The story of the Clarinda A’s is the story of baseball for baseball’s sake. The Baseball Whisperer: A Small Town Coach Who Shaped Big-League Dreams is the story of the man behind the team, Merl Eberly, and some of the key major league players who learned the sport or learned about themselves by spending a season or two in the scrappy world of collegiate summer ball. This is real-life Field of Dreams stuff, sure, and the book is a refreshing read. There’s almost a Norman Rockwell flavor to the Heartland setting.
But for every Ozzie Smith, who came to Clarinda as a long-shot hopeful with physical limitations and left to pursue a career that would land him in the Hall of Fame, there are hundreds and hundreds of wannabes and others who played the game because they loved it and, well, maybe. Just maybe.
Eberly worked on his dream for more than fifty years. Eberly hustled for sponsors, coached the athletes, found jobs for his prospects, and kept his coaxed his clunky “Blue Goose” bus on the road through repair after repair. More than anything, Eberly started with character development. He was the Uber Boy Scout of baseball—hard work and responsibility were taught right alongside knowing how to hit a curve ball.
Michael Tackett’s portrait of Eberly and the town of Clarinda tries to make a case that the All-American values are key to the success of the program and also to the players who made it to the big leagues—a list that also included current Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black, former longtime Philadelphia Phillies outfielder and first baseman Von Hayes, and former journeyman and infielder Jamey Carroll, whose story Is really the stuff of dreams. Carroll played in the minors for seven years before reaching the major leagues due to a fluke call-up by the Montreal Expos. He never returned to the minor leagues. Carroll’s career ran from 2002 through 2013 and he collected precisely 1,000 hits. Carroll was known for his “intangibles,” including his hustle and determination. Rod Eberly, Carroll’s Clarinda teammate at the time and Merl Eberly’s son, said Carroll “embodied everything my dad preached … Discipline, fundamentals, control your effort, because the effort is the one thing you can control. You can control how you show up every day on the field. He (Carroll) was a 100 percent guy all the time. He was very competitive. He hated to lose, a lot like my dad. He didn’t just say you needed to hustle, he did it.”
By its title alone, The Baseball Whisperer suggests that Merl had some secret sauce he could splash on his players and turn them into major leaguers. Ballplayers who joined the A’s were expected to take jobs and be good citizens of Clarinda (and house guests) in addition to working hard on their game. Merl wanted his graduates to be “complete” ball players and good people, too. It’s impossible to miss the lesson here that character counts as much as knowing the fundamentals of bunting or how to get extension on your swing. Tackett’s profile of Merl borders occasionally on reverence. “The old coach had an aura about him, a combination of fortitude, elegance, and athleticism, even as he reached his sixties and seventies. He was a player’s coach, and for three months he was also like their father. He carried himself with a sense of calm, and he passed baseball wisdom down like heirlooms, hoping that his players would do the same.”
But Merl’s record and career—and his own hustle—speak for itself. Baseball is mythical and poetic for lots of reasons. Tackett’s story is a strong non-fiction account of a town where legends are groomed and of the coach whose purposeful, character-first philosophy molded many big names. Merl Eberly died in 2011. The Clarinda A’s will start their 65th season in 2019.