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.


Chuck Gerl said...

Mr. Heffernan, what a tremendous compliment to my father. Thank you for describing the impact the accident had on your young life. I can not begin to explain to you the place the city of Duluth holds in the hearts of every member of our family. For me, personally, 2013 is the first year in over 20 years that I have missed the trip up north. Hopefully we can meet in July 2014 for the 66th anniversary of, as our family calls it, "the wreck". Chuck

Jim Heffernan said...

Great hearing from you, Chuck! I e-mailed you a note.