This feature ran in the July/August 2011 issue of The Iowan.
The Boys Of Summer
In Clarinda, Baseball Is a Family Affair
Story by Terri Queck-Matzie, photography by David Peterson
An aroma of hot dogs and popcorn permeates the air as families take root in the stands. Parents settle in with squirming kids. Little Leaguers and high school players sporting team colors from their own earlier games spill through the gates. Older fans get situated along the sidelines, draping jackets across the backs of their lawn chairs, prepared to stay after sundown air cools the ball field and stadium lights fill the wide Midwestern sky.
The crack of a bat echoes through the July air, and a ball soars high into the bright blue afternoon. It’s lost momentarily against the background of a cumulus cloud, then lands with a smack in the outfielder’s glove. A new game begins, and the home team takes the field, crimson letter As ablaze against a backdrop of silver grain bins. It’s a doubleheader — the gold standard of summer baseball.
Merl Eberly strolls quietly along the edge of the field, stopping for a moment to watch the pitcher taking the mound. He continues down the third-base line toward the concession stand, where his wife, Pat, is stocking condiments.
It’s Sunday afternoon at Eberly Field, and in this baseball town Merl and Pat Eberly wouldn’t be anywhere else.
A Summer Staple
At the house on East Lincoln Street a well-worn pair of cleats sits next to a wooden bat propped against a wall lined with autographed photos: the Cards, the Phillies, the Yankees — the uniforms easily recognizable behind hand-scrawled letters: “To Mr. and Mrs. E . . .” A yellow notepad on the nearby countertop holds penciled notes for next season, which essentially begins as soon as the current one ends.
Pat Eberly offers a tumbler of iced tea and a chair in the comfortable gathering space that is the center of life in this Clarinda home. “A lot of people have sat around this table,” she says, recalling the days when she fed her oldest five kids, seven live-in baseball players, “and four more for lunch” on a shoestring. “Someone was looking out for us because we sure couldn’t afford that,” she says. “I don’t know how we did it.”
Every summer since 1969 more than two dozen college-age men gather in Clarinda to play for the A’s. And every summer Pat and Merl Eberly welcome the young baseball players from every corner of the country into their home and into this southwest Iowa town of 5,570. The team competes in the MINK League, keeping a hefty schedule of 50 games against teams from Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. “It’s the best-kept secret in Iowa,” says Merl proudly.
Clarinda is the smallest town in the league to host a collegiate team, and the program is unique in that no one in it, except for bus drivers and umpires, is paid. Not even the coaching staff. For nearly six decades, since the team’s inception in 1954 and through several incarnations and name changes, Merl and Pat have volunteered their time — Merl as field manager until 1997 and now general manager, Pat orchestrating most of the off-field duties — to make baseball a staple of Clarinda summers.
Other clubs have budgets upwards of $100,000. The A’s operate on $30,000–$40,000 a year. Most of that comes from a supportive community and from A’s alumni. “Merl is the ultimate fund-raiser,” says All-Star player Von Hayes of the man who in his early days coaching the local junior college team used to mooch bologna, bread, and oranges from the local grocer for team road trips. “He’s impossible to say ‘no’ to.”
Hayes, whose career includes starting lineups with the Cleveland Indians, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the California Angels, played for the A’s in the late 1970s before moving on to 12 seasons in the pros. He’s one of more than three dozen A’s players over the years to make it to the major leagues.
Merl began his love affair with baseball at an early age, playing for the high school team, American Legion team, and the Clarinda Merchants. The Merchants began as a town team, much like the other town teams in the early days of the last century, and were named in recognition of their financial supporters. The team moniker eventually changed to the Athletics, then shortened to the A’s.
By the 1960s the team’s momentum was fading. The existing players were aging. The town’s young men were losing interest. “It came to a point where we had to say, ‘Us old guys can’t do it anymore,’” remembers Merl. While town teams disappeared in many Iowa communities, Merl was determined to see Clarinda maintain summer baseball in some form. A new form.
