Bill Gedde of Superior will always remember arriving early at Wade Stadium each July so he could sit down and talk baseball with Bernie Gerl.
It would only be a day or two, a few hours at most, but to Gedde it was priceless, hearing baseball history come to life.
As Gerl got into his older age, the former Duluth Dukes catcher never let on how much pain he was in, or how hard it was for him to get to Duluth. He was just happy to be back, smiling and acting as if he was still a 20-year-old ballplayer.
Gerl, of Joliet, Illinois, passed away Saturday at age 94. He was the last surviving member of the Duluth Dukes 1948 bus crash that claimed the lives of six people in one of the worst tragedies in professional sports.
Gerl, who had been suffering from complications due to dementia and had difficulty communicating the last few weeks, always tried to make it to Wade Stadium around July 24 to commemorate the anniversary of the crash, and Gedde was one of the people who made sure to honor him.
“We did everything we could to make the family comfortable and to feel special because he was baseball royalty to us,” Gedde said. “Every year we tried to do something special for him.”
Gedde, Jon Winter, Frank Bucar, Kenny Kalligher, Greg Running and Adam Powers — great-nephew of Gerald “Peanuts” Peterson of Proctor, killed in the crash — were among the local baseball fans who all made a special connection with Gerl. And Bernie was just the type to make you feel special in return.
Bernie was that quintessential example of the Greatest Generation, genteel and gracious, warm and kind, the same guy who put aside a professional baseball career to raise a family.
“Bernie Gerl, our patriarch, and the toughest S-O-B this side of eternity has gone to his reward,” Bernie’s son, Chuck Gerl, posted on Facebook. “There is now plenty of baseball to be played. There is a large family waiting his arrival. And I will be damned if Peanuts, Gil, Stevie, Red, Bud, Mel, Skip and the rest of the 1948 Duluth Dukes aren’t the first ones in line waiting for their catcher to finally join them. 94 years is one hell of a run. We should all be so lucky. Bern, you were one of a kind.”
Gerl hadn’t been to Duluth since July 29, 2016, when he was honored with his own bobblehead in an emotional ceremony close to home plate. Another time everyone wore replica jerseys and after Wade was remodeled, they took a brick and made a special plaque they presented to him. Gedde, a retired Superior High School art teacher, did a painting of Bernie he gave him on the field.
“I think we were successful in keeping his memory alive, and it was special to Bernie because those Duke years were good to him, and then, of course, the bus crash was life-altering,” Gedde said. “We made sure that the Duluth community never forgot about Bernie, and he and his family were very appreciative of that. It’s a big loss to the Duluth Dukes/Duluth Huskies family, because so many of us loved him.”
An unspeakable tragedy
On July 24, 1948, the Dukes were a minor-league affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. They were traveling from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to St. Cloud when the team bus, driven by Dukes manager George Treadwell, collided head-on with a truck hauling dry ice near St. Paul, close to the present-day site of the Rosedale mall.
The truck driver, Treadwell, utility man Gil Trible, pitcher Don Schuchmann and Peterson, an outfielder, died at the scene. Infielder Steve Lazar died a few days later. The players ranged in age from 19 to 23.
Frank Kurkowski, a nearby farmer who witnessed the incident, sped to the scene and began pulling players from the burning bus. Discombobulated, Gerl resisted the life-saving assistance.
“(Kurkowski) visited me days afterwards in the hospital and said, ‘Son, you were the last one I pulled out, and you were fighting me,’ and I didn’t remember anything about it,’” Gerl said to the News Tribune in an interview in 2013. “Talk about fate.”
Gerl was badly burned. He was in the hospital more than 40 days, many of those in critical care, and his weight dropped from 190 pounds to 120. He didn’t realize how bad it was until a nurse took him over to a mirror.
“My face looked like a breaded pork chop,” Gerl recalled in 2013. “It made hamburger out of the lot of the guys. To describe some of the injuries, you couldn’t write it.”
Some recovered physically but never mentally.
Gerl rebounded to become a Northern League All-Star for a second time in 1953 and played against the likes of baseball immortals Hank Aaron and Roger Maris. He even had more RBIs than Maris one year in the minors but retired after the 1953 season and went on to join the real world.
Gone, but not forgotten
The Cardinals had been grooming Gerl to be their next major league catcher. After being sidelined by the bus crash, and then soon out of baseball, the Cardinals turned their attention to a guy by the name of Joe Garagiola.
Gerl loved telling stories about that, and he fondly recalled his former teammates. He was always quick with a smile or a story if anyone asked. Bernie Bobblehead Night was special.
“He was down the third base line, and he just continued to sign and sign and sign,” Gedde warmly recalled, laughing at the picture in his mind. “He always had time for anybody and everybody who was interested in Bernie or baseball.”
Gerl, who worked for Coca-Cola for nearly 40 years and retired as vice president of operations for northern Illinois in 1993, is survived by Bernadine, his wife of 71 years, sons Bill and Chuck, daughter Diane, and his extended family, some of whom live in Minnesota.
“They’re just very special people, the whole family,” Gedde said. “Bernadine, such a sweetheart ... Bernie would start telling those stories, entertaining everybody, and she would just take it all in stride, having seen it all before. She would just sit back and let Bernie do his thing.
“Bernie would be watching the Major League Baseball Network and he’d start thinking about Duluth, and he’d give me a call out of the blue, while we were watching the same game. Oh God, it was fun, it was special, how we would laugh ... I feel just terrible. I feel like I lost a family member.”