When it came to parenting and coaching softball Geri Shaw was in a league of her own.
Shaw, who died after a lengthy illness last October, would’ve turned 72 on Saturday. She undoubtedly celebrated many birthdays with diamonds; softball fields kept her young.
Shaw coached softball in Johnson City Parks and Rec leagues for parts of three decades beginning in the early 1970s. She coached youth girls’ teams the majority of her years, but also coached boys and later managed men’s and co-ed teams.
There weren’t softball leagues for her young daughters, Angie and Jan, at the beginning of the ’70s after she moved back to Johnson City with her husband Rodney from Florida. Shaw soon changed that, although it wasn’t the result of any grand vision.
She was a homeroom mom and Girl Scouts leader for her daughters, who went to Columbus Powell. She was also the summer playground director at Columbus Powell a couple of years (most likely 1970-71) and then moved to the same position at Powell Square for many summers.
“We were there all day,” said Angie, who was probably eight when her mother began those wonderful summers as playground director. “There was a variety of activities. We had croquet at Powell Square. There was a tennis court. She had basketballs. And of course, we played softball.”
Initially, girls and boys played sandlot ball at the playgrounds. The second summer, Shaw’s Columbus Powell girls began playing a team from Town Acres.
“One week we would go to Town Acres and play,” Angie said, “and the next week they’d come to our park and play. It was sad.”
But the following year, probably ’72, the Parks and Rec had what is believed to be its first youth girls’ softball league. Angie recalls there being approximately five teams the first year of the 9-12-year-old league.
The 1970s brought tremendous progress to women’s sports. Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs. Walter Matthau courted Tatum O’Neal to pitch for his Bad News Bears. And by the end of the decade Title IX began the dramatic increase in female participation in high school and college sports.
But there was gender inequity at the beginning of the decade.
“I remember when we told mom we wanted to play softball,” Angie said with a chuckle. “She said, ‘Well, call all of the Girl Scouts and cheerleaders,’ because that’s all there was for girls. She started the youth softball league. She was the one that spearheaded getting the other parks to get teams up.
“I don’t think she realized that was what she was doing. We wanted to play and she wanted us to have teams to play. And at the time girls didn’t play Little League (baseball), because I remember Sherry Wagner was a year older than me and she tried out for Little League.”
Angie said Wagner made the league during tryouts, but Little League Baseball, or at least one of its branches, apparently wouldn’t have allowed the league to advance in postseason play if she participated.
“And Sherry had to quit and come play with us,” Angie said.
Shaw’s 9-12-year-old teams were the Daredevils. She had a team called the Blazers when Angie was 13, and then decided to name her teams the Cardinals when Johnson City’s Appalachian League baseball team switched from Yankees to Cardinals in 1975.
Dwight “Greasy” Leonard was a successful girls basketball coach at Science Hill in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. In the 1970s, he was best known for his talented Angels slow-pitch women’s softball teams.
Leonard remembers Shaw being a fixture on the scene, particularly in helping the youth leagues take root.
“She was one of the main organizers,” Leonard said. “I respected her. I think she had more than one team a lot of the time, with the 9-12 and 13-15-year-olds.
“She was gung-ho about it and she was very good to the kids. She transported a lot of those girls and saw that all of them had things.”
Brien Crowder has coached college and high school basketball since the mid-80s. He won a boys state championship at Monument Valley (Ariz.) in the 1990s and a national small college championship at Bristol College in the 1980s after beating a Paul Westphal-coached team in the semifinals. Crowder’s Antioch was runner-up in the Arby’s Classic in 2006.
Crowder has also coached other high school sports, including baseball and girls’ softball, which he might not have done had it not been for Shaw and the Cardinals. Crowder, who played basketball at Science Hill and Wofford before transferring to Milligan, said he ran the Powell Square playground during the summer of ’80.
“She’d come over there with ball teams practically every day,” Crowder said. “Eventually she got me to coach the bases for her. I started at first base and moved to third. …
“I saw how much fun she had doing that. I never dreamed I’d ever be coaching girls’ softball. She was a positive role model early in my coaching career.”
Crowder won $234,000 on a game show in 2008.
“I remember mom got a kick out of watching him on ‘Deal or No Deal,’” Angie said. “She kept calling me, like, ‘Are you watching this?’ … Brien worked with mom at Powell Square, and his sister Debbie played with us several years. She was a good player.”
