The Futility Closet podcast is a weekly show featuring forgotten stories from the pages of history. Join us each Monday for surprising and curious tales from the past and to challenge yourself with our lateral thinking puzzles.

You can listen using the streaming players below, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Android, or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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If you have any questions or comments, please write to us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 237: The Baseball Spy


Moe Berg earned his reputation as the brainiest man in baseball — he had two Ivy League degrees and studied at the Sorbonne. But when World War II broke out he found an unlikely second career, as a spy trying to prevent the Nazis from getting an atomic bomb. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Berg’s enigmatic life and its strange conclusion.

We’ll also consider the value of stripes and puzzle over a fateful accident.


Johann David Steingruber devised floor plans in the shapes of letters.

At least six of Felix Mendelssohn’s songs were written by his sister Fanny.

Sources for our feature on Moe Berg:

Nicholas Dawidoff, The Catcher Was a Spy, 1994.

Louis Kaufman, Barbara Fitzgerald, and Tom Sewell, Moe Berg: Athlete, Scholar, Spy, 1996.

W. Thomas Smith, Encyclopedia of the Central Intelligence Agency, 2003.

Glenn P. Hastedt, Spies, Wiretaps, and Secret Operations: An Encyclopedia of American Espionage, 2011.

Nicholas Dawidoff, “The Fabled Moe,” American Scholar 63:3 (Summer 1994), 433-439.

Alan Owen Patterson, “The Eastern European Jewish Immigrant Experience With Baseball in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century,” Modern Judaism 28:1 (February 2008), 79-104.

“Morris ‘Moe’ Berg,” Atomic Heritage Foundation (accessed Feb. 3, 2019).

“‘Moe’ Berg: Sportsman, Scholar, Spy,” Central Intelligence Agency, Jan. 17, 2013.

Richard Sandomir, “Baseball Hall of Fame to Celebrate a Catcher (and a Spy),” New York Times, July 30, 2018.

Bruce Fretts, “Who Was Moe Berg? A Spy, a Big-League Catcher and an Enigma,” New York Times, June 21, 2018.

Josh Pollick, “Moe Berg — OK Player, Outstanding Individual,” Jerusalem Post, Dec. 30, 2004, 11.

“To Be a Spook,” Justin Ewers, et al., U.S. News & World Report 134:3 (Jan. 27, 2003).

Hal Bock, “A Catcher and a Spy — Journeyman Backstop Was an Operative During WWII — Moe Berg,” Associated Press, June 25, 2000.

Paul Schwartz, “Classic Look at Moe Berg, Catcher & Spy,” New York Post, June 21, 2000, 68.

“An Abstruse Topic Saved His Life,” New York Times, March 21, 2000.

Steve Bailey, “Moe Berg’s Legacy,” Boston Globe, Oct. 6, 1999, D1.

Jonathan Wasserman, “The Enigmatic Life of Moe Berg,” Jewish Advocate, Sept. 29, 1994, 1.

Louis Jay Herman, “‘To Hell With Moe Berg!’,” New York Times, Aug. 14, 1994.

David A. Hollinger, “How Uncertain Was He?”, New York Times, March 14, 1993.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, “Books of the Times: Did a German Scientist Prevent Catastrophe in World War II?,” New York Times, March 8, 1993.

William J. Broad, “New Book Says U.S. Plotted to Kill Top Nazi Scientist,” New York Times, Feb. 28, 1993.

Ira Berkow, “Sports of the Times; The Catcher Was Highly Mysterious,” New York Times, Dec. 14, 1989.

Bernard Kogan, “Baseball Anecdotes,” New York Times, June 4, 1989.

William Klein, “The Spy Who Came in From the Diamond,” New York Times, Dec. 1, 1985.

Moe Berg, “Baseball: What It’s All About,” New York Times, April 13, 1975.

Jonathan Schwartz, “Catcher Magna Cum Laude,” New York Times, March 30, 1975.

Dave Anderson, “Mysterious Moe Is De-Classified,” New York Times, Jan. 28, 1975.

“Moe Berg, a Catcher in Majors Who Spoke 10 Languages, Dead,” New York Times, June 1, 1972.

Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times,” New York Times, June 1, 1972.

Whitney Martin, “‘Mysterious’ Berg Well Equipped for Place of Latin Ambassador,” Wilmington [N.C.] Morning Star, Jan. 17, 1942, 6.

