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The small black-and-white photo of Gary Kershner—posed in a batting stance—is above the photo of Gus “Go Go” Banks and Joe “Little Joe” Shelton. They are on Page 9 of a program for the PMI Parkas fast-pitch softball team.
“I haven’t had this out in ages,” Kershner said as he held the program.
Kershner, then a 26-year-old shortstop on the Washington, D.C., team, laughs as he looks at the nickname above his photo: Gary “Vacuum Cleaner” Kershner.
“Some of those things go way back,” he said. “I don’t even know what year that was.”
He flips the page to the front of the program: “Nineteen sixty-seven,” he says in amazement, enunciating every syllable.
Kershner, who grew up in the Hagerstown, Md., area, and now lives at Brunswick Plantation, has had to do a lot of reminiscing lately. On July 19, he was inducted into the 22nd annual Washington County (Maryland) Sports Hall of Fame. He was an all-conference baseball player for Murray State University and an all-star shortstop for a dozen years in Washington, D.C., fast-pitch softball. He also was a teacher and a coach.
Kershner received a phone call in February telling him he was going to be inducted.
“It was an awesome feeling,” he said. “A couple friends of mine had already been inducted that I played ball with, and I looked up to them as youngster growing up. To be in there with them was a real treat.”
This is the second Hall of Fame induction for Kershner. In 1986, he was inducted into The Greater Washington Fastpitch Softball Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C.
“When I was inducted in 1986,” Kershner said, “they told me I was the youngest player at the time to be inducted. It was quite an honor.”
Being a member of two hall of fames for excellence in two sports is something Kershner never dreamed of.
Kershner grew up playing baseball, not softball, in Funkstown, Md., and attended South Hagerstown High School. When he was a senior, he was selected to play on a Hagerstown all-star team in a regional tournament in Murray, Ky.
“We had a great tournament,” Kershner said. “In four games, we didn’t have a run scored against us.”
It was a great chance to get scouted, but the Murray State coach, Johnny Reagan, was out of town.
“One of the assistant football coaches and several of the old-timers watching the games recommended me to coach Reagan,” Kershner said. “Two weeks later, I got a phone call. And that was how I got my scholarship to Murray State to play baseball. I had no idea at the time I would be going to college.”
Kershner was a varsity player for three years. As the leadoff hitter, Kershner batted .303. He struck out just 9 percent in all of his at-bats. In his senior year, he stole 19 of 20 bases. He twice was selected to the All-Ohio Valley Conference team.
“As an infielder,” Regan said, “he had exceptional speed and quickness to go with outstanding soft hands and an accurate arm. These are attributes of very good infielders.”
But those statistics fail to reveal what made Kershner a unique player.
“He was an excellent infielder,” Reagan said, “because he had the extra ingredient—he had perpetual self-motivation. He was never surprised. In fact, he literally wanted every batted ball hit to him. Frequently, he would yell to his pitcher, ‘Make him hit it to me.’ ”
In Kershner’s three seasons, the Racers were conference champions in 1961 and 1963. Kershner, who thrived defensively at shortstop, was captain of the Murray State baseball team his senior year.
“He was such a complete and spirited player that his teammates loved playing with him,” Reagan said. “He played on teams that won 71 percent of their games during his three years—and Gary was a major factor in that success.”
After graduating from Murray State in 1963 with bachelor’s degrees in business and history, Kershner became a teacher at Camp Springs Elementary School, near Andrews Air Force Base, in Prince George’s County in Maryland. (He taught there for 18 years.) He still dreamed about playing Major League Baseball.
“I went to a couple of Phillies and Orioles camps in Hagerstown,” he said. “They said the same thing: ‘You got good speed. You’re very good defensively.’ But at 5-6, 130 pounds, they said, I wasn’t big enough. That was a little discouraging. So I didn’t pursue it.”
He played semi-pro baseball, but the games were too infrequent for him, once or twice a week.
“I wasn’t getting to play enough,” he said. “That’s when I got into fast-pitch softball.”
Kershner joined the Royal Coach Inn fast-pitch softball team in the Washington, D.C., area, and played shortstop—and he certainly got to play enough games. The leagues drew 100 teams for fast-pitch softball. Teams played up to 60 games in a five-month season. (By comparison, Major League Baseball teams play 162 games in a six-month season.)
“We opened up the season two years in a row against the Raybestos Cardinals,” Kershner said, “and it wouldn’t be anything to have 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 people in the stands.
“When I was teaching school, I’d leave school a lot of times on a Friday and not come back till late Sunday night. That was fun.”
He adjusted quickly to softball.
“I’ve always been good defensively,” he said. “So the transition from baseball to fast-pitch softball was very easy. Defense is quite important when you get those 1-0 and 3-2 games.”
