End of an era: Longtime Waterloo manager retires

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Pictured is longtime Waterloo Buds/Millers manager Vern Moehrs with wife Lucille following Vern’s final game as manager on Sunday in Belleville. 

Sixty years. Over 2,000 wins. Forty-two division titles (including 29 straight). Twenty-three playoff titles.

And how many ejections?

“Not many. Maybe two,” legendary longtime Waterloo Millers manager Vern Moehrs says.

“See, you can tell an umpire anything you want to, if you don’t show him up,” Moehrs elaborated. “Once you get loud with him and everybody can hear it, he’s gotta toss you.”

But all good things must come to an end, and such is the case with Moehrs and his managerial tenure in the Mon-Clair League.

Moehrs, who turned 87 on Friday, has decided to hand the reins of the team to former player Barry Grant. 

“If you’re gonna run these kinds of teams, you’ve gotta be able to throw batting practice and coach third base,” Moehrs said. “The last few years, I couldn’t do that and I knew it was time.”

Time has certainly been kind to the baseball great, however. 

Moehrs grew up in Renault, starting his playing days on the local Catholic Youth Organization League. His first baseball heroes were Henry “Socks” Doerr and Harold Modglin.

“We didn’t have uniforms in those days,” Moehrs remembers. “These guys had Waterloo High School uniforms and had to hitchhike home from games because there was no bus service.”

Moehrs moved to Hecker, where he played for manager Virgil Gregson on the Skelly’s youth baseball team. 

Moehrs attended Waterloo High School, graduating in 1952. He played four years of baseball and three years of basketball for the Bulldogs.

“I had the honor of playing on the 1952 basketball team that went 31-3, which is still a school record,” Moehrs said.

Moehrs credited coach John Capron as having a great influence on his sandlot career.

Upon his graduation, Moehrs began playing for manager “Doc” Reitz on the Waterloo Warriors team in the Monroe County League. In 1953, future league president Bill Mohr managed the club. 

Mohr left his position to take over Monroe County League officer duties in 1961, opening the door for Moehrs. Moehrs served as a player/manager until the age of 39, after which he just focused on managing.

Moehrs won the league batting title in 1961, hitting .411.

While Waterloo didn’t win a league title that year, a foundation was being set in place. Longtime Buds players Lon Fulte, Carl Braun and other standouts such as Jon Adamson and the late Dick Dillinger joined with Moehrs to form a winning combination.

“I’ve always called that my cornerstone,” Moehrs said.

Fulte, Braun and others such as Jimmy and John Wahlig, would go on to play nearly 20 years or more on the team.

The Mon-Clair League was formed in 1966, which was around the time the Warriors changed their name to the Buds.

“I went to Slim Koerber (of Koerber Distributing) and suggested that we be the Buds,” Moehrs recalled. “It became very synonymous.”

The Waterloo Buds became the Waterloo Millers several years ago.

The one constant was Moehrs, who racked up a managerial record of 2,037-555 with 42 division titles, 23 playoff titles, 14 Valmeyer Midsummer Classic titles and four gold medals in five years at the Prairie State Games.

The overall career win total ranks third nationally.

“I really wanted to win the division, and we won it 42 times and 29 straight,” Moehrs said.

When asked about his most memorable teams, Moehrs did not hesitate to mention the 1998 season in which Waterloo went 47-1. Vern’s son Clay was a member of that squad.

The lone loss that season came against Sauget pitcher Corey Blackwell, who later enjoyed success as an ace of the Buds/Millers staff.

“When we were really going strong, hardly any guys ever missed,” Moehrs said. “My philosophy was to not have many players around. Because everybody has a job and nobody’s gonna come out to just sit on the bench. I was pretty careful to find guys that loved the game as much as I did.”

He also had a gem in wife Lucille to help him shine.

“She was a big part of this,” Vern said of his wife of nearly 63 years. “I could not have done all this without her.”

Lucille, who grew up on a farm in New Baden and began dating Vern at the age of 19, said the first baseball game she ever watched was of Vern playing. She’s seen thousands more in the decades since.

“Vern was a great hitter, but his speed was not good,” Lucille assessed. “He never hit a home run.”

Both Vern and Lucille brought up Vern’s final league at-bat, which came as a pinch hitter at the age of 59.

“I was sort of a hell on wheels, really,” Vern recounted. “I got on somebody’s (butt) about not doing something, and they said ‘Why don’t you hit?’”

So he did, and promptly singled. Unfortunately, Vern tried to steal second and pulled both of his hamstrings in the process.

Lucille, who said her greatest baseball memory is of her son Clay playing for Vern, called Vern’s retirement bittersweet.

“I know it’s the right time, she said. “But it’s hard. I’m gonna miss it.”

Asked why he continued to manage for so long, Vern responded simply: “Because I love the game.”

Still, Vern said he “feels great” about his decision.

“It’s really been a good ride,” he said.

As news of Vern’s retirement circulated, the tributes came pouring out.

“In a world bent on instant gratification and recognition, Vernell Moehrs lives by a different creed. I call it ‘Everyday Love’ – the kind of love that exists in the subconscious, for it’s there, every day without thought,” wrote former Buds/Millers player Craig Ohlau, author of the book Kings of the County League: One Summer, One Team, One Dynasty, which is about his time playing for Moehrs. “It’s the love that allows you to unknowingly give your life to something and someone. Vern has given his life to his game. He’s presented himself to the game in a way that is unmatched by today’s standards. I’ve never met a man who carries as much love for competition as he does.” 

Ohlau said he was thankful to have played even a small role in Vern’s career.

“Some of the most enjoyable moments I’ve had in my life and with my family happened ultimately because of Vern,” Ohlau said. “Vern did things right. He gathered sponsors so his players didn’t have to pay, got the players he wanted, and won championships – lots of them. He created amateur baseball’s greatest dynasty and then kept creating even when his critics murmured he was too old. He did it his way from start to finish. The world of baseball was lucky to have Vernell Moehrs – a national treasure, a legend.”

Mon-Clair League President Don Barton also had kind words for the legendary manager.

“It is hard to imagine that anyone has influenced the direction of the Mon-Clair League more than Vern,” Barton said. “Not just because Waterloo has such a long history of success, but how Vern achieved it. Baseball has always been a year-round passion for Vern and Lucille. When the Mon-Clair season ends, most of us would step back and take a breath for awhile. Vern would be out scouting the fall leagues the next day.”

Barton added that he is happy to say he got to play and manage against Vern and later be a league officer with and for him. 

Mon-Clair League Hall of Famer and league historian Art Voellinger also offered his take on Vern’s impact on baseball in the region.

“Numbers aside, it is worth noting that in 1984 when as a league vice president and statistician, I submitted a letter to the Mon-Clair League officers (Van Smith was president and former league president Bill Mohr a vice president), suggesting a Hall of Fame,” Voellinger said. “At that time, there was no question regarding Vern Moehrs being a charter member” along with the likes of Mohr, Braun, Joe Jorn, Barney Elser, Syl “Tuffy” Mueth, Norm Rutter and Mel Patton.

“In subsequent years, other names were added, including some who deserved charter recognition, but few were involved with men’s amateur baseball as long as Vern Moehrs,” Voellinger said. “As a player, coach or manager, Vern has contributed to why the Mon-Clair men’s league and baseball in the Southwestern Illinois area deserve being called ‘The Best in the Midwest.’ Numbers again will confirm why Vern may have achieved more than any other coach of amateur baseball nationally.”

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