paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. Nonetheless, he remained a source of inspiration to the club until his death.
Yogi Brand (private collection)
Many people today are still under the misapprehension that the late Lawrence Peter Berra (1925‒2015) received his nickname “Yogi” because of a resemblance to an eastern yoga master. He was a catcher, after all, and spent most of his playing career in a squat. No one who ever heard Berra interviewed on radio or TV would mistake him for one of elevated spirituality, so maybe his sobriquet was one of those baseball things where a player is christened with a nickname which is the exact opposite of his nature. For example, pitcher Sloppy Thurston got his nickname because he was an immaculate dresser. That sort of thing. In point of fact, however, the tag “yogi” had nothing to do with either. In the St. Louis neighborhood of The Hill, where Berra grew up, a “yogi” was a name given by kids to any eccentric, oddball or character from the area. Berra certainly fit that bill.