Moe Berg’s Blues

He wasn’t fat at all – in fact, he was a skinny little kid – but he knew his nickname at school was “Ass Burger.” He didn’t think it was very original. Nevertheless, he avoided conflict (and eye contact) and only a few of the older kids, jocks, had ever said it to his face. In a world of frustration, he kept his head down. He lived mostly inside his own mind.

For years now, his mother had been organizing get-togethers with some of the other boys who were thought to be like him. It was a chance for the mothers to talk in the kitchen, drink wine, and feel better about their situations. The boys usually played video games in Isaac’s room; they didn’t talk much at all and were predictably impatient with each other. They had a lot in common but they rarely agreed, for instance, to try to watch a movie with realistic (human) characters. Isaac had started to notice that the others couldn’t really follow a plot from beginning to end. They were all (including Isaac at times) confused when things seemed to happen out of order.

The other boys – who were very smart, actually – liked virtual interactions (action-adventures) that kept going forward with reflexive and repetitive motion, on and on. The conclusions were just combative interruptions. There was no endgame – unless, by chance, they were playing chess.

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Isaac liked baseball. His favorite team was the Mariners, but he had never been to the stadium. Crowds and loud noises frightened him. He hated amusement parks and fireworks. He didn’t care for bright lights or powerful smells either. The grocery store – when he went with his mom – was a nightmare. He had bad dreams about the coffee aisle.

He didn’t trust microwaves and he would only eat plain hamburgers; he didn’t understand the taste or texture of condiments. He always wore the same type of shirts because of the way they felt on his skin. What really frustrated him – and made him mad – was that other (normal) people didn’t understand.

Isaac kept a detailed journal on Seattle baseball statistics. He called it his Book of the Ancient Mariners because he liked the way that sounded, and he didn’t let anyone else see his “research.” He wasn’t supposed to be very abstract but of course he had a fine imagination. The pages in his Book were filled with charts, columns, and lists. He was amazing with numbers and valued odd digits much more highly than the even ones, which were suspicious to him. He was indifferent to math at school, though, especially the easy kind.

*By weighing himself before he got into a full bathtub, he could accurately predict the amount of water he would be displacing.

In addition to details like decimals, which had great potential, Isaac was intrigued by individual words (the way they sounded in his head), which was probably unusual for someone like him? He liked to read more and more because it was another thing to do when he was alone. His mom would take him to the library and he would spend hours in the stacks, even though the sheer number of volumes (and therefore the astronomical number of words) could be overwhelming.

He handled the books bravely at first, as if they had fangs.

He didn’t go to the young adult section at all, only the adult nonfiction stacks. He checked out hardcovers, mostly biographies about famous explorers, legendary baseball players, and important scientists. Some of the books took a long time to read and the librarians were used to him loaning them over and over.

Plenty of the advanced reading material was frustrating or went over his head, particularly when the relationships were humanized and subdivided in ways that seemed illogical. But Isaac was curious. If he tried hard enough he could begin to imagine what it was like to be someone else.

Isaac’s favorite passages often contained conversations that had taken place. He was engaged by the printed words in between quotation marks, perhaps because he was used to being entertained by his own inner dialogue. Everyday conversations with other people were still largely a mystery to him – he didn’t know the unwritten rules. The way some people talked was incredible. It was the kind of talk he could only get from reading.

He had started to write down big vocabulary words and quotes that made an impression on him. He was learning about flashbacks and context. He even learned the difference between sympathy and empathy – though he was now growing more concerned about his (in)ability to muster sufficient amounts of either as defined within society’s margins of error.

In the books he read, strange sentences were like complicated formulas that had actual – if very evasive – rules for translation. It was sometimes OK to begin and end sentences with prepositions. He was able to ascertain that punctuation marks were like mathematical symbols in a larger equation.

Girls were still the ultimate question mark, of course. He would decide later that they were shaped like 8s and made as much sense as exclamation points or smiley faces.

Isaac still loved baseball but his Book wasn’t just about baseball anymore.

One day he got lost in the library and found himself in the fiction section, surrounded by novels. Panicked, he grabbed an unlikely paperback (of all things) because it was the first book to catch his eye. He was curious about the cover and the title: A Confederacy of Dunces.

Isaac was mesmerized by the dialogue. The main character, Ignatius, was unlike any he had ever discovered. Ignatius was smug and lazy, a ridiculous glutton who lived with his mother in New Orleans. He was a bleak critic who had odd opinions about everything – he was “socially repellent and unrepentant.” Isaac was confused by the book but it thrilled him. Ignatius had a huge vocabulary. The words were like a zoo.

He didn’t think he had much in common with Ignatius (other than having a mother), but he really related to the weird paperback for reasons he couldn’t comprehend. He thought it was…funny.