That was evident in 1965, when he was selected to the Guy Mason League All-Star team. In 1966, he batted .278 and was selected to the Metro All-Star team. He was the MVP in the Greenbelt Invitational Tourney.
Softball also was an indirect way to earn money: The companies he worked for during the summer sponsored the teams he played for.
“At the time when we were teaching in Prince George’s County,” Kershner said, “we did not have summer pay. We had to get a job. I did all kinds of odd jobs, believe me, when I first started teaching, everything from a pool manager to working on a garbage truck. We had to scrap and save.”
In 1967, Kershner joined the newly formed PMI Parkas, a team of 18 players with nicknames such as “Scrap Iron” and “Rock,” “Old Reliable” and “The Thief,” “Wookie” and “Mastermind.”
To get in shape for the season—the team played up to three nights a week and on weekends from April to August—Kershner arranged to have the Camp Springs Elementary School gym, where he taught, open twice a week.
That was one reason Kershner was a popular player. Another was his skill. Just four seasons into his softball career, Kershner had established himself as a top-level shortstop. In 1968, the Parkas won the Washington, D.C., city championship and Kershner was voted the MVP of the city tournament. It was the first time the award was given to someone because of his excellence on defense.
In 1969, Kershner joined the Brothers Furniture team, a team he would play for for six seasons and one on of top teams in the Atlantic Seaboard Major Softball League.
“We played against world champions,” he said. “We traveled from Clearwater, Fla., to Philadelphia.”
In 1969, Brothers Furniture finished 46-19 and were the Guy Mason League champions. In 1970, they finished 38-27 and were the D.C. Metropolitan champions.
In 1971, Brothers Furniture finished 36-19. The highlight for Kershner was the Allentown, Pa., July 4th Invitational. Brothers Furniture finished third, but Kershner was named MVP, the first time that honor was given to someone not on the championship team. At the plate, he batted .400. In the field, he had four unassisted double plays.
“I was getting ready to leave,” Kershner recalled, “and they said, ‘No, you have to hang around.’ They wouldn’t tell us why, and it was because of that (award).”
In 1972, Kershner and the Brothers Furniture played in the International Softball Conference World Tournament in Kimberly, Wis.
“I played against all of the great fast-pitch pitchers and ballplayers,” he said.
One of those pitchers was Dick Norenberg, who stood 6 feet, 7 inches. His pitch was considered the fastest in the sport.
“When he released the ball,” Kershner said, “it was like right on top of you.”
Kershner also played twice against The King and His Court, a team of a pitcher, a catcher and two other players.
“That was fun,” Kershner said. “We had pretty good success against them. He was a great motivator for the game. He was an icon.”
* * * *
An unexpected highlight came in 1973. A professional fast-pitch softball league for the summer months was being formed. One of the six teams in the new league, Montreal, drafted Kershner.
“But it didn’t materialize,” he said. “They ran into a lot of financial problems. I think they were trying to set it up where you could still live at home but they would fly you (on the weekends) to the games.
“But that was nice to be one of only four in the D.C. area to ever be drafted (for pro softball). Two of the guys played on the same team that I did, so that gives you an idea of how powerful we were at the time.”
Kershner stopped playing regularly in 1974 at age 33. Twelve years later he was inducted into The Greater Washington Fastpitch Softball Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C.
“His huge success in softball is not a surprise,” said Reagan, the Murray State baseball coach. “He had all of the physical tools for such a fast game, and he had those unteachable tools. I would actually imagine that he would be a hall of famer because he’s a true winner in every sense of the word.”
* * * *
Kershner’s love of sports led to his coaching high school softball during 1976-77 and high school baseball during 1978-81. He also coached golf. After a 30-year teaching career, Kershner retired, and he and wife Sandy (also a teacher) moved to North Carolina in 2004. They are the parents of Gary Wayne II and Leighanne, now adults.
Baseball was good to Kershner for another reason. It was while playing a game at Delta State in 1962 that Kershner met Sandy, whom he would marry two years later.
“Baseball has done everything for me,” he said. “I got my education. I met Sandy. I was able to teach for 30 years—which I absolutely loved and which I never thought I would do when I first attended school.”
Kershner is proud of his hall-of-fame sports career, and Reagan is proud of Kershner, the little shortstop so often told he was too little to play professional baseball but now is in two sports hall of fames.
“I can promise (everyone) that hundreds and hundreds of students are profiting today because they crossed paths with teacher Gary Kershner,” Reagan said. “That is the feeling he left with us in Kentucky. We are very proud of what he did for us as a student-athlete, and we swell with pride now for what he has done with his life.”
MICHAEL PAUL is the sports editor at the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.