INDIANA COUNTY SPORTS HALL OF FAME: McPherson made his mark
• EDITOR’S NOTE: This the first of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame. Tomorrow: Clarence Dixson.
Life moved at a much slower pace in Indiana County in the World War II era between 1939 and 1945. Back then, the prospect of ending the day on a baseball diamond motivated most men to jump out of bed every morning.
Transportation issues existed, and in many instances, budding athletes like Aultman resident Bert McPherson could only dream of starring on a high school baseball diamond.
But for an aspiring standout like McPherson, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 80, wartime restrictions couldn’t stop an eternal love affair with baseball from spawning after high school and after his service as a sergeant in the Air Force in World War II.
A lack of organized experience didn’t stop McPherson from pursuing his dream and joining the baseball team at Indiana State Teachers College, now IUP, in the early 1950s.
In addition to playing for Indiana State Teachers College for three seasons, McPherson also starred in the Indiana County League, the R&P League and the A&I League, among other leagues, for nearly 40 years.
McPherson also left his stamp on the Indiana County League as a commissioner in 1974, implementing a handful of fruitful rule changes that players still benefit from today.
McPherson, along with seven other exceptional individuals, will be inducted in the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame at its annual banquet at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at the Rustic Lodge.
“I can remember going to games when I was five or six years old,” Brad McPherson, one of Bert’s five children, said. “We’d chase foul balls and hang out with the guys, and I can remember thinking what it would be like to someday be like him — a great athlete like my dad.”
McPherson’s life began in 1925 in the cozy mining town of Iselin, where he lived for several years with his parents and grandparents in The Iselin Hotel.
By high school, McPherson’s family had moved to Aultman, a small village in the then-Homer City School District.
Although a lack of transportation prevented him from playing high school baseball, basketball or football, a lucky encounter landed McPherson on the Homer City High School track and field team in 1942.
Perched at the bus stop in Homer City, McPherson noticed a cluster of boys on the Homer City track and field team lining up to practice the 100-meter dash.
McPherson approached the group, and still sporting street clothes and shoes, outran the entire clan to the finish line.
A few hours later, McPherson accepted an offer from Homer City’s track and field coach to join the team.
Later that year, McPherson scored a first-place finish on the Wildcats’ 1,600-meter relay team at the 1942 Indiana County Meet.
“Coach Holstein approached him right there and asked him to be on the team. Dad really loved telling that story,” Brad McPherson said with a chuckle.
McPherson also placed in the long jump at the 1942 Indiana County Meet, and in 1943, was the favorite to win the 100 and the 200 before the event was cancelled because of World War II.
Then, following a one-year stint with the Air Force in World War II, in which he participated in the last mission of the war on Aug. 15, 1945, in Japan, McPherson returned to Pennsylvania, and in 1950, enrolled at Indiana State Teachers College.
A proud left-hander, McPherson pitched and played first base and right field between 1950 and 1953 for popular Indiana State Teachers College coach Sam Smith.
In his sophomore campaign, McPherson tossed a gem to help ISTC score a 2-1 win over Duquesne. The win marked the first over the Dukes in school history.
“He was always proud to be the first pitcher to beat Duquesne. That was a big deal for Indiana at the time,” Helen “Peggy” McPherson, Bert’s wife, said.
Already a perennial all-star in the Indiana County League and the R&P League, where he played for Aultman and Coal Run, respectively, McPherson joined the Indiana Indies in the early 1950s.
At the end of his first season with the Indiana Indies, McPherson, a smooth technician with a knack for painting the strike zone, pitched a pair of complete games (nine innings) against the Lucerne Miners in a span of three days.
That year, McPherson got his third straight nod for the R&P League all-star team and finished fifth in the league’s voting for the MVP award.
George Coury Jr., a bat boy for the Lucerne Miners and one of the original members of the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame board of directors, vividly remembers watching McPherson shine in the R&P League.
“He was about 15 years older than me, but I remember him being a hell of a player,” Coury said. “He had the batting average and the fielding ability that’s on par with some of the players that are already in the Hall of Fame. He definitely had the statistics and the talent. He deserves to be in there with the rest of those great players.”
In 1963, McPherson gave up baseball and picked up fast-pitch softball, another sport he excelled in from the get-go. McPherson guided Parnell Cowher in the Indiana County Fastpitch League between 1963 and 1968.
Still not ready to hang up his cleats, McPherson played softball for Beyer in the A&I League in 1968.
Over the next 10 years, McPherson starred as a right fielder and first baseman on teams such as Beyer, Ray Buggey’s University Exxon and The Coney Island, finally calling it quits in the early 1980s.
“When he was in his mid-50s, he still looked like he was in his prime,” Brad McPherson, who played for several years alongside Bert on the Buggey’s Exxon and Coney Island teams, said. “Those were some of the best years of my life and some of the greatest memories I got to make with my dad. He loved baseball and he passed that down to all of his kids. It was always a family thing with dad, and he always supported our athletic endeavors — no matter what we were doing.”
McPherson took on a new role in baseball in 1974 when he accepted the position of Indiana County League commissioner.
That year, McPherson instituted three significant rule changes, each of which still benefits the league’s players.
First, McPherson saw to it that all fields in the Indiana County League would require a fence or a marker to determine home runs.
Next, McPherson encouraged teams to sport uniforms, but made it a mandate that teams wear matching hats and shirts.
McPherson then established the rule that all games would be shortened from nine innings to seven, a regulation he implemented to preserve the health and longevity of the league’s workhorses.
“I think he just wanted to give back a little after all baseball had given to him,” his wife said. “He really cared about the well-being of the players in the area and he wanted to keep them safe. I think he really cherished his time doing all that.”
After working for 20 years at State Automobile Insurance, and with the inspiration of his dear friend Owen Daugherty, McPherson earned his bachelor’s degree in elementary education from IUP in 1971.
Later that year, McPherson landed a job at Horace Mann Elementary School, where he taught sixth grade for 18 years before retiring in 1989.
“If he wasn’t playing a sport, he felt most comfortable as a teacher or a coach,” Bert’s son, Greg McPherson, said. “The kids in his sixth-grade class loved him — just like all of his coaches and teammates did. He was just a great person and an even better dad. Not to mention a pretty darn good athlete, too.”