Thursday, March 08, 2007

Book Review - The Catcher Was A Spy, by Nicholas Dawidoff

The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg

This is going to sound like an odd way to start a book review, but I think this book would have been a lot better to read when it first came out thirteen years ago than it is now, because of the internet. See, ten years ago if I'd wanted to find out more about Moe Berg, I would have pretty much had to go to the library, find books like this one, look up old articles on microfilm, etc. But nowadays, you type "Moe Berg" into Google, and you'll come up with plenty of information on him -- stats, stories, images, etc -- probably enough to sate your curiosity, at least.

If you don't know who Moe Berg was, he was a major league baseball player -- and not a particularly great one, but good enough to stick around for almost 20 years -- who also happened to graduate from Princeton, get a law degree from Columbia, learn to speak several foreign languages, work in the OSS and CIA, and served as a spy for the US in World War II in Europe. Legend also says that he learned to speak Japanese fluently while on the boat to Japan in 1932, and that during the infamous MLB all-star baseball tour of Japan in 1934 he shot videos of Tokyo that were used for air raids in WWII. (But the research in this book indicates that neither of those were actually the exact truth.) And after WWII, he was basically a freeloader for the rest of his life, wandering all over the place.

The problem with this book is that it's basically one big research project on a guy who tried to make sure nobody would ever find out what the hell he was doing with his life -- and who didn't really DO anything with his life after World War II -- so, at least for me, I found the first half of it pretty fascinating, with the baseball and the trips to Japan and the war stuff. Once Moe Berg's life became aimless, so did my attention span for the book. So many people wander in and out of the pages, and there were so many people whose lives Moe Berg wandered in and out of, that it's just hard to keep track of all the fragments. I actually had stopped reading it for a few days' worth of bus commutes, but then Berg's birthday last week (on March 2nd) reminded me that I should finish it.

This book is the reverse of your typical baseball biography that mostly involves baseball and then a little bit of other stuff. It's definitely about one of the most unique people in the history of baseball, and full of anecdotes, but yet, maybe it's TOO comprehensive a volume on "what the hell was the deal with Moe Berg?". It's just that it doesn't work very well as a bus book, and my guess is that someone who doesn't have a deep curiosity about Moe Berg is probably also going to lose momentum reading it halfway through. The latter half of the book is arranged by geography rather than chronologically, too, which gets a little confusing at times -- I kept finding myself mentally doing math to try to remember how old Berg was at any point in which he was wandering around some location or another.

Oh yeah, and there were a bazillion typos in the spelling of Japanese names and places, but my guess is that most people reading this wouldn't even notice or care about most of them, and I'm just picky.

I'm glad that Dawidoff did the research to put this book together, and I think it's a pretty useful historical source, but my recommendation on this book for the typical baseball book fan is to check it out from the library and really read the first half, and then skim the rest for interesting people and places that jump out at you on the pages. It's probably a little bit too much to get through for someone who just has a casual curiosity about Berg.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

I completely agree!! I started this book and loved it for about the first half or two-thirds.... I am now completely bored with it. I am thirty pages from the end and haven't cared to pick it back up. In fact, I started Gone With the Wind (completely different genre, I know) yesterday because I'd forgotten about this book. First time in my life I forgot about a book I hadn't finished yet.

Great review.