Dwight Bernard took an unusual path to the major leagues. He played one year of high-school baseball, in which he pitched just a few games and won only one, then went to a tiny Baptist college that did not offer intercollegiate sports. He transferred to another small college that had a baseball team but to that point had only three alumni who had moved on to professional ball. But Bernard became a second-round draft pick in June 1974 and made the big leagues, pitching in the 1982 World Series before launching a career of more than 30 years as a pitching coach in pro ball.
Dwight Vern Bernard (accent on the last syllable) was born on May 31, 1952, in Mount Vernon, Illinois, to Murrel and LaVerne (Adams) Bernard. He was the second oldest of eight siblings: four boys and four girls.1 Mount Vernon is the seat of Jefferson County in the southern part of the state with a population of about 15,000. Dwight grew up on the family farm near the small village of Belle Rive (rhymes with “five”), about 10 miles southeast.
Murrel Bernard opened a grain elevator on the farm in 1959 and established a business, M. Bernard & Sons Grain Co. He hauled grain until he was 92 and was driving a combine the evening before he suffered a stroke at the age of 94.2 He died in October 2017. The farm and the grain business remained in the family.
“We have about 400 acres, mostly soybeans and sometimes corn,” Bernard said in 2018.3 “Three of us brothers work at the grain elevator, the other two are there year round. Whenever I get done with baseball I’m heading back that way also. My brothers and I will keep it going as long as health and everything works out good. We all live just right around there close. Mom and dad’s house is not an eighth of a mile away from mine.” Bernard’s mother was still living on the farm when this was written in July 2018.
“We enjoyed baseball,” Bernard said. “Dad would take us over to St. Louis (about 90 miles northwest) and we’d watch the Cardinals. Back in the fourth grade, I believe it was, I had a teacher that had us write down what we wanted to be, and I had professional baseball player on the top of the list, I don’t know why. Mom’s still got that paper, too. I don’t even remember doing that.”
Bernard played church league basketball and summer Khoury League baseball for high-school boys, but he didn’t play at Mount Vernon Township High School until his senior year, when he played basketball and baseball. “I had to work on the farm and really didn’t have transportation,” he said by way of explanation. When he finally did put on a high-school baseball uniform, it didn’t take long for him to make an impression. In his first start on the mound, he pitched a no-hitter, striking out the first six batters he faced and a total of 15 in the seven-inning game.4 Yet that would be his only win as a high-school pitcher. He played center field when he didn’t pitch.
Playing professional baseball would seem to have been the furthest thing from Bernard’s mind when he graduated from high school in 1970. That fall he enrolled at Free Will Baptist Bible College in Nashville, where his older brother, Gil, was already a student.5 Free Will had only about 300 students and did not offer intercollegiate athletics, although there was an active sports program organized by the campus fraternities. “They had basketball, baseball, and football,” Bernard said. “I just enjoyed playing them all; being competitive was probably the biggest thing.”
Bernard left Free Will after his first semester when he was declared ineligible to play. “I flunked a two-hour course, and somebody else at another fraternity who was pretty good flunked a three-hour course, and it was decided that I couldn’t play sports and he could,” is how Bernard remembered it. Upset about what seemed an injustice, Bernard transferred to another small (but slightly larger) Baptist school in Nashville, one that did have an intercollegiate baseball team.
That school is now known as Belmont University. It has grown in recent years to have about 8,000 students. Its teams compete in the NCAA Division I Ohio Valley Conference; the men’s basketball team has played in the NCAA tournament, and a number of its baseball players have gone on to the pro ranks in recent years. But when Bernard arrived on campus in January 1971, the school was known as Belmont College. It had about 1,000 students and its teams belonged to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), playing other small Tennessee schools in the Volunteer State Athletic Conference.
