Thursday, July 18, 2013

Duluth Dukes: Remembrance of the day Duluth baseball died...

By Jim Heffernan
Bernie Gerl, Duluth Dukes baseball player, 1948
Source: Chicago Sun Times, The Herald News, July 12, 2013
Talk about a name from the past…

Last Sunday I went to a Huskies baseball game at Wade Stadium, and just outside the ballpark before the game a Duluth man escorting an elderly gentleman guided his older companion over to me for an introduction.

“Meet Bernie Gerl,” the Duluthian said.

Recognition of the name was immediate. I was 8 years old the summer of 1948, the morning paper in the hands of my father at the breakfast table, the front page headline announcing that five members of the Duluth Dukes baseball club had been killed in a fiery bus-truck collision near St. Paul. Many others were injured, one of whom later died of the injuries.

Never a big baseball fan, nevertheless I’d attended quite a few Dukes games at Wade Stadium with my father in those days. There were two names on that team that I knew: “Peanuts” Peterson and Bernie Gerl.

Peterson was a local hero because he was a local boy. He came out of Proctor and made the Dukes’ roster, no small thing in the world of professional baseball. The Dukes were a farm team of the St. Louis Cardinals comprised of players from all over. Peterson died in the crash.

The other player whose name I knew was Bernie Gerl, probably because he was such an effective player, the team’s 21-year-old catcher. Gerl survived the crash, but just barely.

An excellent account of the crash and Gerl’s fate and later life appears in the Thursday (July 18) Duluth News Tribune, written by DNT sportswriter Jon Nowacki. (Read it HERE) Gerl was honored during Sunday’s Huskies game with Rochester on the 65th anniversary of the crash year. Gerl is the last survivor of that team.

Meeting Bernie Gerl, someone who was part of my early life in an unlikely way, was haunting. We shook hands and I told him how well I remembered the tragedy. “Duluth kids were crying,” I recalled. He knew.

Now 86 and looking mighty fit for a mid-octogenarian, after he recovered from his injuries he played ball again, retiring in 1953 and returning to his Joliet, Ill., home town. (It’s all in Nowacki’s story.) But he’s visited Duluth in the intervening summers, and has many friends here. We recalled our mutual friend, the late Bruce Bennett, long-time Duluth newspaper sports editor and columnist. Bruce was handicapped, born with no arms below the elbows. Gerl recalled golfing with Bennett, saying “he could drive the ball 150 yards straight down the middle of the fairway.”

It was amazing to meet someone now whose name I knew so long ago and who was so admired by my generation of Duluth boys. It was life-affirming to see this 86-year-old survivor of a terrible tragedy surviving so well 65 years later.

I hadn’t been to a ball game at Wade Stadium since the Gerl era of the Dukes. I used to sit along the first base line with my father, who would smoke fat RoiTan brand cigars as he watched the games and I restlessly looked around at everything except the action (as I said, I wasn’t a fan).

Now I was there with my son and grandsons, two of whom are about the age I was when I went to Dukes games with my dad. We sat along the first base line where I’d sat three-score-plus years ago with my own father, long gone.

I missed the fragrance of a good cigar, but there were two constants: Wade Stadium and Bernie Gerl. Two out of three ain’t bad.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Irish bar named after me....

Well, maybe the bar was not named after me per se... but it's got my surname, and that surname of a lot of Irish lads. Here is a photo of the fairly famous Heffernan Bar in Wexford, Ireland taken many years ago by a family friend during a trip to Ireland and who was thoughtful to snap the photo and give us a copy.
Heffernan Bar located on  South Main Street and Peter Street in Wexford, Ireland 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

My '40 Ford DeLuxe Coupe...

By Jim Heffernan
My '40 Ford DeLuxe Coupe, circa 1956
This is the car I had in high school, a 1940 Ford DeLuxe coupe. I recently posted this picture on line to illustrate an upcoming column I wrote for the Duluth history web magazine Zenith City Online. I am known as “Denfeld Boy” on the site, and this is the car I drove when I was a student there.

The Zenith City column recalls the days of car clubs in Duluth in the 1950s, including the Regents Car Club, the one in western Duluth. Watch for the column on Zenith City Online in about a week.

My dad forked over the $150 for my ’40 Ford in the summer of 1956 when I was 16 years old and about to be a Denfeld junior. I found it on a used car lot in Moose Lake, looking pretty dusty and with a broken rear spring.

A buddy who was a talented mechanic replaced the spring and I took it home, washed and polished it, painted – yes painted – white sidewalls on the tires and took this picture in the alley behind our house.

The ’40 Ford was well on is way to becoming a classic even then. It is considered a bona fide classic today, with those in pristine stock or restored condition selling well up in the five figures.

I parted with mine in 1963, trading it and some cash for a forgettable ’61 Chevy convertible. More’s the pity.