Ben Gerl remembers sitting with his father, Chuck, at Wade Stadium in the summer and talking about how cool it would be for Ben one day to play at the historic ballpark, just like his grandfather Bernie, a catcher, did back in the late 1940s and early ’50s.
Ben Gerl may have been a dreamer but he was also a realist, even for his age.
“Dad was like, ‘Hey, if you work hard you could end up here one day,’” Ben Gerl said. “I always knew the Northwoods League was the best summer league so I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever, not in my wildest dreams.’”
This summer, it will be reality.
The Duluth Huskies are expected to announce the signing of Ben Gerl Wednesday. Gerl, a 6-foot-1 left-handed pitcher from Joliet, Illinois, is a freshman at Northern Kentucky University, an NCAA Division I program in Highland Heights, Kentucky, and plays in the Horizon League.
Bernie Gerl, also of Joliet, passed away in November at age 94. Bernie was the last surviving member of the infamous Duluth Dukes 1948 bus crash that claimed the lives of six people in one of the worst tragedies in professional sports.
Huskies owner Michael Rosenzweig always welcomed Bernie Gerl, who often came to Duluth with his family around the July 24th anniversary date of the crash, with open arms. Now he’s extending the same hospitality to his grandson.
“Ben has got good baseball in his blood,” Rosenzweig said. “He’s only signed for a temporary contract, but we’re hoping that may become a full contract, but we’ll leave that up to the coaches. I know we’re very excited to have him here. Ben is a great young talent and we’re hoping he helps add to the excitement of coming out to a Duluth Huskies baseball game.”
Ben Gerl had his senior year wiped out at Lincoln-Way West Community High School due to COVID-19, and the announcement of his spring season being canceled coincided with his 18th birthday in late March.
“That was a downer, that really stung,” Ben Gerl said.
Gerl was no slouch his junior year, compiling a 5-2 record with a 2.02 ERA and 71 strikeouts in just over 50 innings. Who knows what he could have done his senior year?
Gerl was able to play with his summer traveling team, the Upper Deck Cougars, something both he and his father say greatly improved his progression.
“It made a huge impact on him,” Chuck Gerl said. “They’re a no BS organization. He joined them at 15-U. It was a massive turnaround for him. It was the best thing that could have happened for him. You either bought in, or you were gone.”
Ben Gerl said his fastball clocks out in the mid to upper 80s and he’ll be using the Northwoods League, a developmental summer league for college players using wood bats, to continue working on his “work in progress,” his changeup.
Former Duluth Huskies field manager Daniel Hersey even let Ben Gerl pitch a bullpen session as part of Bernie Bobblehead Night in July 2016.
Ben Gerl dabbled with basketball, but like grandpa, nope, he was all about the diamond.
“Grandpa couldn’t get a sentence in without him bringing up baseball,” Ben Gerl said. “We’d be sitting in his … we’d always call it his trophy room, and we’d be watching White Sox or Cubs games, because we’re from the area so we get those games on TV. We’d just go in the yard, play a little catch, and he’d tell me numerous stories from back in his playing days. Growing up around his house, I soaked up a ton of baseball — like a sponge.”
Bernie Gerl was so proud of his grandson he went out of his way to bring him up all the time, whether he was talking to the Joliet Herald-News or the Duluth News Tribune.
Gerl, who had been suffering from complications due to dementia and had difficulty communicating the last few weeks of his life, wasn’t able to attend as many of Ben’s games his junior year. Chuck Gerl filled him in.
“I would be on the phone with dad between every inning, pretty much,” Chuck Gerl said of giving his father updates on Ben’s pitching outings. “He’d get an update … it’d be something like, ‘It’s two strikeouts, a single, a walk and a flyout.’ And he’d say, ‘OK, let me know what’s next.’”
Ben Gerl was quick to point out his improvement isn’t just due to him, saying “it’s not my own efforts by any means.” That includes working with his pitching coach, former major leaguer John Martin.
But it certainly doesn’t hurt having good genes, either.
“Baseball is in my blood, and now that I have this opportunity, to play where my grandfather did, it’s pretty cool,” Gerl said. “I don’t know if grandpa would believe me at first, if I told him this. He would say some words that I can’t say right now, but I could see him saying, ‘You’re kidding. This is unbelievable.’ He’d be over the moon.”