I was in the garage today and noticed a box full of hyacinth bulbs that I had really good intentions of planting last fall. Right on top is a white teacup and saucer with a hyacinth bulb with a bright green shoot pressing out of the papery purple skin. On a cold, dreary day last spring, a friend brought that little piece of springtime into my home, and here it was, trying to bloom again. It just may be possible to get the rest of these neglected bulbs into the ground too, although I think I may have already missed this year’s growing season by failing to give them the opportunity to live up to their potential.
Here’s a thought about living up to your potential: How do you know what it is, and how do you measure it? While I was rummaging around today looking for great examples of people who “fell short” of their potential, I discovered Moe Berg, a third-string catcher. His father considered him a complete failure, because despite the fact that Bernard (Moe’s father), a Russian-Jewish immigrant had manage to build a life for his family in the United States and educate his son well, all Moe wanted to do was play baseball. What a waste of time for a boy with Moe’s intellect!
It is true that Moe was bright. His father had helped him learn Hebrew and Yiddish, and by the time he graduated from high school, Moe could also speak Latin, Greek, and French. Once at Princeton, he added Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit to his list of learned languages, and then graduated magna cum laude. Still, to his father’s dismay, he chose to “waste” his intellect to play professional baseball. As he traveled the world, he added abilities in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Arabic, Portuguese, and Hungarian. What no one, including his father, apparently knew, was that Moe’s path in life, also included covert opportunities to use his linguistic abilities as a spy for the United States. He used his cover as a baseball player in at least one significant instance when the U.S. sent him to Japan as a member of an all-star team that included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. While in Japan, Moe went to a local hospital to take flowers to the sick daughter of a U.S. diplomat, but never delivered them. Instead, he went to the roof of the hospital–then the tallest building in Tokyo–and filmed the harbor, the city, railway yards, and other potential military targets. During World War II several years later, those films were used by U.S. intelligence to plan a raid on Tokyo. His other exploits included parachuting into Yugoslavia, and later penetrating Norway in order to help the British destroy a plant where the Nazis were attempting to develop an atomic bomb.
This “third-string” catcher was also sent to a lecture in Germany given by a German physicist, Werner Heisenberg, to help determine whether Heisenberg had been successful helping the Nazis discover the secrets that would unlock their ability to produce an atomic bomb. Moe Berg’s instructions, if he determined that Heisenberg had managed to “crack the code” for developing an atomic bomb, were to assassinate the Nobel Laureate using a gun he had hidden in his coat, and then ingest a cyanide pill he was also carrying. Third-string catcher indeed. Moe was later awarded America’s highest civilian honor–the Medal of Merit–but he refused to accept it. Instead, his sister accepted it for him after his death.
Steve Jobs, who was speaking at a now-famous Stanford commencement in June, 2005, has said,
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
I have no idea for certain whether Moe Berg was a hero or a villain. That all depends on your perspective, and your nationality. I’m not certain whether his father, who never attended a single one of Moe’s baseball games, was correct–that Moe wasted his intellect–or whether Moe actually performed his mission exactly as he had intended to all along. Only Moe himself can say. In the meantime, I’m going to go ahead and put my poor little hyacinth bulb into the ground and watch to see if it ever fully reaches its potential again. As Moe might say to me, maybe it already has.
“The Third-String Catcher,” Wicked 109, Gun and Game Forum, Discussion in “The Powder Keg,” March 17, 2014. Accessed March 14, 2015. https://www.gunandgame.com/threads/the-third-string-catcher.168786/
“Moe Berg: Catcher and Spy.” Nick Acocella, Sportcentury Biography, ESPN Classic. Accessed March 14, 2015. http://espn.go.com/classic/biography/s/Berg_Moe.html
“‘You’ve God to Find What You Love’ Jobs Says,” Stanford Report, June 14, 2005, Stanford News. June 14, 2005. Accessed March 10, 2015. http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html