Paul Hagen

'The Baseball Whisperer' shows real-life 'Field of Dreams'

Tackett's book follows Eberly, manager for summer college league Clarinda A's for nearly 40 years

'The Baseball Whisperer' shows real-life 'Field of Dreams'

There is baseball. There is Iowa. There are corn fields. The parallels to the novel-turned-movie Field of Dreams are remarkable and unmistakable and acknowledged in the very first sentence of the foreword.

And yet, The Baseball Whisperer: A Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League Dreams by Michael Tackett expands on some of the themes in that classic work and explores others. And it is unmistakably a work of non-fiction.

Tackett, an editor in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, has written a book built around the singular life of Merl Eberly, who managed the summer college league Clarinda A's for nearly 40 years. Its core lesson is how one man can have an outsized impact on the lives of others and, if that was all, there would be sufficient value in the project.

Here is documented how a man living and working in a town most have never heard of helped some three dozen youngsters make it to the big leagues, including a Hall of Famer (Ozzie Smith) and many others who became stars (Von Hayes, Bud Black and more).

It's also a useful reminder that while the Major Leagues provide the glitz and glitter, there is an entire support network with tentacles that reach past even the affiliated farm systems, roots that reach all the way to places like Clarinda (population: 5,000).

This work is much more multi-faceted than that, though.

There is an overarching theme of redemption. As a young man, Eberly was rebellious and occasionally in trouble with the authorities. His life could have taken a very different path. Instead he found sports in general and baseball in particular. It gave him structure and discipline, lessons he paid forward.

There are repeated examples of how hard work and sacrifice can pay off in the long run. Players who made the commitment to play for Eberly were expected to hold down a full-time job, play the game the right way and adhere to the strictest code of conduct. If they didn't, he wouldn't hesitate to send them home.

There is the way baseball itself reverberates throughout society. When Smith came to play for the A's, he effectively integrated the local construction company. It's repeatedly demonstrated how the team served as a magnet to pull the community closer together.

The father-son relationship that is so central to Field of Dreams is here, but it includes both the immediate and extended family, especially the integral role played by Eberly's wife, Pat.

But, just as powerful, is the separation from W.P. Kinsella's Iowa, which was both figuratively and literally heaven. Tackett doesn't shy away from pointing out that fact that Eberly wasn't perfect and neither was the world he helped construct.

There was a brawl the manager instigated. There were players who didn't conform. He's fired from his job as an ad salesman at the local newspaper when it's bought by out-of-town interests. Most unflinching is Tackett's depiction of how Eberly's strict approach -- curfews, no beards, no drinking -- became somewhat passé in the 1980s as society changed and money became a greater factor, even in the summer college leagues.

This strengthens the narrative rather than diminish it. It humanizes Eberly and makes it easier to understand why the citizens of Clarinda enthusiastically joined in a promotional contest to have his picture on boxes of Wheaties.

One delightful anecdote: When the Cardinals made the 1982 World Series, Smith made sure Merl and Pat were able to get tickets. They were also invited to his home on the off-day. But during his preparation for the party, a large staple stabbed the finger of his throwing hand. Tackett explains what happened next.

"Merl took a quick measure of the situation and asked Ozzie, 'Do you have a lemon?' Ozzie wasn't quite sure what his old coach was thinking, but replied yes, he did. They cut off the end of the lemon to expose the fleshy part, and then Merl told Ozzie to stick his bleeding finger into the sour fruit. Ozzie did. There was a sharp sting from the citrus, but he kept his finger in there overnight. The next day there was very little swelling in the finger, no bleeding and no soreness."

The book starts and ends with Eberly's death from cancer in 2011. In between is an uplifting take of old-fashioned values like loyalty and perseverance. Field of Dreams was only superficially about baseball. It was really about life.

So is The Baseball Whisperer...with the added advantage of being all true.

Paul Hagen is a columnist for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.