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...