The Baseball Whisperer: A Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League Dreams

The Baseball Whisperer: A Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League Dreams

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From an award-winning journalist, a real Field of Dreams story about a legendary coach and the professional-caliber baseball program he built in America's heartland, where boys come summer after summer to be molded into ballplayers — and men

Clarinda, Iowa, population 5,000, sits two hours from anything. There, between the corn fields and hog yards, is a ball field with a bronze bust of a man named Merl Eberly, a baseball whisperer who specialized in second chances and lost causes. The statue was a gift from one of Merl’s original long-shot projects, a skinny kid from the ghetto in Los Angeles who would one day become a beloved Hall-of-Fame shortstop: Ozzie Smith.

The Baseball Whisperer traces the remarkable story of Merl Eberly and his Clarinda A’s baseball team, which he tended over the course of five decades, transforming them from a town team to a collegiate summer league powerhouse. Along with Ozzie Smith, future manager Bud Black, and star player Von Hayes, Merl developed scores of major league players (six of which are currently playing). In the process, Merl taught them to be men, insisting on hard work, integrity, and responsibility.

More than a book about ballplayers who landed in the nation's agricultural heartland, The Baseball Whisperer is the story of a coach who puts character and dedication first, and reminds us of the best, purest form of baseball excellence.

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  • Format: Hardcover

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780544387645

  • ISBN-10: 0544387643

  • Pages: 272

  • Price: $26.00

  • Publication Date: 07/05/2016

  • Carton Quantity: 12

Michael Tackett

Michael Tackett

MICHAEL TACKETT is an editor in the Washington Bureau for the New York Times. Previously, he was a managing editor for Bloomberg, the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Tribune, and a National Editor for U.S. News & World Report. The Baseball Whisperer is his first book. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia. 
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  • reviews

    "An uplifting take of old-fashioned values like loyalty and perseverance. Field of Dreams was only superficially about baseball. It was really about life. So is The Baseball Whisperer...with the added advantage of being all true." 



    "Gauzy portrait of a small-town, summer-league coach in Iowa who taught baseball and life, producing 36 pros."  

    —Sports Illustrated 


    The Baseball Whisperer is a book that teaches the reader as much about hard work and American values as it does about the game of baseball. Through one man's efforts, hundreds of young men from all over the country and from different economic backgrounds came through a small town in Iowa and learned how to be better baseball players.  Along the way they also became better people. You don't have to love baseball or even sports to learn from the magic that happened in southwestern Iowa.” 

    —Joe Buck, FOX Sports broadcaster 


    “In reading The Baseball Whisperer I was able to relive two glorious summers that had such a profound impact on both my personal and professional life. Merl, Mrs. E[berly], and the entire Clarinda community will always have a special place in my heart. To this day I still love telling stories about my time as a Clarinda A.”  

    —Bud Black, 2010 National League Manager of the Year and former A’s pitcher 


    "Mike Tackett, talented journalist and baseball lover, has hit the sweet spot of the bat with his first book. The Baseball Whisperer takes one coach and one small Iowa town and illuminates both a sport and the human spirit." 

    —David Maraniss, author of Clemente and When Pride Still Mattered 


     "Michael Tackett takes us to a wonderful place and time in his heartwarming story about the small-town man who made big baseball dreams come true. The Baseball Whisperer is a compelling sports story, but it also delivers on the valuable life lessons that come from great sports leadership: hard work, honesty, compassion. The story of summer league baseball is the story of the American heartland, and Tackett has captured it beautifully." 

    —Christine Brennan, USA Today sports columnist and ABC News, CNN, and PBS commentator 


    "For all who care about baseball, character and leadership, Michael Tackett has brought us the inspiring and unforgettable story of a phenomenal coach and his legacy." 

    —Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage 


    "Tackett reminds readers of just how close baseball lies to the nation’s heart . . . Deeply engrossing . . . One of baseball’s most humanizing backstories." 

    Booklist, starred review 


    "A remarkable tribute to an exceptional coach . . . Tackett’s story touts a man from small-town America who was a major influence on our national pastime." 

    Publishers Weekly 


    "A charming book about the affirmative side of sports." 

    Library Journal 


    "If you need a book about the affirmative side of sports, this is the one for you." 

    Evanston RoundTable 


    "It’s ideal summer reading, blending history, sports and the influence of one man on so many people."  

    Des Moines Register 


    "A fitting tribute to the Eberlys . . . Also a tribute to Clarinda and the values of small towns." 

    —St. Louis Post-Dispatch 



    —The National Book Review 


    "Mr. Tackett has done something worthy in chronicling [Eberly’s] life so thoroughly.” 

    —The Wall Street Journal 


    "Crackerjack account." 

    —Dan Shaughnessy, The Boston Globe

  • excerpts



    Merl Eberly created a real-life Field of Dreams. From his small town of Clarinda, Iowa, he built a national baseball powerhouse that produced three dozen major leaguers, including a Hall of Famer, and more than three hundred players who signed professional contracts. He helped to develop thousands of others, not just to become better players but also better people. He did it with the help of the people of his hometown, his tireless and relentlessly optimistic wife and partner, Pat, and the family-like community that baseball can be. He worked on his dream for more than fifty years, never asking anything in return and never receiving a dime for his labors. He did it to provide opportunity, to teach life lessons, and to stay connected to the game he loved. A coach had rescued him, and Merl spent his adulthood doing the same for others. 


