I don’t know what exactly made me pick it up, but something drew me to The Baseball Whisperer: The Small-Town Coach Who Inspired Big Dreams, by Michael Tackett. The author is the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times. All I knew was that it was a brand new book about a baseball coach, and that interested me.
The book most likely intrigued me because of an interest in baseball, a love for the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox (although you don’t talk about the Yankees in Boston, and vice versa), and seeing two professional games at Camden Yards and Fenway Park. One of my uncles watched baseball on TV a lot. My aunt and I have enjoyed a lot of baseball biographies over the years–mostly about Yankees players. Damn Yankees is also a favorite musical. My grandfather always told her never to count the Yankees out until the the very last, because they come from behind and win. They always used to listen to the games on the radio. When I think of baseball, I remember that I was just lucky to hit the ball a couple of times–and that was just Wiffleball. Alas, eye-hand coordination will never be mine. Still, a girl can dream about being a champion player. And don’t forget the book Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, the inspiration for the movie Field of Dreams. There are also the films For Love of the Game, A League of Their Own, Angels in the Outfield, and The Natural.
Nothing on film compares to real life. The baseball whisperer is Merl Eberly, coach of the Clarinda A’s until his death in 2011. This summer professional baseball team won the 1981 National Baseball Congress championship (edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting moments in the book). The team has also launched the careers of several major-league players–most notably shortstop Ozzie Smith, who comes back for special events, and Von Hayes. Even if players did not have professional sports careers, they learned a lot from their summers in Clarinda, a small Iowa town of 5,000 people. Some even decided to settle there. And all of them keep in touch with the Eberly family–Merl’s widow, Pat, their six children, their extended families, and the town’s host families. Everyone involved with the program volunteers–receiving no payment. Merl seemed to have a knack for picking players with talent, and he networked a lot with local businesses, college coaches and players–anyone interested in baseball. Many players had never lived in a rural area before and were amazed by the friendliness of the people. Even the taste of sweet Iowa corn, which was almost like dessert, was a revelation for those who had never tasted it. Merl instituted strict rules, discipline, and a code of conduct. When players weren’t on the field, they worked in local jobs. Though Merl was fair, if a player didn’t do what was expected, he was out of the program.
As I read, I wished that I knew Merl personally. He sounds like he was a real keeper, and a mensch. His early life was difficult and he traveled the wrong path for a while. He quit high school for a time, but then decided to go back when his life wasn’t heading anywhere. Caring teachers and coaches saw something special in him and gave him a second chance. He did the same later on for his players. He was a pro baseball player for a while, but when that ended, he sold advertising for the local newspaper. Pat Eberly was always grateful that her father taught her a lot about baseball; otherwise, her marriage to Merl would not have worked.
Merl was a beloved husband, dad, grandpa, and great-grandpa. Many times, he was a surrogate dad to players who had no father around. For others who had great relationships with their parents, Merl and Pat were a second set of parents. To his own children, he was a loving but strict father. Julie, one of his daughters, recalled that she would miss her dad’s bear hugs. All six kids, participated in sports. As he did for those on the Clarinda A’s, he urged his kids to give it all they had–whatever they undertook. Another daughter recalled making a mistake during a piano recital. As she had been taught all her life, she kept going and did not give up.
Michael Tackett has done a wonderful job researching and interviewing people for this story. He only met Merl once, unfortunately, but so many others were around to tell his story.
It’s Pat’s Eberly’s wish to leap the Clarinda A’s going for as long as possible. I hope it continues to succeed.