Bernard walked on to the baseball team at Belmont. “Their coach didn’t know me at all,” he said. He made the team as a freshman and pitched four seasons at Belmont while majoring in physical education.6
“My freshman and sophomore years, I didn’t know where the ball was going,” Bernard said in 1974. “All I did was throw hard because that’s all I knew how to do. Coach Dave Whitten did so much for me. He taught me techniques, taught me not to roll my head from side to side in my delivery. He made me concentrate on pitching to a spot, made me concentrate on what I was doing. I realized control was the key to success I might have as a pitcher.”7
As a junior in 1973 he was the team’s most valuable pitcher and made the Nashville all-city team, posting a 2.17 ERA in 68 innings, including seven shutout innings against Belmont’s much bigger crosstown rival, Vanderbilt.8 His performance that season gave him hopes of possibly playing professionally.
Bernard married a fellow Belmont College student, Barbara Lankford, on August 25, 1973. They were still married as this was written in 2018 and had three children, son Jason (born in 1974) and daughters Jamie (1978) and Kelley (1982). Jason played baseball at Belmont, as did Dwight’s younger brother Tom. Dwight’s older brother, Gil (who finished his college education at Belmont), never played high-school or college baseball, but he was a very successful high-school baseball coach and administrator, and he was inducted into the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2007.
As a senior in 1974, Bernard drew attention from pro scouts around the country. He went 8-0 with a 1.39 ERA and struck out 97 batters in 84⅓ innings to earn NAIA All-District 24 first-team honors. He struck out 16 in his final college appearance, against Millikin, and his 234 career strikeouts were a school record at the time (and as of 2018 ranked fourth in school history).9
In June 1974 Bernard became the first Belmont player ever drafted, when the New York Mets made him their second-round selection, the 41st player chosen overall. (Jerry Bell, who was drafted by the Seattle Pilots in January 1969 and pitched for the Brewers from 1971 to 1974, pitched for Belmont in 1966 and ’67 before transferring to Rhodes College, where he finished his collegiate career. As of 2018, Bernard and Bell were the only major leaguers who played at Belmont. Prior to Bell, two other Belmont alumni had played in the minors, but neither was drafted.)
Mets scout Paul Tretiak signed Bernard the day after the draft (for a bonus of “a little over $20,000,” Bernard said at the time).10 Bernard was assigned to Victoria (Texas) in the Double-A Texas League, and his pro career began with a bang. In his second start he pitched a five-hit shutout.11 A three-hit shutout followed two weeks later,12 and in August he went 12 innings to get a 2-1 win.13 Bernard finished his half-season at Victoria with a 7-4 record and a 3.06 ERA in 14 starts, then earned a 4-1 victory in the second game of the playoffs as Victoria won the league championship.14
Bernard was invited to major-league spring training in 1975, to throw batting practice, and was promoted to Triple-A Tidewater. He got off to a great start: through June 11 he had a record of 6-3 (the Tides were shut out in two of his losses) with an ERA of 2.05.15 But he struggled at times after that, and his final season record was 9-9 with a 3.29 ERA in 126 innings, with more walks than strikeouts. For the second straight year he was on a championship team, as the Tides had the International League’s best regular-season record and then won the league playoffs, although Bernard missed the playoffs with tendinitis in his pitching shoulder.
“Toward the end of 1975, probably the last month and a half, I had a little soreness that couldn’t let go,” he recalled in 2018. “Of course you never tell anybody. I had heard horror stories from some of the older guys, so I wasn’t sayin’ nothin’. I was just hoping that I could get through it.”
At the time he blamed his injuries on bad coaching. “I got fouled up because some people in the Mets organization tried to change my pitching style,” he said as he prepared to head to spring training in 1976.16 He elaborated in 2018: “With Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman and those guys there [with the Mets], they wanted to try to mold guys a little bit after them.”
Back at Tidewater in 1976, Bernard lost his first seven decisions17 and had a 1-9 record with a 6.40 ERA when he asked to be sent down to Jackson (Mississippi) in the Texas League. “They wanted to make me a reliever at Tidewater and I didn’t want that,” he said. “I asked to go to Jackson because I wanted to be a starter. I felt I started coming around once I got to Jackson.”18 It went a little bit better for him at Jackson, as he went 2-5 with a 4.17 ERA in nine starts.
After going to spring training with the Mets in 1977, Bernard was sent back to Tidewater and had another undistinguished season as a starter, finishing with a 9-13 record and a 4.32 ERA. He started only four more games in pro ball after that, as the Mets made the decision in the spring of 1978 to move him to the bullpen.
