Boston Red Sox: A most unique backup catcher

Apr 13, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) is congratulated by catcher Ryan Hanigan (10) after defeating the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 13, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) is congratulated by catcher Ryan Hanigan (10) after defeating the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

The Boston Red Sox have had some interesting backup catchers and one was a spy.

The Boston Red Sox are rather fortunate in one specific area and that is at backup catcher, with Ryan Hanigan the current title holder, at least he returns from the disabled list. Now backup does have a certain connotation attached to it in that you are simply not talented enough to be a regular catcher.

The Red Sox pay Hanigan $3.7 million a year for his services and that certainly provides some excellent tutelage for the younger catchers – Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez. The Red Sox are willing to pay a premium simply because it is worth it and they can.

The hard facts of baseball life are a backup catcher has two qualities that are usually independent of one another: Excellent defensive skills or some good pop with the bat. If both were present, they would not be a backup.

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One can certainly provide an extensive list of backup catchers in Red Sox history and some – such as Doug Mirabelli – have extended employment thanks to certain abilities such as catching a knuckleball. But “The tools of ignorance” also have been graced in Boston with a most unusual baseball character – an educated raconteur and spy – Moe Berg.

Berg spent 15 years in the majors and slashed .243/.278/.299 with six home runs and 202 RBI in 663 games, with the last five years of his career being spent with the Red Sox. Berg was never a great catcher, but there was another side to Berg – intellectual and spy.

Berg grew up in the tenements of Manhattan and eventually attended Princeton, where he studied languages and baseball as eventual team captain in his senior year. Berg later went on to graduate from Columbia Law School and reportedly spoke 12 languages.

"“The most scholarly athlete I ever knew.” – John Kiran NYT."

In 1932 Berg toured Japan with two other players, putting on clinics at various colleges. When the tour concluded Berg stayed behind and toured Japan and later China, Egypt and Germany and that exposure would be of value in another tour of Japan.

When baseball took a tour of Japan in 1934 among the stars was the light hitting Berg – why? Reportedly, it was intelligence gathering, as Berg went to the roof of a local hospital to snap photos of Tokyo. Later in the famous Doolittle Raid in 1942 the photos were examined, but rejected as too old.

"I’d rather be a ballplayer than a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.” – Moe Berg"

In 1943, Berg joined or was recruited by the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the forerunner of the CIA, to participate in missions in Europe and gather intelligence. One mission was in Yugoslavia to determine which group of partisans to support and another mission was one of assassination.

Berg posed as a German businessman in Switzerland with the goal of the mission to assassinate Werner Heisenberg, a German scientist working on the atomic bomb. Berg later determined that the German’s were not close to bomb development and the assassination did not take place.

Berg lived on the fringe and most notably at Princeton, where being Jewish – as Berg was – excluded one from many social opportunities. Berg would disappear for days at a time and kept his private life just that – private. A loner is the best term to describe his personality and Berg was often viewed by friends and family as aloof. This is a thread that runs through Berg’s entire life.

"“Moe Berg can speak twelve languages, but can’t hit any of them!” – Dave Harris"

Tom Yawkey of the Red Sox and Ted Lyons of the White Sox both offered Berg coaching positions and he declined. Berg also did not pursue teaching or the law, never taking advantage of his baseball or intellectual chips. Eventually, Berg managed employment with the CIA for a few years before returning to a life of solitude when the CIA refused repeatedly to renew his contract.

Berg then somewhat drifted keeping his usual low profile and spending his energies with his books. Maintaining a protective distance from intrusive inquisitors and eventually suffering business losses that forced him to live with a brother Samuel and when that failed his sister Ethel.

Berg never wrote about himself and rejected attempts to profile his life and even rejected the Medal of Freedom that was awarded to him. Berg, who never married, died in 1972 from a fall at Ethel’s home.

Expect the life of Berg to soon be on film to follow his exploits from being a witness to the famed “Murder’s Row” of the Yankees to his clandestine efforts before, during and after WW II.

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When Hanigan returns to catch he may find it easier to be a spy living on the razor of danger than attempting to corner Steven Wright’s knuckleball.

Sources:  The Catcher Was a spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg – Nicholas Dawidoff