“Moe Berg, Red Sox, Gets Job as Envoy,” New York Times, Jan. 15, 1942.

Richard McCann, “Baseball’s One-Man Brain Trust,” [Washington D.C.] Evening Star, May 21, 1939, 11.

Tom Doerer, “Nationals Hire Berg as Manush Signs,” [Washington D.C.] Evening Star, March 10, 1932, D-1.

“Moe Berg Attracts Schalk as Catcher,” Norwalk [Conn.] Hour, Dec. 14, 1927, 17.

“Veteran Scott Will Start at Short for White Sox,” [St. Petersburg, Fla.] Evening Independent, March 24, 1926.

“White Sox Get Moe Berg,” New York Times, Sept. 16, 1925.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, This Is Your Life (UK TV series)” (accessed Feb. 5, 2019).

Wikipedia, This Is Your Life (accessed Feb. 9, 2019).

“Group Captain Sir Douglas BADER CBE, DSO, DFC, FRAeS, DL,” Big Red Book (accessed Feb. 9, 2019).

Douglas Bader on This Is Your Life.

Dick Cavett, “Can You Stand Some More Stan?” New York Times, Oct. 5, 2012.

Wikipedia, “Horse-Flies as Disease Vectors” (accessed Jan. 16, 2019).

Gábor Horváth, Ádám Pereszlényi, Susanne Åkesson, and György Kriska, “Striped Bodypainting Protects Against Horseflies,” Royal Society Open Science 6:1 (Jan. 2, 2019).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Manon Molliere. Here’s a corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 236: The Last Lap


In 1908 a 22-year-old Italian baker’s assistant arrived in London to take part in the Olympic marathon. He had no coach, he spoke no English, and he was not expected to challenge the elite runners at the top of the field. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Dorando Pietri on the most celebrated race in Olympic history.

We’ll also ponder the Great Mull Air Mystery and puzzle over a welcome murder.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 235: Leon Festinger and the Alien Apocalypse


In 1955, aliens from the planet Clarion contacted a Chicago housewife to warn her that the end of the world was imminent. Psychologist Leon Festinger saw this as a unique opportunity to test a new theory about human cognition. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow him inside a UFO religion as it approaches the apocalypse.

We’ll also try to determine when exactly LBJ became president and puzzle over some wet streets.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 234: The Dig Tree


In 1860 a party of explorers set out to traverse the Australian continent, but bad management and a series of misfortunes sent it spiraling toward tragedy. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Victorian Exploring Expedition and its dramatic climax at Cooper’s Creek.

We’ll also try to validate Archimedes and puzzle over an unlucky thief.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 233: Flight to Freedom


In 1978 two families hatched a daring plan to escape East Germany: They would build a hot-air balloon and sail it by night across the border. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow their struggles to evade the authorities and realize their dream of a new life in the West.

We’ll also shuffle some vehicles and puzzle over a perplexing worker.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 232: The Indomitable Spirit of Douglas Bader


Douglas Bader was beginning a promising career as a British fighter pilot when he lost both legs in a crash. But that didn’t stop him — he learned to use artificial legs and went on to become a top flying ace in World War II. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review Bader’s inspiring story and the personal philosophy underlay it.

We’ll also revisit the year 536 and puzzle over the fate of a suitcase.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 231: The Halifax Explosion

Image: Flickr

In 1917, a munitions ship exploded in Halifax, Nova Scotia, devastating the city and shattering the lives of its citizens. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the events of the disaster, the largest man-made explosion before Hiroshima, and the grim and heroic stories of its victims.

We’ll also consider the dangers of cactus plugging and puzzle over why a man would agree to be assassinated.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 229: The Stone of Destiny

Image: Flickr

In 1950, four patriotic Scots broke in to Westminster Abbey to steal the Stone of Scone, a symbol of Scottish independence that had lain there for 600 years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the memorable events of that evening and their meaning for the participants, their nation, and the United Kingdom.

We’ll also evade a death ray and puzzle over Santa’s correspondence.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 228: The Children’s Champion

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Polish educator Janusz Korczak set out to remake the world just as it was falling apart. In the 1930s his Warsaw orphanage was an enlightened society run by the children themselves, but he struggled to keep that ideal alive as Europe descended into darkness. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the children’s champion and his sacrifices for the orphans he loved.

We’ll also visit an incoherent space station and puzzle over why one woman needs two cars.

See full show notes …