“At first I wasn’t very happy, because I’d seen some of the relief pitchers sat for two or three weeks sometimes and didn’t pitch,” Bernard remembered. “I had a very good spring as a starter and right at the very end they decided to make that move. I wasn’t very happy, I stayed home for a day or two before I decided to try it and see.”
“I had a very good spring as a starter and right at the very end they decided to make that move,” Bernard remembered. “I wasn’t very happy, because I’d seen some of the relief pitchers sat for two or three weeks sometimes and didn’t pitch. I stayed home for a day or two before I decided to try it and see.”
Bernard thrived in the bullpen at Tidewater, going 5-3 with two saves and a 1.64 ERA, before making his major-league debut with the Mets on June 29. He spent the rest of the season in the Mets’ bullpen, posting a record of 1-4 with a 4.31 ERA.
He went north with the Mets in 1979 and didn’t allow an earned run in 14 of his first 17 appearances, but he was hit hard enough in the other three games that he had a 4.50 ERA when he was sent back to Tidewater in late May. “I thought I was better than at least four guys they kept,” he said. “I was surprised when I was sent down — and so were the other guys on the team.”19
Again Bernard pitched well in the International League, this time as the Tides’ closer, with a 1.95 ERA and 13 saves in two months before he was recalled by the Mets on July 27.20 Bernard said general manager Joe McDonald, manager Joe Torre, and pitching coach Rube Walker made promises when he was recalled that weren’t kept.
“They called me into the office for a meeting,” Bernard said. “They said I had proved myself at Tidewater, that no one else was doing the job and that the bullpen was mine. But it never happened. I never got a chance to save a game.”21
He was sent back to Tidewater a few weeks later before returning to New York after the International League season. His final Tidewater numbers were great — 16 saves and a 1.77 ERA (he was second in the league in saves despite spending less than half the season there) — but with the Mets he was 0-3 with a 4.70 ERA.
After the season the Mets moved on, trading Bernard to the Milwaukee Brewers for Mark Bomback, who had just earned Minor League Player of the Year honors from The Sporting News by going 22-7 with Vancouver in the Pacific Coast League. “When you get traded, you gotta feel like somebody wants you,” Bernard said. “I thought that would be a pretty good opportunity.”
But 1980 was basically a lost season for Bernard; he pitched just 33 innings between Triple-A Vancouver and Double-A Holyoke (Massachusetts), with an ERA above 7.00 at both stops. Surgery on the thumb of his pitching hand caused him to miss a chunk of the season. “They said it was some sort of a tumor, on the right-hand side of my thumb beside my thumbnail, it was a big knot,” he remembered. “My control had come around pretty good, and then it left me because I couldn’t grip the baseball the way I needed to. They took it out and everything was good after that.”
Going into 1981, Bernard’s career was on the line. “When I went to spring training, I knew if I didn’t do well, I’d be sent home,” he said. “I was realistic about it.”22 But Brewers manager Buck Rodgers liked what he saw in the spring enough to send Bernard to Vancouver, where he saved 11 games with a 3.35 ERA and had the best strikeout rate of his pro career (7.4 per nine innings). That earned him a return to the major leagues when the rosters expanded in September, and he had a 3.60 ERA in six outings for the Brewers.
That was the year of the players strike, and a playoff was held in each major-league division pitting the team with the best record before the strike against the team with the best record after play resumed. The Brewers went 31-22 after the strike for the best record in the American League East and advanced to the playoff against the Yankees, who had the division’s best pre-strike record. When Reggie Cleveland developed tendinitis, the Brewers chose Bernard to take Cleveland’s place in the bullpen for the postseason.
Bernard got into two games against the Yankees, both games that the Brewers lost (they lost the best-of-five series in five games), and retired all seven batters he faced. “It looks like we might have found a pitcher,” general manager Harry Dalton said.23
Bernard spent all of 1982 with the Brewers, the only year of his career he spent entirely in the major leagues. His 47 pitching appearances were second-most on the team, behind Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, and his six saves were tied with Jim Slaton for second on the team behind Fingers. He finished the year with a 3-1 record and a 3.76 ERA, helping the Brewers win the AL East and advance to the World Series.