Isaac had a book report coming up. He was thinking about doing it on A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. But his mom found the novel and took it away. She didn’t understand what it was about any more than he did, but she could tell it wasn’t appropriate.

On the way home from work the next day, his mother stopped by the library, in a hurry. Isaac still had the book report coming up. Although she would have preferred to get something in the young adult section, she knew he wouldn’t stand for it. She saw a biography with an old picture of a baseball player on the front. The title of the book, which didn’t look too sophisticated, was The Catcher Was a Spy. Perfect, she thought.

Still a little mad at his mom, Isaac found the first few chapters in the new book a chore – but, mindful of obligations at school, he gave it a chance and was soon hooked on The Catcher Was a Spy. He hardly bothered to come out of his room all weekend.

He had to give the report in front of class. Normally, he would have been very nervous. Maybe too nervous to go through with it. But he was feeling – confident?

The report was supposed to be at least three minutes long, which was longer than people might think. Isaac had it timed almost to the second. He was like a machine.

He had transcribed some of the difficult language the biographer used, word for word, and he liked the way it flowed. He had also looked up information on the Internet and copied it down in order to support his own ideas and research. If this was stealing, Isaac didn’t do it on purpose.

In front of the class, he read from his notes, delivering his report on The Catcher Was a Spy by Nicholas Dawidoff. Isaac wanted his classmates to hear about Moe Berg and he wanted the words to sound almost like a story in a book:

— Moe Berg was born in 1902.

— As a kid, he gravitated toward baseball, maybe because it was a sport that had a lot of space and didn’t require him to be touched very often. It was a cerebral sport filled with dummies. He must have enjoyed inhabiting an imaginary world behind his catcher’s mask.

— Berg knew he was different early on. He thought it could be his Jewishness.

— But it was something else. As a baseball player at Princeton around 1920, he fell in love with languages.

— Some said he even knew Sanskrit – but that might have been an exaggeration. It was an established fact, however, that he knew at least a half a dozen languages.

— Somebody in the pros said: “He can speak seven languages, but he can’t hit in any of them.”

— Moe Berg’s nickname in the majors was “The Professor.” *He once starred as a contestant on a radio quiz show.

— He thrived as a catcher in the bullpen, where his only job was to warm up a pitcher every so often (and to give them pointers on how to get batters out). Then he would sit down in the bullpen and return to his newspaper, unfolding it again just so.

— He was good at catching knuckleballs when he felt like it.

— He “played” for Brooklyn, Chicago, Cleveland, and Washington.

— Some of his teammates thought he was joking when he warned them not to touch his newspapers. He wasn’t joking. He picked up new papers every morning, hopefully in a different city, and he guarded them until he could disappear behind the unspoiled pages.

— According to Dawidoff, he tried to juggle raw eggs – but only once.

— Moe Berg had a lifetime batting average of .243 with a grand total of 6 home runs.

— Near the end of his professional career, he traveled to Japan with a group of all-stars like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to play exhibition baseball games. Only he didn’t plan on playing much in Japan — he was busy planning something else that was top secret.

— After baseball, he joined the war as a spy. He knew German, understood physics, and went around world with the O.S.S. He was seeking covert glory, partaking in espionage.

— He met Albert Einstein.

— Dawidoff wrote: “Potential was a red herring to plot a life of wandering curiosity.”

— After the war, Moe Berg just drifted. Learning and life started to become meaningless. It was as if there were no more books and newspapers – no more secret missions or exotic places – that felt new to him anymore. The only languages that were still speaking to him were filled with conspiracies.

— He was a vagabond, waiting for his obituary to be printed on paper that other hands would be touching and passing along with disregard for human decency, without any respect for theology and geometry.

— Moe Berg was a catcher and a spy, a genius who couldn’t be bothered when he was busy hiding behind things or pretending to be someone else.

— He died in 1972. *The end.

Isaac looked up, prepared to meet eye-to-eye with his classmates for a change. But almost all of them were looking down at their desks and fidgeting, either bored or lost in their own limited imaginations, uncomfortable. They hadn’t understood.

The teacher, Mrs. Fletcher, gave him a smile and seemed pleased. Isaac returned to his desk and looked at the library book he had left lying there. He wondered how many people before him had checked it out, how many of them had touched the pages with dirty hands, how many of them had struggled to make sense of the person and the world the words described. He wondered how many people could relate.

He put the book out of his mind for the moment. Isaac sat down with his head held high. He knew that he would always be able to use his imagination when he wanted to, but what he really wanted, now, was his own plot – like a satisfying illustration on graph paper marked by varying points of reference and connecting lines.

It was OK if other people didn’t understand. He would never be an Ass Burger again. It was a matter of common decency, a question of theology and geometry. His worldview had changed.

Lance Feyh lives and writes in the Ozarks, where he enjoys indoor plumbing. Lance is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is currently finishing a novel.