In honor of Veteran’s Day, I figured I’d take a look at two of the more noteworthy veterans to play for the Indians – Bob Feller and Moe Berg. Even though both men served their country, their experiences in life, the military, and on the field, are quite different.
Feller’s service record is discussed more frequently; he was absent during some of the prime years of his career in order to volunteer for service during World War II. Feller is a Hall of Famer, plus he was a lifelong Cleveland Indian, maintaining a heavy involvement with the team until his death in December of 2010. Berg’s exploits on the field paled in comparison to Feller’s, but his story is still quite an intriguing one; no other Major Leaguers can claim that they went behind enemy lines to spy on enemies of the United States.
Feller made his Major League debut on July 19, 1936 at the age of 17; he didn’t graduate high school in Van Meter, Iowa, until the spring of 1937. Feller enlisted in the Navy on December 9, 1941, just two days after Pearl Harbor was bombed. At the time, the 22-year-old had a 107-54 career won-loss record; he led the American League in wins the prior three seasons, and led the Majors in strikeouts for the prior four seasons.
A chief petty officer, Feller also served as a physical training instructor after he reported for duty in 1942. Even though the training instructor position fit with his sports background, Feller wanted to see combat. He was eventually assigned as a gun captain to the battleship USS Alabama. The ship was stationed in the Pacific and saw action in several violent battles.
After the war, Feller was awarded five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars for his service. He rejoined the Indians in August of 1945, and in his first game back pitched a complete game, allowing six hits and striking out 12. In his next three seasons after WWII, Feller led the Major Leagues in strikeouts; he led American League pitchers in wins for the next two years. Despite three years removed from the baseball, two of which were spent in intense combat, Feller pitched as if he was never away from the game.
Feller spent his entire career with the Indians from 1936 to 1956; during that time he was 266-162 with a 3.25 ERA and 2,581 strikeouts. Feller’s number 19 was retired by the Indians after the 1956 season and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962. He remains the only pitcher thus far to toss an opening day no hitter.
Moe Berg took a different path to the Majors – a 1923 graduate of Princeton University, he played baseball on the school’s squad. He studied classical and Romance languages, and was reportedly fluent in a number of different languages. Berg played professional baseball after his graduation, and also received a law degree from Colombia University in 1930.
Berg started his involvement with the government in 1934, when he went with a group of Major Leaguers (a group that included Babe Ruth and fellow Indians Earl Averill and Clint Brown) to play in Japan. While visiting the country, Berg took a number of covert photographs of the Tokyo skyline from the roof of a hospital (he pretended to visit an ambassador’s daughter in the hospital). Pilots viewed Berg’s photos prior to a 1942 U.S. raid on Tokyo, but by that point they were almost too outdated to be of any use. What’s ironic about Berg’s mission is that the Japanese thought there may be a spy with the group of Americans. However, they spent much of their focus on Babe Ruth, ignoring the man that actually planned to take information back to the U.S. government.
By 1943 Berg was recruited by the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) the precursor to the CIA. Supposedly, one of Berg’s covert tasks with the OSS was to assassinate scientist Werner Heisenberg, a man suspected of working on the atomic bomb for Germany. Berg’s assignment was to assassinate Heisenberg and then take cyanide to avoid capture. When Berg determined that Germany was not close to atomic bomb technology, he did not follow through with the plan.
As for his playing career, he spent much of his time as a catcher, but also played shortstop. With the Indians in 1931 and again in 1934, he played for the Dodgers, White Sox, Senators and Red Sox during a career that spanned from 1923-1939. Even with his lengthy Major League career, Berg was a mediocre hitter at best; his career numbers were .243/.278/.299. With the Indians, he was .236/.250/.291.
Berg never married and spent much of his late life attending Mets games in New York. He died in 1972 after a fall at his sister’s home.
While Bob Feller was involved with the game for more than 50 years after he retired, Moe Berg never had any involvement with the game beyond serving as a spectator.
(I apologize for the tardiness of this post…I hoped to post it on Veteran’s Day, but when you’re a full time grad student with two jobs, sometimes things just don’t go according to plan!)