Friday, February 3, 2017

A Review of Michael Tackett's The Baseball Whisperer: A Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League Dreams

No sport is more romantic than baseball.  The pace, rhythm, and progression of the game imitate and distill that of life itself. The Baseball Whisperer: A Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League Dreams (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, $26 Hardcover) depicts one life reflected in many, spanning a lifetime of good, accomplished around summers of college baseball among the corn fields of Clarinda, Iowa.

The subject of Michael Tackett’s new biography is Merl Eberly, who played for, coached, and managed the Clarinda A’s, a team made up of college baseball players from around the country playing in summer leagues. The A’s and other teams give these players an opportunity to compete with the best prospects in semi-professional play.  For Tackett, Merl Eberly offered much more than that. “It’s not about can we make them a better baseball player,” says Tackett, quoting Eberly. “It’s about can we make them a better person.”

Tackett is an editor and former managing editor of newspapers and national magazines, working in the Washington, DC area. The Baseball Whisperer is his first book. His measure of Merl Eberly is by the people the coach impacted during his life, and the story is told from the perspective of those people.  Eberly applied his efforts consistently over decades. His style did not change, but each summer brought new perspectives as players came and went. Tackett does a good job of capturing the character of Eberly’s work through the words of each generation’s players. Among those affected is Tackett himself, who met Eberly when Tackett’s son played for the Clarinda A’s.

Eberly used the entire town (all 5,000 residents) as his coaching staff. Hall-of-Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, who played in Clarinda, called them “people of the land.” Eberly’s players, thirty-six of whom would later play in the major leagues, worked manual labor jobs during the day, played baseball at night, and lived with local families. He did not allow drinking, required haircuts, and kept a curfew. He once sent six starting players packing for lack of commitment. Using these methods, Merl Eberly became a legend in the coaching community. A network of college coaches formed as word spread of how a summer in Clarinda could improve a player’s attitude and ability. Those coaches sent Eberly their best prospects, and Eberly and Clarinda made them better players and better people. Merl’s wife Pat was just as involved in the team as he was, and together they impacted hundreds of players over several decades.

The Baseball Whisperer is a great baseball team story, made up of many individual stories. It is a story about how one person can better many lives by doing something for sake of those changes, for the love of the game and the players. Merl Eberly was never paid money for his work for the Clarinda A’s. He was paid in the love of those he affected, and in his pride in their accomplishments. That is a story worth reading.