    For many players, college summer ball represents the final chance to get a shot at playing professionally. They play with wooden bats to replicate the experience of pro ball and hope a scout will be sitting in the stands on the night they are at their best. The schedules are intense, sixty games over two months, and the bus rides between towns can be five or six hours long. Teams are located in hamlets such as Butler, Pennsylvania; New Market, Virginia; St. Joseph, Missouri; and Liberal, Kansas. They provide the towns with a sense of purpose and belonging, and they also deliver a low-cost source of entertainment. Host families open their homes to players, providing surrogate parenting, transportation, and cheerleading along with free room and board. In Clarinda, Merl Eberly also tried to find summer jobs for the players, whether it was running a jackhammer, sweeping factory floors, or painting the outfield fence. 


    Clarinda, a town of five thousand people located in the southwestern corner of the state, two hours from anywhere, is one of the smallest of those small places with a major college summer team. I know because my family lived it. 


    Our son made it to the college ranks, only to be cut during his sophomore year. He was devastated, yet refused to give up, writing to one hundred summer teams to ask for a chance. Only one of them said yes: the Clarinda A’s. It was during that summer that I learned a wonderful story about baseball and an even better one about life. 


    The Baseball Whisperer is the tale of a man, a town, and a team. It is the story of Merl Eberly, whose life was touched by a coach when he was a teenager headed for trouble. Instead, he became a standout athlete, playing four sports. His best was baseball, and he got his shot at the pros. 


    But this story is about much more than baseball. It is a narrative about a small-town America that people think lives only in myth. Players come to Clarinda from all over the country to find out how good they are on the field and what kind of men they will become. Eberly dedicated his life to providing opportunity for thousands of young men, all chasing the same dream he had harbored. He and the people of Clarinda changed lives. They did it without a glamorous setting or a lavishly funded program; they did it with their sweat and their hearts. 


    Merl Eberly, the quiet hero next door, was able to build a network of college coaches and pro scouts and then attract players from some of the highest-caliber collegiate baseball programs. These players come from manicured fields and fancy clubhouses to Municipal Stadium, where cornfields line the rightfield fence, local businesses buy billboard ads in the outfield, and the county fair livestock pens sit across the street. 


    The players who make the trip learn about more than baseball, and that too was part of Eberly’s plan. He wanted to help young players become better men, to learn the value of discipline and the selflessness of team play. He was stern. He demanded 100 percent effort, and when he didn’t get it, he would require punishing runs along the town’s bypass or endless loops in the outfield. Eberly admired George Patton and John Wayne and share some traits with both men. He had standards and did not 

    make exceptions for players who considered themselves above the team. While he was tough, he was never physically abusive and didn’t resort to profanity to make his point. Players also came to learn that he was demanding for their sake, not to feed his own ego. They discovered a softness and kindness beneath the tough facade. He found a way to tell players to trust their skills as he built their confidence, along with a lifelong kinship. “It’s not about can we make them a better baseball player,” Merl said. “It’s about can we make them a better person.” Some of the most famous coaches in college baseball became his disciples. 


    The town of Clarinda is a fitting place for an open embrace from people like Merl Eberly. Clarinda first opened its arms to slaves fleeing Missouri, and then to more than a dozen homeless children who were transported from Eastern cities to the Midwest in the Orphan Train Movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Clarinda is a place where values and commitment matter: for instance, the city council rejected a Wal-Mart for fear that it would change the town’s character by driving local merchants out of business. 


    The families and the players they host for the summers create enduring relationships. Some players have met their bride in Clarinda and also made their home there. Many write faithfully every year — even those who went on to the majors — sending holiday greetings and birthday cards to their “moms” and “dads.” 


    Merl Eberly was the heartbeat of Clarinda and a baseball whisperer, little known outside his town except to a circle of coaches, scouts, and the players and families who spread his legend. Players coming to get their shot left with much more, schooled not only in the game by Eberly but also in decency by the town collectively. In a sport that is dominated by money and cynicism and often treats players as mere commodities, Merl Eberly stood in opposition, forming citizen-athletes who carried 

    a moral compass that he had instilled in them. He could have done it to make money, like those running dozens of other teams around the country. Instead, he invoked one rule for Clarinda management and coaches: nobody got paid. All funds went toward the players and the program. 


    Merl Eberly coached for more than four decades and served as his team’s general manager until his death in June 2011. The players who passed through Clarinda went on to become fixtures on SportsCenter and magazine covers, and they populate major league rosters and World Series play to this day. 



    I arrived in Clarinda, Iowa, like most people, driving along Glenn Miller Avenue, past the museum dedicated to the town’s most famous son, the renowned bandleader. My destination, Municipal Stadium, was less than a mile away. I was going there to see Eberly. Our son, reeling from being released by his college team only a few weeks before, was in the middle of an athletic and personal trial and renewal. He had written Merl and Pat Eberly, laying out his desire and asking for a chance. Merl was skeptical of a player who had been released. But Pat reread the letter and asked, “Isn’t this just the kind of player we want here?” 


    The experience was restorative, both on the field and off. Our son’s host family, Jill an...

Available Resources

Related Categories

  • Format: Hardcover

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780544387645

  • ISBN-10: 0544387643

  • Pages: 272

  • Price: $26.00

  • Publication Date: 07/05/2016

  • Carton Quantity: 12

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