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Friday March 16, 2012

'The Pitching Professor' taught school before playing pro baseball

Fan favourite with the Vancouver Capilanos had a mean curveball, but didn't do as well with a bat

Special to The Globe and Mail

Ernie Kershaw unravelled the mysteries of curves and parabolas for high school students. He used the same science to baffle batters as a professional baseball pitcher.

Kershaw, who died on Feb. 13 at the age of 102, played four seasons with the hometown Vancouver Capilanos, gaining renown as a fan favourite, a reputation reinforced by driving a carload of students to every home game.

He was known as the Pitching Professor, the Slinging Schoolmaster, and the Master Mathematician. Sports columnist Jim Coleman called him a "talented trigonometrical technician."

Kershaw developed a high-stepping, almost comical pitching motion. An intimidating presence on the mound, he stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 187 pounds. With a broad forehead and a square jaw, he looked like a pitcher delivered from central casting.

The right-hander signed with the Capilanos after helping a team sponsored by United Distillers win the citywide amateur championship.

He made his Capilanos debut in the 1939 home opener at Athletic Park, which marked the return of professional ball to the bandbox wooden stadium after a 17-year hiatus. He pitched a shut-out while limiting the Yakima (Wash.) Pippins to just five singles.

"Mr. Kershaw struck up a beautiful friendship with the horsehide last night; it would do anything for him except shine those Yakima guys' shoes," reported the correspondent for the Daily Province.

Added the Vancouver Sun's Hal Straight: "You could have written it in Hollywood and put it in Technicolor and Vancouver's professional baseball opening, which was a 4-0 win for the home Capilanos, couldn't have gone off better ... even the local Canadian boy making good ... our boy the hero."

The auspicious launch of his pro career was all the more unlikely considering he was a self-taught hurler. What he knew about the complicated craft of pitching had been gleaned years earlier from a 25-cent book issued as part of the popular Spalding Athletic Library series.

"They had pictures showing the positions of the fingers and the point of delivery," he once said. "And immediately I got the neighbourhood kids out to play catch."

He honed his curveball by throwing pitch after pitch into a backstop of fishnetting he rigged up behind the building in which his father operated a house-painting business.

Kershaw was born in the fishing village of Ladner (now part of Delta) on the Fraser River south of Vancouver on Oct. 6, 1909. (On his birth, baseball's reigning world champions were the Chicago Cubs. The club would not win another World Series title in his 102-year lifetime.) His mother, Ellen (née Mcdonald) Fenton, had been widowed with four children before marrying Arthur Kershaw, a painter and paperhanger. Ernie was born prematurely at seven months and his survival was uncertain.

He spent his first days in a shoebox in the warming oven of the family's kitchen range and was fed "honey and water via an eyedropper," he wrote in a memoir.

He described a Huckleberry Finn boyhood spent exploring the forests, marshes and beaches found near the village at the mouth of a mighty river.

As he put it: "We could swim in the Fraser, play Tarzan swinging in the trees at Burr's Bush or Cook's Bush, or play Robin Hood, or Indians, in the same areas. After seeing The Three Musketeers, or The Count of Monte Cristo, we could duel with broomstick swords in Ike Whitworth's boathouse, or the former cannery on the Fraser waterfront."

The idyll was broken when a half-brother returned from the Western Front with a bad case of trench foot suffered while spending long hours immersed in water at the bottom of a shell hole as a sniper at Passchendaele. Then the entire family, except for the father, fell sick with influenza. All recovered.

After completing high school, Kershaw attended the University of British Columbia, earning a science degree. He had planned to be an electrical engineer, but a job offer in Eastern Canada fell through, so he instead became a teacher, taking posts in British Columbia at Mission and Smithers before beginning a long career in West Vancouver.

Kershaw signed his first professional baseball contract at the advanced age of 29.

"I made $150 a month," he said. "I thought I'd hit the motherlode. You know, I'd have paid to play. The income wasn't what counted."

He made a practice of ferrying eager students from West Vancouver across the Lions Gate Bridge to the ball park.

"I had a big 1928 Straight-8 Hupmobile and I'd load it with kids and go to Athletic Park early. ... They could get some old bats and some used balls to take back."

In 1941, Kershaw pitched an exhibition game against the Seattle Rainiers in a fundraiser to help pay for the cost of a Mustang fighter plane.

He enlisted, so the club announced an Ernie Kershaw Night to be held the day before he was report to duty. The celebration coincided with another promotion, as the Capilanos had earlier declared it Bring Your Knitting Night, in which women armed with needles and a ball of wool were admitted free.

The pitcher was given gifts including haberdashery, a writing case, a travelling bag and a shaving kit presented by the sports department of the Daily Province newspaper.

He taught navigation, rising in rank to flight lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

He returned to Vancouver at the end of war, pitching once again in the city amateur league before rejoining the Capilanos for a final campaign in 1946. His career record in the Western International League was a respectable 21-20.

An expertise in such matters as angle, velocity, and projectile motion helped him on the mound, but not at the plate. In 128 career at-bats, he managed to stroke just 13 singles for an anemic .102 average.

But the teacher's math wizardry gave sportswriters a hook even in defeat. The Vancouver Sun once reported one defeat with the equation: "A poor fastball, plus an inconsistent curve, minus the good luck that didn't last, equals one loss."

Kershaw retired from teaching in 1973. As teammates died and an era faded from living memory, he became a source for stories about Athletic Park (demolished 60 years ago to make way for a bridge on-ramp) and such teammates as former major leaguers Wimpy Quinn and Smead Jolley.

Kershaw leaves Audrey (née Jones), his wife of 64 years, a son, two daughters, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

His memorial service concluded with the organist playing Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

A biography, The Pitching Professor, co-written with sports historian Len Corben, is to be published later this year.

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