Aside from his native brilliance (he begged his mom to let him start school at age 3), Berg excelled through hard work and attention to detail. Born in 1902 in New York City, he overcame poverty, prejudice and danger as the son of Jewish immigrants.
Some clues to Berg’s adaptiveness:
- He exploited his “outsider” status. In the face of anti-Semitism at Princeton University, he redoubled his studies, becoming a brilliant linguist who mastered 12 languages plus Egyptian hieroglyphics. During World War II, he was one of the best U.S. spies, charged with assassinating a German scientist in charge of building an atomic bomb.
- He valued precision. Berg once played a string of 75 games for the Washington Senators in the 1930s without making one error. That same attention to detail helped him in his espionage career.
- He cranked it up when necessary. Berg’s dad disapproved of baseball, so the boy aced his studies to remain both a scholar and an athlete. For good measure, he picked up a law degree at Columbia University and passed the New York bar.
- He was resourceful. He never learned to drive, which actually helped him figure out how to better maneuver in his spy days by hopping trains, hitchhiking and secretly moving from place to place.
- He believed in himself. Berg’s self-confidence complemented his powers of concentration. In the dugout, he read textbooks, wasting no time but remaining humble about his accomplishments. He was “as smart a ballplayer as ever came along,” said baseball giant Casey Stengel. “It was amazing how he got all that knowledge and used them penetrating words, but he never put on too strong. They all thought he was like me, you know, a bit eccentric.”