Clarinbaseball-bookda Iowa, population 5,562, sits just north of the Missouri state line. With a rich history this small town was home to the “Mother” of 4H Jessie Fields, bandleader Glenn Miller, very briefly Johnny Carson, and Merl Eberly.

Unless you are a huge fan of collegiate summer league baseball, you are no doubt thinking ‘Merl who?’ Michael Tackett’s The Baseball Whisperer: a Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League Dreams more than answers that question.

Usually it would be hard to recommend a book that starts with a funeral and ends with a death. But the inspiring story of Merl, his family, and community that Tackett relates is a rewarding read, especially so if you’re a baseball fan.

Merl believed in second chances.  He was given one as a high school dropout who spent his time hanging out with his friends and drinking. High school football/baseball coach John Tedore issued him a challenge, “Come out or get out.”

Merl took the challenge. He went back to school and joined the team. He still struggled with other aspects of his life but on the athletic field he was a natural. Through Coach Tedore and being part of a team Merl learned about discipline and teamwork.

He spent his life passing on lessons learned. During an interview he said “However corny it might sound, I think we’re all supposed to do something while we are here on this Earth. I guess the good Lord took me out of the garbage can and said, “Go play sports, but don’t forget the message that it teaches you.’ If you get the opportunity, pass it on.” Merl did that for over 40 years through the Clarinda A’s.

Merl loved baseball and started playing at a time when it was more about the game than the money. He tuned a town team into a premier collegiate summer team. He put together a plan, rallied his community and created a program that rivaled the best in the country.

The community of Clarinda was essential to the plan. Local businessmen contributed money, families housed and cared for the players. Each player that came to play for the Clarinda A’s was given a job for the summer.

One of those players was Osborne Earl Smith who arrived in the summer of 1975. Smith came from the Watts section of Los Angeles via Cal Poly – San Luis Obispo to this small white community set in the middle of cornfields. His summer job was with a construction company where he was their first African American employee.

This seeming mismatch resulted in a close enduring friendship between Ozzie, Merl, and the town. Ozzie embraced Clarinda and Clarinda embraced him. The fans loved his signature backflip when he took the field each night. He came to the A’s with intelligence, defensive ability and the willingness to work. He left a better hitter who could steal bases and play phenomenal defense. He also left with a different view of the world.

Ozzie was not the only major leaguer to play in Clarinda.  There were many including Chuck Knoblauch, Von Hayes, Bud Black, Jose Alverez, Cal Eldred, Andy Benes, and Jamey Carroll. Most of the talented players that came to Clarinda never made it to or beyond the minor leagues. But they all left Clarinda a better ball player and a better person because Merl passed on lessons learned. As he said “It’s not about can we make them a better baseball player. It’s about can we make them a better person.”

Much of Merl’s story is told through the players who played for him. Their remembrances of the time they spent living and playing in Clarinda reveal the impact that summer had on their life.

“The Baseball Whisperer” is a tribute to Merl, to Clarinda, and to baseball. It’s a story I didn’t know and now won’t soon forget.

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