Clarinda A's patriarch Eberly
Eberly, 76, died Saturday morning, June 11, at his Clarinda home following a lengthy battle with cancer. Celebration of Life services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, June 16, 2011 at St. John’s Lutheran Church with burial in the Clarinda Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, remembrances may be sent to the Merl Eberly Memorial Fund.
For 57 years, Eberly was actively involved in the Clarinda A’s summer baseball program as a player, coach and general manager. However, more importantly, Eberly will be remembered as a family man and respected member of the Clarinda community.
“Merl’s love for his family and the Clarinda A’s program will be a legacy for generations to come,” Clarinda Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Elaine Farwell said.
“He was one of the few guys I ever looked up to as a father figure. You could tell he cared about his family and his wife. That had a profound impact on me,” former Atlanta Braves pitcher Jose Alvarez, who played for Eberly in 1978, said.
“He was one of my best friends,” Virgil Briggs of Clarinda, who played for the A’s from 1960-1971, said. “We both had families and our families were always close because our kids were about the same age.”
Like many communities in Southwest Iowa, Clarinda had various forms of town-team baseball in the early 1900s, but those teams virtually disappeared with the start of World War II.
However, in 1955, local businessmen lent their financial support to a team of local players called the Merchants. Four years later, the name of the team was changed to the Athletics and later shortened to the A’s.
Eberly played on those first teams before serving as the starting catcher of the Holdrege White Sox, a Class D minor league team, in 1957.
After returning to his hometown, Eberly played and coached for Clarinda before becoming the team’s manager in 1961. He was asked to serve as manager for two years, but he wound up holding the position for 37 years.
“I think everybody that played for him really liked Merl,” Briggs said. “He was good to play for as long as you did what you were supposed to, but if you didn’t he would get on you.”
Scotty Kurtz of Clarinda, who played for the A’s for approximately 10 seasons and later served as a coach for Eberly, agreed Eberly was respected by everyone that played with or for him.
“He was also the best catcher I ever threw to. He gave you an awful good target to throw to and knew the hitters. He knew how to use my best pitches to set the hitters up,” Kurtz said.
Although the Clarinda A’s flourished in those early years, Eberly and his teammates realized changes were needed if the program was going to have a future.
The answer to that dilemma came in the 1960s when the organization was turned into a summer team for collegiate baseball players.
Since that time, hundreds of college players from across the country have come to Clarinda to pursue their baseball dreams.
The most famous of the players to take the field in Clarinda was Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals. Known as baseball’s “Wizard of Oz,” Smith played two seasons — 1975 and 1976 seasons — in Clarinda.
Smith was inducted into the Hall of Fame in July of 2002, and during his acceptance speech explained what a significant impact Eberly and Eberly’s wife Pat had on his life.
“I will forever cherish the life changing experience and strands of love that I was blessed with through my relationship with Merl and Pat Eberly…
“Most people would have no idea how intimidating and stressful it could be for a young black player to move into an all-white, rural community in the Midwest. However, Merl and Pat took me in and taught me how to live with that challenge. As my coach, Merl taught me the value of strict discipline and the importance of constantly improving my game,” Smith said during the speech.
Other Major League players who have donned the uniform of the Clarinda A’s include Alvarez; former Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Von Hayes; World Series champions Scott Brosius and Chuck Knoblauch; Andy Benes; Bud Black; James Mouton; Mark Williamson; Gary Weiss; and current big-league players like Jamey Carroll, Andrew Cashner and Daniel Descalso.
“They’re just family,” Eberly said during a 2009 interview. “I don’t think the game’s that important. It’s the friends and people you meet. These kids, you help them along in chasing their dream.”
In the process, the Clarinda A’s have developed a tradition of playing winning baseball for five decades. The team won a national championship in 1981 and has finished in the Top 10 on nearly 20 occasions.
However, Eberly’s influence extended far beyond the diamond as many former A’s players either made Clarinda their home or still have close ties to the community.
“This program isn’t only about a love of baseball. It’s a family and the guys that have been here keep in touch with the organization and the community,” Gary Ulmer, president of the Clarinda A’s Board of Directors, said.
“I can think of several players through the years that came to Clarinda and made Clarinda their home. Merl was a big instigator in getting those people established. That has been a benefit not only to the A’s program, but the community all together,” Kurtz said.
In fact, Kurtz said he was one of the players that made Clarinda his home in large part because of Eberly.
“He helped me get a job at Lisle Corporation and I will have been down there 40 years in August. He was instrumental in giving me the opportunity to get hired on down there,” Kurtz said.
Briggs said Eberly also helped him get a job at Lang’s Dairy in Clarinda in 1961 so that he could play for the A’s. As a result, Briggs and his wife, Shirley, moved to Clarinda from Bedford.
Raised by his mother in a single parent home, Alvarez said he came to Clarinda a boy in 1978 and left a month later, when he was drafted by the Braves, a man.
“It does not take much time to impact someone’s life because he certainly impacted mine,” Alvarez said. “For the first time, I felt like I took a major step forward in my emotional life. He was a father figure to me and he would tell you how proud he was of you.”
In fact, Alvarez said Eberly did something his biological father never did.
“He would come down to St. Louis and watch me pitch in the Major Leagues against the Cardinals. That meant a lot to me,”
As further evidence of the impact the month Alvarez spent in Clarinda playing for Eberly had on his life, Alvarez did not hesitate to send his son, Seve, to Clarinda when he became a collegiate baseball player.
“I hoped it would have the same profound impact on his life as it did on mine, and I think he did. He grew up as a man from being around Merl and the program,” Alvarez said. “I’m proud my son could be associated with a man of his character.
Ulmer said the reason Eberly had such a significant impact on the people he met was because of his strong work ethic, dedication and sense of commitment.
“He taught me, as well as his players, the importance of doing things the right way whether that’s in baseball or in life,” Ulmer said.
“Merl was a positive influence on the lives of ball players around the country and fans in the Clarinda community. In fact, thousands of people beyond our corner of the world were impacted as a result of Merl’s hard work,” Farwell said.
“He was just a good influence on the young adults he had playing for him. He was a good role model to follow and you respected him for what he stood for and what he tried to instill in the ballplayers that played for him,” Kurtz said.
Away from the field, Eberly worked for many years as a sports reporter and advertising representative with the Clarinda Herald-Journal.
“Everybody around the square knew Merl. He was a good reporter and did a good job at the paper. He had a good reputation and everyone respected Merl,” Kurtz said.
In 1997, Eberly left the dugout to become the general manager of the Clarinda A’s.
In that capacity, Eberly continued to work with Pat to promote the program and organize popular annual events, like the Fourth of July fireworks display and the Clarinda A’s Hall of Fame Banquet, which benefited the Clarinda community every bit as much as they did the baseball program.
“Merl has done a lot for Clarinda. Having the caliber of baseball team we’ve got here every year brings people to town,” Briggs said.
Therefore, in 2010, the Clarinda City Council officially thanked Eberly and his family for their many years of service to the community by renaming Clarinda Municipal Stadium as Clarinda Municipal Stadium-Eberly Field.
“Merl has always been kind of the driving force behind everything that has gone down there,” Clarinda Mayor Gordon Kokenge said at the time the stadium was renamed.
“I don’t know who has done more for the area, especially in the area of baseball, than the Eberly family,” Shenandoah Mayor Dick Hunt, who has been involved in the Clarinda A’s program for several years, said at the time.