Bernard F. Gerl
Age 94 of Joliet, passed away peacefully on Saturday, November 7, 2020 at Willow Falls in Crest Hill.
Surviving are his loving wife of 71 years, Bernadine (nee Tomac) , three children, Bill (Patt) Gerl of Minnesota and Florida, Diane (Jim) Blackburn of Shorewood and Chuck (Cindi) Gerl of New Lenox; nine grandchildren, Bill (Dana) Gerl, Erin (Chad) Adamson, Meaghan Gerl, Lauren (Tim) Morris, Kevin (Sarah) Blackburn, Ryan Blackburn, Ben, Cate and Adam Gerl: nine great-grandchildren, Jake, Reece, Tate, Katelyn, Maddie, Blake, Luke, Emily and Casey: numerous nieces and nephews along with loyal friends Harlow Lockwood, Jim Greenan, Ray McShane, Lou Clavenna and Tom Dedin.
Preceded in death by his parents, Andrew and Mary Rose (nee Terlep) Gerl; siblings, Marie (Gib) Bauer, Andy (Betty) Gerl, Don (LaVerne) Gerl, Jim (Mary) Gerl; parents-in-law, Frank and Julia (nee Matichak) Tomac; brother-in-law Frank (Delores) Tomac.
Bernie was born on October 12, 1926 at the family homestead on Ruby Street in Joliet, walked to St. Joseph Grade School and Joliet Township High School, Class of 1944. He was a drummer in the grade school band and never tired of telling the story of how he routinely skipped band practice to play baseball instead. He got caught when the priest told his mother he was truant.
Bernie was signed out of high school in 1944 by the St. Louis Cardinals and began his career immediately in Salisbury, MD. Service to our country interrupted his baseball career for the next two years. Bernie served in the Army Air Force in the post-war Pacific Theater. While there he rose to the rank of Sergeant serving as athletic instructor/baseball player. He toured the Pacific, entertaining the troops in Goodwill Games against other service teams and traveling squads of Major League ballplayers. He was honorably discharged in 1946.
Upon returning stateside, the Cardinals assigned Bernie to Lynchburg, VA for 1947. In 1948 Bernie was assigned to the Duluth Dukes, the Cardinals Class C team. One of the first pro catchers to wear eyeglasses, the power hitting lefty with a rocket for an arm batted clean-up for the Dukes and was named a Northern League All-Star, catching future MLB legend Don Larsen in the All-Star game. A few short weeks later, the Dukes team bus was involved in one of the worst accidents in US team sports history. Just north of St. Paul, the bus was hit head-on by a Liquid Carbonic dry ice truck. The wreck and resulting explosion killed six, including five of Bernie’s teammates. Bernie suffered critical injuries including severe internal and external burns. A 1950 attempt at resuming his baseball career in Houston and Montgomery, AL was not successful. Bernie returned to Joliet, took a job with the prison, and opened a bar.
A planned fishing trip in 1952 took him through Duluth where he stopped for the night and visited the old ballpark. The Dukes manager asked Bernie if he could help out the team for the rest of that season. Bernie obliged and spent the rest of the year in Duluth in his old spot behind the plate. That year he competed against several future big leaguers including 18-year-old Henry Aaron.
Bernie was happy to return to Duluth in 1953. He once again put up great numbers for the Dukes. Visitors to Bernie’s “trophy room” will recall the pride he took in showing off his 1953 statistics and comparing them to the 1953 stat line of another future MLB legend he played against all that season, 18-year-old Roger Maris. But, at age 27, Bernie saw the writing on the wall. He returned to Joliet for good to raise his family.
By 1955 Bernie had begun his career with Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Chicago at the local bottling plant (now the site of Crest Hill Village Hall). Bernie managed just about every Coke bottling plant in Chicago, from Niles to Markham and those in between. His nearly 40 year career saw Bernie retire in 1993 as Vice President.
After retiring, Bernie maintained an active schedule. He golfed several times a week, served as a Commissioner on the Board of the Joliet Park District and was appointed to the Joliet Plan Commission. He was a member of the Moose and longtime member of Old Timers Baseball Association of Will County where he held several executive positions. If you played baseball in Joliet from 1965 through about 2010, there is a good chance your baseball glove was restrung by Bernie, for free. Over the years his basement saw thousands of baseball gloves returned to life with new laces…and a double coat of saddle soap. He enjoyed his yearly visits to see his son and family in Minnesota. He felt especially blessed to be remembered by the people of Duluth more than 65 years after the horrible bus crash. Up until 2015, he was also a yearly visitor to the still operating Wade Stadium in Duluth, where he was known to say “they treat me like Babe Ruth!” The current occupants, the Duluth Huskies, even honored Bernie with his own “night” when all fans were given a Bernie Gerl bobblehead doll. Bernie is the perfect example of a life well lived.
We would like to express our gratitude to the wonderful staff at Willow Falls who cared for our dad, as well as Dr. Stefan Nemeth and his nurse, Jenny, who provided years of primary care and finally to Joliet Area Community Hospice who helped him complete his journey.
In lieu of flowers, donations to Old Timers Baseball Association of Will County or Joliet Area Community Hospice would be appreciated.
Due to COVID restrictions, services will be private.
The family will hold a celebration of Bernie’s life at a later date for all friends and family with a gathering befitting his amazing 94 years.
To send flowers to Bernard's family, please visit our floral store.