A collegiate team, knew Merl, would be able to recruit new players and join an expanded league. Making such a change, however, would require investment — new uniforms, new equipment, certified (and paid) umpires, buses and drivers for away games. With the community rallied and $10,000 raised, Clarinda became home to a new summer collegiate ball team with Merl Eberly as its first manager. “We owe a lot to that generation that decided to keep baseball in Clarinda.”
Welcome to Iowa
Life in Clarinda can be culture shock for college players who come from all over the country and every way of life. Ozzie Smith hails from South Central Los Angeles. “It was somewhere to play for the summer,” he says of the invitation from the A’s. “I came to small-town Iowa, where I was the only minority, not knowing what to expect.”
The people of Clarinda made him feel at home, says Smith, who played for the A’s in the mid-’70s and went on to have an illustrious career as a shortstop with the San Diego Padres and the St. Louis Cardinals, eventually being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
He remembers long days of hard work and ball practice but also meals shared around the family dining table. And the sweet corn. (So enamored with Iowa’s late-summer crop was Smith that he once packed some fresh-picked ears on dry ice and shipped them to his mother in California.) “It was easy to adapt,” he says, “and I became one of their own.”
The host family program is unique in the collegiate league. Pat Eberly lines up house parents for incoming players, who are given room and board through a program that places them with local families. “Every year 20 families open their homes to the players. That says a lot about the community,” says Pat.
The program helps assimilate the players into southwest Iowa life, as does a work program. Some of the men hold part-time jobs in the community, working with painting crews or on local farms; others help with ball field maintenance. Merl says the work outside of the game helps build character.
The total experience builds unbreakable ties. Several players have married local girls and made their homes in the area. Hayes, Smith, Jose Alverez, and other players who have launched careers from the ball field in Clarinda “are family,” says Pat, regulars around the kitchen table.
“It’s that Midwest mentality,” adds Hayes, who also came from California. “They don’t know a stranger.”
As a player with the A’s in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Ryan Eberly — Merl and Pat’s son — appreciated the diversity of the players’ backgrounds. “It was fun to play with kids from all over, see their different styles of play,” he says. Ryan admits he was around junior high age before he fully appreciated the parade of players passing through his home.
“As a kid, it was great — being a bat boy, road trips with Dad, hanging out with the players. But it wasn’t until I was a bit older that I recognized what I was seeing — Hayes, Smith, Alvarez, and Bud Black, now manager of the San Diego Padres.” Ryan, along with his two brothers, Rick and Rod, went on to have their own minor league careers, following in the footsteps of Merl, who spent the 1957 season with the Chicago White Sox minor league team.
Although Merl and Pat knew each other in grade school, “we didn’t pay much attention to each other then,” says Pat. The two began dating in high school. Pat’s father was the first to outfit the town’s new semi-pro team, and Merl rode along with him to Kansas City to pick up the uniforms. “He bargained the guy down on price to the point that I was embarrassed,” recalls Merl. “But he was happy as could be, grinning all the way home.”
The Eberlys weren’t married long before Pat realized she could fight the sports craze or join it. She chose the latter path and has been a behind-the-scenes force ever since — organizing volunteers, lining up house parents, keeping track of equipment, running the concession stand. Merl is quick to give credit where credit is due. “It’s all her; she’s the one,” he says of Pat, who for the last 50 plus years has supported Merl’s work with the team — booking the umpires and writing their checks, making travel arrangements and handling all correspondence, producing the team newsletter and yearbook, raising their six children — and for the last four years has supported Merl’s battle with cancer.
“And she makes the best iced tea around,” he adds.
Pat is quick to deflect the attention, speaking proudly of all her “sons.” “We have doctors, lawyers, merchants, and one in the New Mexico State Legislature,” she says, beaming and pointing to the gallery of photos on her dining room wall. The couple is honored that a summer of baseball in Clarinda was part of many a career path — with more learned than just a game.
