Merle Eberly, a gifted athlete from little Clarinda, Iowa, developed a deep love for the game of baseball when he was just a kid – and that love and respect for the game burned in the man’s heart right up until the moment he died. So have a lot of us, you say? Well, consider this: Merle spent as much time playing and coaching the game of baseball for the Clarinda A’s (four decades) as he did working the job that put food on the table (small-town newspaperman) for him, his wife, and their six children. And there is little doubt that coaching baseball was the position Merle considered to be his real life’s work.
For good reason, Merle was a man who believed in second chances. If not for the coaches who saw enough in him to challenge him to use sports to turn his own lazy approach to life around, Merle’s life would have turned out much differently than it did. Sports saved Merle from himself and showed him what he was capable of achieving, even in a small town whose five thousand citizens sometimes feel as if they live two hours from just about everything. What the town did have was a baseball team, a team that everyone in town was proud to call its own.
Merle, a natural catcher because of his size, was an essential part of that team, as player and coach, for over forty years, and he used the team countless times to pay forward the favor done to him by those high school coaches so many years earlier. Before it was over, Merle and the Clarinda A’s were synonymous – and today a bronze bust of Merle Eberly is prominently displayed at the team’s ballpark, a ballpark that sits snugly between corn fields, auction barns, and hog yards just as it always has.
An immediate goal of Merle’s when he became a player/manager for the A’s was to bring his team to national prominence by successfully playing against such a high level of competition that the A’s could not be ignored. He succeeded in that goal to such a degree that college coaches from around the country soon felt comfortable sending Merle “projects” of their own during the summer months that the college programs shut down for the season. These “projects” were players either on the verge of breakthrough to a higher level or those who needed to be tested against better competition once and for all to determine what could be expected of them by their coaches.
Merle ran a tight ship. He expected a lot from his players, a complete dedication to the game while he coached them in Clarinda, and players unable or unwilling to live up to Merle’s standards were sent packing. The second chance they got from Merle to turn their careers around was usually the only second chance he gave his players – misbehavior in a town as small as Clarinda is impossible to hide, especially since every player on the team lives with a host family for the summer. Drugs, drinking, and all-night partying were firing offenses.
So how good was Merle’s program? Without the Clarinda A’s, baseball may have given up on Hall-of-Famer Ozzie Smith before he had a chance to show what he could do despite his small size. And Ozzie was not Merle’s only major league success story. Other major leaguers who played for Merle include: Buddy Black, Von Hayes, Jose Alvarez, Scott Brosius, Andy Benes, Cal Edred, Chuck Knoblauch, Brady Clark, and Andrew Cashner.
Many of Merle’s players became lifelong friends to Merle and his wife Pat. Over the years they helped support the program with financial help and the kind of moral support that money can’t buy, and when Merle died in 2011 many of them were among the 600 people who attended his funeral.
The Baseball Whisperer is much more than just another baseball book; it is a book about life – an example of how to make the most of life while at the same time giving back to the community that made it all possible. Merle Eberly was a remarkable man, and baseball was lucky to have him for as long as it did. We all were.