Recently Powhatan Mennonite and Red Lane Baptist played against each other in a spirited, tic-for-tac, modified fast-pitch softball game. There was some chatter on the sidelines about something very special and unique about the game, the pitchers; Gene Hertzler, pitcher for the Mennonites, and Tommy Mann, pitcher for the Baptists.
At one point during the evening, Tommy meandered to our side of the field and was chatting with some of us. He said, “That is the old man out there (referring to Gene) and I am Methuselah!” I don’t think of Gene or Tommy as old, but in terms of softball pitchers they are well-seasoned veterans! Even at the age of 65 and 72, respectfully, the love of softball and pitching still flows through their veins.
Tommy doesn’t pitch much any more. Instead he has taken up professional umpiring in his “twilight years” for the JV, travel ball and high school baseball teams. But when the young guys get in a pinch and need a pitcher, they know who to call. Even though his speed has slowed, he can still pitch a winning game!
Gene on the other hand still plays every game and is often recruited for other tournaments such as the Robby Green tournament in the fall. A number of years ago he thought his body was telling him it was time to give up the game and retire but after two and half years his team coaxed him back onto the pitcher’s mound. I still remember that first night back. Even though he had not picked up a softball or attended a game during his break he had a dynamite night and gave the opposing team (Lambs) a run for their money. He was back in the game.
The church league started in the late 50’s. Tommy recalls going to the games as a youngster with his Dad and Mom. It was a big deal back then as there were not a lot of other entertainment options. They played on Lonesome Oak field behind the Village Building (old school house) in the Village. There were no lights on the field and sometimes in the fall when the days were shorter they would have to all pack up and go to the field behind the War Memorial building where there were lights to finish the game. At that time there were 7-8 churches in the league; Red Lane, Mt. Moriah, Methodist, Old Powhatan, Graceland, May Memorial, and several from Amelia. Graceland was the “un-beatable” team. Their pastor, Coen Agee, could pitch windmill or anything he wanted and you could not hit his balls. Red Lane would occasionally work some of the younger boys in for a game. He could hardly wait until he was old enough to play on the team. He clearly remembers his first game on the Red Lane Baptist team when he was about sixteen. They were playing Graceland and he was playing second base. He caught the ball but the rest is just a horrible memory. When you are on the side lines watching, the game doesn’t move as fast as when you are playing! Needless to say, he sat on the bench a good bit at first. A few years later he started pitching and became a valuable member of the team.
Sometime in the mid to late 70’s, the school had to put in a new septic field and the church league field was dug up to put in the laterals. For about 5 years after that they played in a pasture field called Fuller Field, just off of Route 60 west of Plain View. There were no bleachers, no lights, no manicured field and no concession stand. It was pure country with a slightly sloping field and a sand pile for the children to play on but everyone had a good time. It was during this time that the Mennonite team started playing.
As the league grew it became time to find a better and safer place to play. The Lions Club, county and churches stepped up to the plate and each provided 1/3 of the cost to fix Ace’s Field on Skaggs road. Now the league had lights, a scoreboard, outfield fence, bleachers, dugouts, paid umpires, a properly manicured field and a real concession stand.
Some of the earliest pictures of Gene show him with a ball and bat in his hand. In his adolescents, he spent hours and hours each summer throwing the ball up against the concrete block barn. When he was thirteen he started playing on the church league in Newport News. Five years later he moved to Powhatan and it wasn’t until about 10 years later that his church finally started a team. Ocassionally Gene will play first base but his love is pitching.
Gene-3 years old
12 years old
Tommy says they didn’t take many pictures when he was young! He searched but could not find any pictures of his younger playing days.
Both men remember their “battle wounds” and can point to the knee, shin or spot where the ball left a big black bruise and the imprint of stitching from the ball. One time Gene had stitches in his upper lip when it was split open from a ball. Tommy’s worst incidence happened when a hard line ball was hit straight to the pitcher’s mound and nailed his fourth finger on his right hand. The finger jammed and is forever crooked as a result of the impact. Gene also remembers that incident well, he was the batter!
When Tommy started playing, the Goodwyn brothers (Pal, Art, Royce, NB), Percy Webb, Richard White, Fred Gregory, Ted Adams, Tippy Hamilton, the Reams brothers (James & Dickie) among other old-time Powhatanians were playing. Now some of the grandsons and great-nephews of these fellows are helping to carry on the sport. He is glad to see the younger generation keeping the league going strong. There are a lot of really good players and it is also a time of fun and fellowship. Both men have weathered some turbulent times in the league with pitching rules and are very glad they have gone back to wooden bats. It puts the teams on a more competitive and even playing field.
How long will Gene and Tommy continuing playing? Who knows! Sitting on the sidelines it is neat to watch them play with the young bucks and still make an honorable contribution. Tommy’s wife, Kay, said, “Because of their love of the game, these two old men just don’t know when to stop!”