Former players describe Merl as a “player’s coach” — one who doesn’t try to fit the player to his coaching style but instead encourages each team member to play to his own strengths. He also expects players to respect themselves, the community, and the game. There are rules, with no exceptions. And those who have seen his tough side are often the same ones who keep in touch. “We expect the players to look decent, keep their hair cut, and watch their language on the field,” says Merl, ever aware of the next generation of Little Leaguers watching from the stands.
“It’s not just about making them a better baseball player,” he adds. “It’s about making them a better person.” A “thank you” from a troubled young man who took a different path in life after a summer in Clarinda is more important to Merl than any perfected fastball.
The alumni are extremely loyal, providing today’s team with both moral and financial support (around 35 percent of the team’s operating budget), as well as new team members. Young players are often the protégés of A’s alumni. “It gets easier to recruit all the time,” says Ryan Eberly, who took over management of the team in 2003. “Former players are now coaches, and they know what type of kid will fit into our program.”
When the field needed $20,000 worth of improvements a couple years ago, it was former players who funded a good share of it. When the team bus burned in 2008 with most of its equipment on board, it was A’s alumni, along with the Clarinda Chamber of Commerce and local businesses, who stepped up to the plate and quickly raised nearly $85,000. “We missed one game,” say Merl, emphasizing the singular number and praising the fast response and steadfast loyalty that saved the season. “It was amazing.”
When the phone rings in the Eberly home, there’s a good chance that a former player is calling. “Calling with some news. ‘I’m getting married!’ or ‘I’m having a baby!’” says Pat of the former players that are always part of the family. “That’s why we do this.”
Love of the Game
While kinship helps define a summer in Clarinda, the fans taking their seats in Eberly Field have come to see fast pitches, hard line drives, loaded bases.
“People who come get to see really good baseball,” says Ryan, now carrying on the family legacy. “You never know who will make it to the Big Leagues. You may be watching the next Hall of Famer.”
Year after year the A’s continue to chalk up an impressive record: 2,024 wins and 950 losses overall. They won their first National Baseball Congress (NBC) State Championship in 1973 and have missed qualifying for the NBC World Series only six times since.
They consistently land in the top 10 of the 32- to 40-team field at the NBC tourney. Through the years, they have played in the Nodaway Valley League (1961–1971), Iowa State League (1972–1975), independent (1976–1977 and 1995), Jayhawk League (1978–1993), and MINK League (since 1996). They hold 18 league championships.
“It’s all about the pitching. Always has been,” says Merl as he watches the mound from the sidelines on a warm Sunday afternoon. The pitcher winds up, then releases the ball with lightning speed.
Merl is humble about his role in the team’s record, just as he’s humble about the honors he’s received. He has earned nearly every Hall of Fame and Man of the Year accolade possible. Those plaques are on the wall at home, too, but they garner little attention.
And he reluctantly accepted the renaming of the Clarinda Municipal Field to Eberly Field last year, a nod to the family that has done so much for local baseball. “It’s not like it was just us,” says Merl. “I accepted on behalf of all the people who have helped through the years.”
Oh, it’s for the family, all right, says Pat, stressing “family” includes every individual on the team and in the community that makes it all possible. “No two people can do anything.”
That team spirit has fueled the Clarinda A’s for nearly six decades, making the team a fixture in Iowa — and a way of life in the Eberly home. “We’ve gotten back so much more than we have given,” says Merl. “It’s been quite a ride.”
Take Me Out to Eberly Field
The Clarinda A’s summer season runs through July. Find the game schedule online at clarindaiowa-as-baseball.org. This year’s Alumni Day — Saturday, July 2 — will bring together players from all eras, with special recognition of the 1981 National Championship team.
Editor’s Note: Merl Eberly passed away in his Clarinda home Saturday, June 11, 2011, at the age of 76. His passion and purpose play on at Eberly Field.