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Remember when there was talk that we might tear down Wade Municipal Stadium? It didn’t happen, and serves as evidence that sometimes the best decisions that are made is to do nothing at all.
Of course, renovations did come. They had to patch up a wall or two to keep the old place standing, and the addition of artificial turf has already paid fantastic dividends. The turf is set atop a great drainage system, and transforms Wade from a place that turned into a bog when the rain or fog – or rain and fog – rolled in, to become a palacial place where, if the rain stops by 5:45 p.m., they can play a game at 6!
Last week, we were blessed with a visit from Bernie Gerl, his wife Bernadine, and Chuck, one of their three kids. Bill and Diane couldn’t make it. Bernie and Bernadine have been married for something like 67 years now. Bernie is 89, and will turn 90 once we get into September.
His story is a fixture in Duluth lore. He was a young catcher on a Duluth Dukes team in 1948, and on a road trip, the bus was involved in a crash in a northern Twin Cities suburb near what today is Roseville. Six member of the team, including the manager who was driving the bus, were killed. Rescue workers pulled Bernie Gerl from the wreckage, but he was burned over most of his body. Charred, really.
“I laid there in the hospital for days,” Gerl said. “They never told me what happened, and they kept my injuries a secret. A nurse was helping me, and got me up days later. She helped walk me down the corridor, and I told her I needed to go to the bathroom.
“I walked in and there was a mirror...I didn’t know the guy in there.”
Doctors had ideas for fixing everything, Bernie said. All kinds of plastic surgery. I told ’em I didn’t want any of that. A nurse cut my hair after 40 days, and all I asked was to let me go home.”
Gerl, who still lives in his hometown of Joliet, Ill., said he didn’t do a thing for two years. “I didn’t pick up a ball,” he said. “I weighed 190 when I was playing, and I was 120 when I got out of the hospital.”
He loved baseball and was driven to try a comeback. He joined the St. Louis Cardinals for spring training in Houston, and he recalled they optioned him to Montgmery, Alabama. Newly married, he tried playing, soaking his elbow every night, but he realized his chances to make the big time were escaping, so he opened a tavern and hung it up.
As it turned out, his family was making a trip and planned to stop in Duluth, where he had nothing but fond memories of people treating him so well.
“I stopped out at the ballpark to watch a Dukes game,” Gerl recalled. “Their general manager at the time was Ken Blackman, and he came over and talked to me. He said, ‘We need a catcher,’ and he offered me a deal, that included a $500 bonus for making the playoffs. I drove the family back to Illinois and hurried right back up here.”
Bernie Gerl played on some great Dukes teams back then, when the Northern League was Class C ball but included numerous prospects on their way to the Major Leagues. He played against Roger Maris, among others.
He recalled one game when an opponent hit a high pop foul that he chased back and caught up against the screen. The next hitter hit a pop-up straight up in the air, and Bernie caught it.
“The third guy hit one up in the air between third base and the pitching mound,” he said. “The third baseman called for it but I called him off and caught it. Three pop-ups all in one inning.”
As a kid, I remember watching the Dukes back then at Wade Stadium. Bernie Gerl, a tall, lean catcher who hit left-handed would stride up to the plate, looking scholarly with his little glasses on, and he would hit the ball with consistent force, often out of the park.
As the last surviving member of that 1948 Duluth Dukes bus crash, Bernie Gerl enjoys coming back to Duluth to visit with old friends, and he brings as many of the 28 members of his immediate family along as he can. He said he enjoyed watching the Huskies play, even though they were mired in a losing streak that reached nine, the fifth of which was Friday’s 7-5 loss to LaCrosse, with Bernie Gerl seated right behind home plate. He still enjoyed it, and was honored as the recipient of a secret Bernie Gerl Bobblehead given out to the fans.
As for walking into the interior of Wade Municipal Stadium?
“It’s the best ballfield I ever played on,” he said.
At 89, Bernie is still spry and sharp and has that twinkle in his eye. We’ve got to make sure he comes back next summer, at age 90.