It’s rare to see someone hold onto one position in an organization for nearly 50 years. It’s even rarer to have someone do it for little to no pay. Some would call it unthinkable.
But Don Shaffer has done that for the Elizabethtown Slowpitch Softball League. Since taking over as president in 1971, he’s played a monumental role in nearly every aspect of the behind-the-scenes organization. However, the time has come for a change. Shaffer has decided to officially step down.
“It’s been going on for the past couple of years,” Shaffer said. “It’s just been a drag. I tried to step away five or six years ago when some younger kids were interested in taking over. I hung around for a year to help them get through. That lasted for a couple of years, and I was still having the meetings at my house. Then all eyes naturally went back to me. I just don’t have the interest to do it anymore. I want to see it go on, but I’m not gonna do it forever.”
“He lived it,” longtime friend and teammate Stan Daubert said. “He really put his heart and soul into running the league for the betterment of everybody. He was willing to spend unlimited hours, well beyond what most people would consider normal, to make sure everything was in order. It was almost like a 24/7 situation for him as far as his love and dedication went.”
After some prolonged consideration, Shaffer informed GEARS, which runs the league as a subsidiary, that he’d be leaving at the end of the 2019 summer season. There was some uneasiness, since, aside from a pair of brief hiatuses, Shaffer was the only person to hold the role since he began.
But Shaffer has a successor in mind, and it’s someone familiar to the league: Jeff Shank, who ran a team at various points and played alongside Shaffer and Daubert on tournament squads before stepping away to focus on recovering from cancer. Thankfully, it’s in remission now, and Shank, who lived in Elizabethtown for over 20 years before moving to Hershey, volunteered to step in when Shaffer let him know that he was retiring.
“I’ve been a part of softball for over 30 years, and the E-Town league for 20 years,” Shank said. “I helped Don take care of the field and run tournaments. Running a league always intrigued me. It was something I always wanted to try someday. I always felt a pull toward that, and when Don told me he was stepping down, I was up for it.”
“I’ll probably continue to be involved,” Shaffer said. “I told Jeff that I’d help with umpires if he needs me to. I just don’t want the day-to-day responsibility. If there are issues, Jeff can handle them, but if he needs a sounding board, I’m here.”
When the league began in 1964, Shaffer’s dad and uncle immediately got involved as players; the latter was one of the two men who installed the old stadium lights, taken from the original Elizabethtown Area High School football field, at the Elizabethtown Borough Park field. Shaffer joined after graduating from high school, taking over as president shortly thereafter.
“I was representing my team at a league meeting, and the guy who was running things had stepped down,” Shaffer said. “I’m 22, dumb and stupid, and I say that I’d do it for a year until they found someone permanent or couldn’t afford me anymore. That never happened.”
Initially paid $250 a year with an increase of $50 annually, Shaffer eventually decided to just take the equivalent of an entry fee instead, along with additional payment for field maintenance. He’s been a stalwart ever since. Aside from taking 2004 and 2005 off (Dave Koser served as interim president while the league worked on changing its safety rules for equipment) and another brief period when it appeared Luke Stauffer and Steve Szoboscan would take over, Shaffer’s been locked in.
And he truly did as much as one man could for the league. He still played and coached for teams as long as he was physically able to, even after he lost part of his finger in an accident. He umpired, something that he’ll continue to do (Shaffer is a PIAA official for football, basketball and softball as well). He did all the logistical background things that come with running a league, including scheduling, attracting teams and working with the borough and GEARS. He handled field maintenance as well, at one point raking and dragging the field by hand when the borough ruled that only authorized employees could use mechanical equipment.
Most would balk at the amount of time Shaffer single-handedly keeping things organized. Working as a postal clerk and carrier (split between Elizabethtown and Middletown for 31 years) afforded him some leeway, but it was still a tall order. But one that Shaffer gamely met. GEARS and the borough very rarely had to step in.
“I’m proud that I’ve been able to keep it going for this long,” Shaffer said. “So much has changed. I just never wanted to see it go away. I’m not gonna miss the day-to-day stuff. But I will miss being the face. I’ve had people come up to amazed that I still ran for so long. When you’re doing it, you don’t get much verbal appreciation, but for the small amount I did get, I always was grateful for it.”
“He’s very detail-oriented,” Shank said. “He’s found a nice rhythm, and he’s stuck with it for a lot of years. I’ve always been impressed that he was able to do it while playing on a team at the same time. It’s hard to be impartial. His knowledge of the sport is hands down unmatched.”
“We’re gonna miss his expertise,” Daubert said. “Whether it’s scheduling, umpiring, rules, field preparations, having the knowledge of working with GEARS and the borough … it’s hard to replace that. It takes time for someone to get established.”
The league isn’t as big as it used to be; one of Shank’s goals is to try and increase the number of teams. There were just seven this past season, much smaller than years past. For the majority of Shaffer’s tenure, it hovered in the teens, at one point going over 20. On the other hand, there haven’t been fewer than five.
In its prime, however, the Elizabethtown Slowpitch League was extremely competitive. Shaffer started with the Zarfoss Hardware team at first, playing for too many teams to count after that, though he fondly remembers the Reed Chevrolet and Black Horse Hotel teams. His last team was the Jasonville Sox, named after a former player’s dad’s team in Indiana.
Shaffer is proud of the parity in the league. No team ever finished undefeated in a season. He’s also pleased that his efforts to install a fence and new lights at the borough field paid off. And he always participated in tournaments with the league’s 35-and-over team.
That group, Shaffer and Daubert included, finished third in the state in 1996 and 1998, as well as fifth in 1997. They made it to the finals in 2001, where they lost to Cannonsburg. The team had led 18 to 5 before rain forced the tournament organizers to cancel play.
“It was a great part of my life,” Shaffer said. “There were some summers where I’d play like 130 games in total. I could never take a weekend off. It became routine for me.”
“I’m gonna miss the camaraderie,” Daubert said. “That shoulder-to-shoulder thing that comes with going through the season with him. That’s irreplaceable. Nobody was more competitive than him. He’s really as close to a legend in the slowpitch league as can be.”
Softball will still be a part of Shaffer’s life. On the last day of play this summer, he was contacted by Elizabethtown College head coach Kathy Steib, who asked him to join her staff as an assistant. He joked about the short amount of time for her request but admitted to becoming enthusiastic about the idea after meeting with Steib and other prospective assistants. Thus, he’ll be in the dugout for the Blue Jays next season.
“It’s something different,” Shaffer said. “I’ve coached before, but it’s been a while since I’ve done that. But it’s not like I don’t know softball. It’s nice to have people that want to be there. It’s totally off the wall for me, so I’m excited to try it. The timing is perfect.”
Of course, it takes more than one person to run a league. Shaffer credited Daubert, Shank, Koser, Stauffer, Szoboscan and longtime treasurer Dave Dolan for playing big parts too. But it’ll be a new beginning under Shank. If he’s as dedicated as Shaffer has been, the E-Town Slowpitch League will be just fine. Keeping the current teams around is the first thing to address. And Shaffer will still be around to help with umpiring and to give advice as well.
“It’s nice to know that he’ll always be there,” Shank said. “But it’s gonna be tough for a lot of people. There will be some growing pains with me coming in. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do exactly what he did, but hopefully, he can help ease me into the situation.”
“If he can just keep it alive, that’d be great,” Shaffer said. “Jeff will do a good job. He’s really into detail. No one wants to see it go away. One of my aspirations was to run it until I was too old to do it, then go to a game, sit on a bench and watch everyone play. I don’t want to be the reason it goes away.”