“Runt Wolfe is the strangest man ever to play baseball,” Casey Stengel, himself a pretty strange man, once said.
This week pitchers and catchers reported to spring training and that means that Runt Wolfe, born on March 2, 1902, if he were alive, would be reporting. He started his career in 1923 as one of Dem Bums, the old Brooklyn Dodgers, after graduating from Princeton University. Then he was traded to the Chicago White Sox where he changed positions from playing first base and shortstop to catcher before being traded once again to the Cleveland Indians and eventually the Washington Senators. The move to Washington would change his life. He became a spy.
The first organized baseball team he played for was at Roseville Methodist Episcopal Church in Newark New Jersey. Since he was Jewish, he invented a new name for himself, Runt Wolfe. He dropped the name Runt Wolfe before he joined the big leagues. His real name was Morris “Moe” Berg.
His father worked hard for thirty years so that his children would have a college education. His brother Samuel became a medical doctor, his sister Ethel a schoolteacher, and Moe became a lawyer.
A true Renaissance man, he studied classical and Romance languages: Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian. He also studied German and even Sanskrit.
Berg’s entrance into the field of intelligence began when he, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other baseball greats formed an all-star team and traveled to Japan in the mid-1930s for exhibition games.
Proficient in Japanese, Berg talked his way into one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo. He climbed to the rooftop alone and used a movie camera to film the capital city’s shipyards. Reportedly, the US used Berg’s footage to plan bombing raids over Tokyo in World War II.
Before his death in 1972, Berg said, “Maybe I’m not in the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame like so many of my baseball buddies, but I’m happy I had the chance to play pro ball and am especially proud of my contributions to my country. Perhaps I could not hit like Babe Ruth, but I spoke more languages than he did.”