Johnson City Parks and Recreation athletic manager David Carmichel coached and kept score during Shaw’s heyday. He remembers Shaw being a straight arrow in an era when fake birth certificates and players playing under assumed names were commonplace.
“She wasn’t one of those coaches that’d bring in illegal ringer players,” Carmichel said. “The Cardinals weren’t like an All-Star team, but they were always good. Her teams were greater than the sum of their parts.”
The Cardinals’ quality players included Janey Banks, Wendy Broyles and Beth Trent. They usually finished first or second in the region, Angie says, to advance to the state tournament.
“We never won a state, but we won some games in the state tournaments,” Angie said. “We found a lot of times that when we got to the state that the teams were stacked — fake birth certificates and all that.”
Shaw wanted to win, but not if she had to stack the deck. Integrity always won the day.
Indeed, her son Rod recalls a game when she ended up having to coach her boys team and the team it was playing thanks to a last-minute request from opposing coach Lonnie Lowe.
“Lonnie was supposed to be coaching a team,” Rod said, “and said ‘I need you to coach my team tonight.’ Mom said, ‘Lonnie, you do know your team’s playing mine tonight?’”
But shaw obliged, and showed no favoritism. In fact, when one of her better players was up to bat, she positioned Lowe’s fielders based on where Scott Elrod frequently hit the ball.
Elrod recalled making a “lot of good memories” while at Powell Square and playing softball for Shaw from the age of nine through high school. He also was on a Kentucky Fried Chicken men’s team Shaw coached. I played on that team in 1987, having met Shaw through two of her nephews that played, Brian and Mike “Bull” Miller.
The KFC dugout had a family vibe. Shaw’s husband kept score, her son played and she had a motherly bond with most everyone, certainly Elrod, Billy Caraway and Jeff Robinson, who were seemingly always at Powell Square. My stepfather Jim played — another wonderful parent, by the way.
Many of us on the KFC roster could’ve been described as free spirits, or as a chuckling Carmichel recalled, “some pretty gnarly looking characters. ” But everyone was mild-mannered and respectful in Shaw’s presence.
A 1960 Science Hill graduate, Shaw began playing adult fast-pitch softball for Pepsi while in high school.
She was in for a surprise, her son Rod says, when she moved back here from Florida and played her first slow-pitch game in her late 20s. Shaw assumed the pitcher was terrible after she led off the game with a hit on the slowest pitch she’d ever swung at, but then learned she was playing a different game when stealing second base caused a commotion.
But slow-pitch softball was huge in Johnson City in the ’70s. League and tournament games were everywhere. The previous version of Civitan Park had four fields for a time. There were softball parks at Neighborhood, Jaycees, Carver, Optimist, Midway, Metro Kiwanis and, of course, Kiwanis Park, where women entertained everyone from V.A. veterans to the loveable cyclist most knew only as Ralph. Colorful coaches such as Leonard, Eugene “Red” Gillespie and Tom “T-Berry” Berry were local legends.
“Women’s softball was really big,” Angie said. “There weren’t enough teams for a 16-18-year-old league at that point. We’d play in a league with T-Berry’s (women’s) team and Greasy’s players, which made us better. ...
“The Pepsi plant was across from Kiwanis Park, and you could literally see the bottles going through and getting filled up and stuff. That’s back when Greasy’s teams played and the big girls would hit the Pepsi plant across the street when they hit a home run.”
Angie ended up coaching softball, too. It was ingrained in her.
“From the end of March until August we were pretty much always at the ballpark,” Angie said. “I don’t think we realized what a gift it was. She was around all the time, knew all of our friends. She was probably interested in us staying out of trouble.”
Crowder and Carmichel both noted the loves of Shaw’s life being obvious.
“Her heart was in the right place,” Crowder said. “What a wonderful family. I looked forward to her pulling up every day. She was always a good sport. Nobody likes to lose … but she always had a smile on her face.
“And boy, she loved softball. Nobody loved softball any more than her. She was the Pat Summit of girls softball, I guess, there in Johnson City.”
Trey Williams is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at facebook.com/JCPressTreyWilliams and like him on Facebook at twitter.com/TreyJCPress.