November 29, 1934 (a Thursday)

In 1934, a group of All-Stars, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, and Lefty Gomez, toured Japan playing 18 exhibition games against a Japanese all-star team. Baseball catcher Morris “Moe” Berg was invited at the last minute to make the trip. Fellow teammates and baseball fans wondered why a player with a lifetime average of only .243 was chosen for the All-Star team. The reason was never disclosed.

Among the items Berg took with him to Japan were a 16-mm Bell and Howell movie camera and a letter from Movietone News, a New York City newsreel production company with which Berg had contracted to film the sights of his trip. When the team arrived in Japan, Berg gave a welcome speech in Japanese and also addressed the legislature.

On today’s date, 29 November 1934, while the rest of the team was playing in Omiya, Berg went to Saint Luke’s International Hospital in Tsukiji carrying a bouquet of flowers ostensibly intended for American Ambassador Joseph Grew’s daughter (Mrs. Cecil Burton), who had recently given birth. In fluent Japanese, he told the receptionist he was there to visit the Ambassador’s daughter. He was directed to take the elevator to her fifth floor room. Security guards allowed him to pass. But, instead of going to her fifth floor room, Berg took the elevator to the top floor, and then climbed the bell tower stairs.

Nicholas Dawidoff, a Berg biographer, describes what happened next:

He [Moe Berg] bluffs his way up onto the roof of the hospital, the tallest building in Tokyo at the time. And from underneath his kimono he pulls out a movie camera. He proceeds to take a series of photos panning the whole setting before him, which includes the harbor, the industrial sections of Tokyo, possibly munitions factories and things like that. Then he puts the camera back under his kimono and leaves the hospital with these films.

Berg never did see the Ambassador’s daughter.

A brief biography of Moe Berg from the CIA.

A brief biography of Moe Berg from the CIA.

Seven years later, the film that Berg had shot was used as an aerial map in the massive B-25 firebombing of Tokyo in 1942 led by General Jimmy Doolittle. Berg would eventually become an operative for the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, but many believe that his 1934 tour of Japan was his first mission as a spy. A brief biography on the CIA website seems to confirm this:

… In 1931, Moe was traded to the Cleveland Indians, and then to the Washington Senators. The move to Washington would change his life.

Being a baseball player with vast intellectual gifts, Moe was frequently invited to embassy dinners and parties. He impressed many with his exceptional language ability and quick wit. He soon became very well known around town and caught the attention of the Roosevelt administration.

Moe played with the Senators until 1934; that year, he toured Japan with the American All-Star baseball team. While in Japan, the Japanese-speaking ball player filmed Tokyo Harbor, military installations, and other facilities for the US government. [emphasis added]

If true, this would lend credence to assertions that the US — more specifically, the Roosevelt administration — anticipated a war with Japan as early as 1934. Pearl Harbor could not have been a complete surprise to the US military.

References:

  • Nicholas Dawidoff. The Catcher was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994).
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