Asked in 2018 about his memories of the championship season, Bernard said, “Probably the number-one thing was I got my first major-league save against Minnesota [on May 2]. And I struck out Gary Gaetti from Centralia, Illinois [about 40 miles from Bernard’s home in Belle Rive], three times, that was a pretty good feeling.” (Gaetti was 0-for-4 against Bernard that year, with a walk and a sacrifice bunt.)
The Brewers’ bullpen was thrown into chaos when Fingers tore a muscle in his right (pitching) forearm on September 2, an injury that caused him to miss the entire 1983 season.24 From that point on, Bernard and rookie Pete Ladd each had two saves in the regular season, Slaton one and Moose Haas (who had been used mostly as a starter) one. But when the postseason came around, Bernard was all but forgotten by Harvey Kuenn, who had replaced Rodgers as manager in June.
Ladd got two saves and Slaton one in the American League Championship Series against the Angels. Bernard made just one appearance, entering Game One with Milwaukee trailing by five runs and pitching a perfect inning. In the World Series the Brewers’ two saves were by Bob McClure, who made only eight of his 34 regular-season appearances in relief and did not save a game. McClure pitched in relief five times in the seven-game series and was the losing pitcher twice. Haas, Mike Caldwell, and Doc Medich, who were all primarily starters during the regular season, also were used in relief in the World Series, against St. Louis.
“When you start bringing starters in out of the bullpen, guys who are out of their realm, they didn’t have the proper time to warm up, they didn’t go through their normal routines … it’s a lot different,” Bernard said. “It was the bullpen that got us there, and then all of a sudden it changes, and that was an aggravating thing. But I was a team guy and I just wanted to win, and if those guys could do it, then that was fine. I felt like there were a couple of times in there where I had been used in those situations, and it didn’t happen.”
Bernard took the mound once in the World Series, entering Game Six with the Brewers trailing 13-0, and pitched a scoreless inning. In his four career postseason appearances he retired 13 of the 14 batters he faced, the other one reaching on an error.
Little did Bernard know that his World Series appearance would be his last in the major leagues. After a rough spring training in 1983, when he had a 10.13 ERA in five appearances, Bernard was released.25 A month later he signed a minor-league contract with the Astros26 and spent two seasons with their Triple-A Tucson team before pitching for the Orioles’ Double-A team at Charlotte in 1985.
Bernard pitched well at Charlotte, but when the season ended without his getting a chance to return to the majors, he decided to end his playing career. “I was still throwing the ball pretty good, that’s for sure,” he remembered, “but I was 33 years old and everybody kind of went with youth in the minor-league free-agent deal. It really gave you no choice but to figure out something else to do.”
What that “something else” turned out to be stemmed from his experience after he had surgery in 1980 and was rehabbing at Double-A Holyoke. “They didn’t have a pitching coach,” Bernard said. “Well, I was down in the bullpen working with those kids. Me being a guy who had some major-league experience, they were all younger guys, why wouldn’t they listen? And they did, they listened. It was fun, and we ended up winning the Eastern League championship.”
That made an impression on team owner Tom Kayser, who in 1986 was the Pittsburgh Pirates’ assistant minor-league director. Kayser gave Bernard a job as pitching coach of the Pirates’ Class-A affiliate in Macon (Georgia) that year, and as of 2018 Bernard has been a pitching coach ever since. He coached at the minor-league level in all those years except for one he spent in the Alaska summer league.
Asked what he liked about coaching, Bernard said, “Working with the kids and watching them improve and be successful, that’s the biggest thing. Even the guys who didn’t make it to the big leagues, those are the guys you’re going to help the most, trying to make their careers last as long as you can and making them better ballplayers as organizational-type guys. It’s fun, I have a lot of good memories from young men that I hear from here and there.”
Newspaper articles were accessed via newspapers.com and newspaperarchive.com. Thanks to Bill Francis of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library for sharing Bernard’s player file there, and thanks to April Szarek of the C.E. Brehm Memorial Library in Mount Vernon, Illinois, for sharing pages from the 1970 Mount Vernon Township High School yearbook.
