Though his 15-year playing career yielded less-than-spectacular numbers (.243 average, 6 career home runs), Moe Berg led an altogether intriguing existence, engaging in covert activities around the world as his baseball contemporaries plied their crafts on the diamond. The offered heirloom is a spectacular artifact in that it simultaneously touches on Berg’s baseball and international endeavors. Obtained by Berg during the 1934 Tour of Japan, this baseball-themed porcelain ash tray is signed by the multi-lingual backstop in both English and Japanese. Preceded by an inscription (in Berg’s hand) to Washington Senators teammate Tommy Thomas, Berg’s black ink signatures both project (“8”) strength and clarity. This one of a kind keepsake was penned by perhaps the most inscrutable athlete in history. Full photo LOA from JSA. More on our website.
The porcelain keepsake was crafted and hand painted in Japan by “Noritake” (as evidenced by a stamping on the underside). Appropriately, the cylinder is shaped like a catcher’s mitt. A protruding baseball is signed “To Tommy Thomas Japan 1934” (with additional Japanese characters). On the “mitt” portion, Berg has penned “with best wishes from (signed) Moe Berg.” Affixed to the piece is a 5” baseball bat on which Berg has signed his name in Japanese.
Both baseball and learning were important to Berg at an early age. Apparently, so too, were his “undercover” tendencies. At the age of 7, Berg went by the self-given pseudonym “Runt Wolfe” during his first baseball activities. Even when he reached the Major League level, the diamond was not his first priority. Following the 1923 season (Berg’s first in the big leagues), he sailed from New York to Paris, where he enrolled in 32 classes. In January of 1924, Berg toured Italy and Switzerland rather than stay in the U.S. and prepare for the upcoming season. Fluent in seven languages, Berg was decidedly well read. He read roughly 10 different newspapers every day. Until he finished a newspaper, Berg considered it “alive” and nobody else could touch it.
With his second suitors, the Chicago White Sox, similar choices left no doubt as to Berg’s preferences. In 1926, he boldly informed the club that he was skipping spring training and the first two months of the season so he could complete his first year at Columbia law school.
By many accounts (although, who really knows) Berg’s international espionage activities began on the 1934 Tour of Japan. As the team (of which Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were members) played in Omiya on November 29, Berg went to St. Luke’s hospital in Tsukiji, ostensibly, to visit the daughter of an American ambassador. Berg never paid such a visit. Instead, he sneaked to the roof of the hospital where he filmed the city, its skyline and harbor with a 16mm Bell and Howell movie camera. This footage was reportedly used by U.S. military strategists during World War II, during which time, Berg served as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA).
Again, we’ll never know the extent of Berg’s activities. That, of course, is inherent to his line of work. One certainty, however, is that this autographed treasure holds infinite appeal on both baseball and international espionage circles.