Merl Eberly was the founder and long-time manager of the Clarinda As. His teams showcased college players hoping experience in a summer league might lead to a professional career.
“It’s truly kind of a classic Iowa tale,” Michael Tackett, author of The Baseball Whisperer, said during a Radio Iowa interview.
Tackett is a New York Times editor who met Eberly when his own son went to Clarinda to play ball.
“He was a big man. He had been sick for a long time, but it didn’t show,” Tackett said. “…He spoke to a group of parents and, you know, he had a real presence about him.”
Tackett said his research “validated” that first impression. One passage in the book describes Eberly as a man of “fortitude, elegance and athleticism.”
“The players I talked to really revered him and I think that you really see that by the fact that so many of them have kind of stuck with the program,” Tackett said. “They donate money to try to help it survive. They write cards and letter to Pat Eberly and really make it kind of a family business.”
Merl Eberly died of cancer in June of 2011. Pat Eberly, his wife, contacted Tackett about six months later.
“She thought it was time to try to tell the story and she knew that I was a journalist and had been a writer for a long time and so she approached me about the idea,” Tackett said. “Like, how would this come about? And so I talked to her about that, what it would require and made clear that once you embark on this, you just have to go wherever the story leads.”
One of the surprises for Tackett was discovering Eberly’s critical role in developing future Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, the stand-out shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals.
“It wasn’t guaranteed that you would make the team,” Tackett told Radio Iowa. “They guaranteed you a chance to make the team, so they go out on the field and Merl grabs a bucket of balls and just starts ponding balls to him — left, right, with top spin, with back spin, over the second base bag — and Ozzie did not miss a single ball and at that point Merl thought: ‘Well, this skinny kid’ who at the time weighed 140 pounds ‘might just be something.'”
Smith played on a high school team with a player who was destined for the Big Leagues, but the professional and college scouts who watched those games didn’t have any interest in Smith. Smith wound up playing for a small college in California and Smith’s college coach sent him to Clarinda in 1975.
“He comes out to Iowa. He’s never been to the Midwest before…and he reduces the Midwest to a single word: corn. When he comes there, they originally call him ‘Osborne Smith’ and, of course, by the end of the summer, he’s ‘Ozzie” to everybody.”
Smith lived with Merl and Pat Eberly in Clarinda. Pat was an integral part in managing the team and finding other families to host the players for the summer in their homes. Tackett discovered people in the Clarinda area call it “keeping” the players. “Keeping” involves more than just providing a bed, but providing a home for the summer.
“These families just open up their homes, up their arms to people they’ve never met,” Tackett said. “They give them room and board. They take them to practice. They go to the games and cheer them on and they don’t get anything for that other than the satisfaction of doing it and all of that, together, is why I think Clarinda is such a special place.”
And it’s why Tackett wanted Clarinda to be a focus of the book as well.
“Clarinda really sticks out to me as a place where there is a glue,” Tackett said. “…The town square has almost all locally-owned shops and restaurants. Many of them have been there for generations. The one rule that Merl had for the As was that nobody gets paid. Everybody has to volunteer their time and effort and now they’ve been doing this for over half a century in all and that’s the still the ethic of the team.”
Tackett makes the case in his book that Eberly’s story would have been difficult to replicate anywhere else.
Merl Eberly had a brief professional career of his own after graduating from Clarinda High School. He signed a professional contract with the Chicago White Sox and played on a minor league team in Nebraska, the Holdrege White Sox, in 1957.
“In one game he got hit in the face with a pitch and people who were in the stands could hear it because it hit his cheekbone and there was blood everywhere, but he refused to come out of the game and the reason was because he got a bonus,” Tackett said. “He got $500 for when he started the season and then he got $500 if he completed the season.”
Eberle played in 43 games in the minor league and his batting average was .281. Eberle was released by the White Sox just before opening day of the 1958 season. He went back to Clarinda, starting playing on a “town team” — and the team ultimately became a college proving ground.
Tackett, who has a long professional career working for the Chicago Tribune, Bloomberg News and now The New York Times, said the process of writing the book was a “humbling” experience. Hear more from Tackett by listening to the interview below.
Tackett’s son, who played a “magical” summer for the Clarinda As, won a spot on his college baseball team and is now working in the “player development division” for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Tackett’s wife is an Ames native and his mother-in-law still lives in Ames, so Tackett knows the state from covering presidential politics and from many personal trips.
Tackett is in Clarinda today for the official launch of The Baseball Whisperer.
AUDIO Tackett interview with Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson, 12:31