There are two types of players who tend to have longer careers then their abilities seem to predict. The first is now known as the left-handed pitching specialist. When you hear of people such as Tony Fossas or Jesse Orosco pitching into their 40’s, one realizes if you can throw a strike to a left-handed batter as a left-handed pitcher, you just might have a long career ahead in the major leagues. The other position is that of back-up catcher as some teams would rather have a catcher who can handle just about any situation but realizes they are not an everyday player at that point of their career. Henry Blanco, who still has a very strong arm, is a great example of a modern catcher who hung around for years without performing much on the field.
In the 1920’s and 30’s, an Ivy-League educated catcher followed a similar career. Moe Berg graduated from Princeton and attended Columbia Law school while pursuing a big league career. Berg came up to the majors as a shortstop but eventually moved behind the plate when many of his White Sox teammates were injured. As it developed, Berg had quite the aptitude for catching.
Of course, he did have other life interests, of which one was serving the United States as a spy. The first time we are truly aware of Berg’s “hobby” was when during a trip to Japan in the 1930’s, he secretly took photos which were later used in Jimmy Doolittle’s famed Tokyo raid during World War II.
Meanwhile, Berg’s career was beginning a wandering pattern which would continue until he retired as a player and then he spent a couple of years as a coach before going overseas as a spy during World War II. Berg is considered responsible for helping several of the key German scientists come to America after World War II ended.
Berg’s service ended any official affiliation with baseball. Before World War II, however, Berg showed up in several well-known card sets. His first appearance was in the 1929 Kashin Publications issue, which can be found in very nice condition for under $250. He’s in the 1933 Goudey and 1939-40 Play Ball sets, the latter of which can be found for well under $100. That’s more than you might expect for a ‘common’ player but there was nothing common about Moe Berg. His notoriety and the clamoring for his card among Jewish collectors have kept interest and prices relatively strong.
You can also find him in the 1933 World Wide Gum issue, the 1934 Batter Up and 1936 National Chicle Fine Pen issues.
Berg and his brother Sam actually collected his cards and they were sold by the estate in 2006. Several of them can be found on eBay with a “Moe Berg Collection” provenance.
Any Berg cards are still very popular with collectors and fans who know his amazing story. In fact Princeton University even has a small collection devoted to him and the CIA has a card of him among its displays in Washington.
There’s a fascinating book about his life and career entitled The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg.
Now more than 40 years after he breathed his last with his final words reported to be: “How did the Mets do today?,” the legend of Moe Berg continues and although high graded cards might fetch a significant premium, one can buy a near complete collection of Berg’s cards in collector condition at a very reasonable price. And isn’t that a cheap price to pay for a bit of American history?