1 Murrel Bernard’s obituary with names of all the family members is online at obituaries.commercial-news.com/obituary/murrel-bernard-1923-2017-995741311.
3 Telephone interview with Dwight Bernard, February 16, 2018. Unless otherwise attributed, all quotes from Dwight in this article are from this interview.
4 “Bernard No-Hits Tamaroa,” Mt. Vernon (Illinois) Register-News, May 1, 1970: 9. The Register-News is available on newspapers.com, and a search finds only three games in which Bernard pitched. In what appears to be his only other start he pitched a two-hitter and lost, with both the runs he allowed unearned. In a July 1974 interview, Bernard said he pitched four times in high school. Cecil Parker, “Bernard Hopes Wild Days Gone Forever,” Victoria (Texas) Advocate, July 13, 1974: 1B. But a 1978 story said Bernard pitched only three games in high school with a 1-2 record. Alan Freedman, “Mt. Vernon’s Bernard (P)itching to Stay in Majors,” Southern Illinoisan (Carbondale, Illinois), September 19, 1978: 13.
5 The campus moved 30 miles northeast to Gallatin, Tennessee, in 2008, and the school’s name was changed to Welch College in 2012.
6 Team media guides from his playing days (Mets 1979, Brewers 1982, Brewers 1983) show Bernard as having a B.S. in physical education from Belmont, but a check with school officials in July 1978 through studentclearinghouse.org showed Bernard did not earn a degree.
7 Bob Forbes, “Dwight Bernard Enjoying Success With Texas Club,” Mt. Vernon Register-News, July 19, 1974: 1-B.
8 Jeff Hanna, “Rebels Clip Vandy 1-0,” Tennessean (Nashville), April 25, 1973: 25. The game was scheduled for seven innings as part of a doubleheader; Bernard was replaced after seven innings because of a foot injury, with the game tied 0-0. Belmont scored in the bottom of the eighth to win the game.
9 Bernard’s 1974 ERA was a school season record at the time and ranks fourth in school history as of 2018. His strikeout total that year was also a school season record at the time and ranked fifth in school history as of 2018. His career ERA at Belmont of 2.18 was tied for second in school history as of 2018.
10 David Climer, “Belmont Grad Still Learning,” Tennessean, August 9, 1974: 54.
11 “Bernard Hurls Shutout,” The Sporting News, July 13, 1974: 36.
12 The Sporting News, July 27, 1974: 57.
13 “Iron-Man Bernard Wins, 2-1,” Mt. Vernon Register-News, August 19, 1974: 1-B.
14 Dwight Rowin, “Victoria Tops El Paso in Texas Series,” The Sporting News, September 21, 1974: 38.
15 Bob Forbes, “Fine Year for Bernard,” Mt. Vernon Register-News, June 13, 1975: 1-B; “International league Batting and Pitching Records,” The Sporting News, July 5, 1975: 34.
16 Bob Forbes, “In Sports It’s Wise Not to Assume,” Mt. Vernon Register-News, March 5, 1976: 1-B.
17 Bob Forbes, “Sideline Watching,” Mt. Vernon Register-News, July 1, 1976: 1-B.
18 Bob Forbes, “Bernard to South America,” Mt. Vernon Register-News, November 16, 1976: 1-B.
19 Mike Chamness, “Mt. Vernon’s Bernard Glad to Leave ‘Big Apple.’” Southern Illinoisan, October 31, 1979: 15.
20 “Mets Recall Mt. Vernon’s Bernard,” Southern Illinoisan, July 29, 1979: 14.
21 Chamness, “Mt. Vernon’s Bernard Glad to Leave ‘Big Apple.’”
22 Tom Flaherty, “Brewers’ Bernard Makes a Big Leap,” The Sporting News, November 7, 1981: 26.
24 Dale Voiss, “Rollie Fingers,” Society for American Baseball Research BioProject, sabr.org/bioproj/person/4e17d265.
25 Mike Estel, “Bernard Cut by Milwaukee,” Southern Illinoisan, March 29, 1983: 13.
26 “Bernard Joins Astros System,” Southern Illinoisan, May 18, 1983: 12.