Some say baseball is a metaphor for life. Within seven-inning games and summer seasons hatch lessons that can last a lifetime.
Twenty, 40, even 60 years later, a former Katz catcher or UMB Bank outfielder can fondly recall how moments on the field or in the dugout molded his worldview. Others, perhaps an appreciative parent, can reflect about a manager’s impact on her son.
The Ban Johnson League has afforded Kansas City-area college baseball players such opportunities for 90 seasons. A highlight of each season is the annual All-Star Game, which the Royals played host to on July 6 at Kauffman Stadium. David Cone, Rick Sutcliffe and Frank White are among BJ alums who have progressed to outstanding Major League Baseball careers.
On Aug. 28, alumni spanning seven decades will gather for the BJ90 Celebration, the organization’s 90th birthday party, at Shoal Creek Golf Course. On the agenda are a hall of fame induction ceremony and golf tournament. Proceeds will support the Ban Johnson League.
Some alums’ association with the league led to major- or minor-league baseball careers. Others forged lifelong friendships, business connections and even careers.
Seventeen years into his retirement, Al Laffoon doesn’t mince words when talking about his Ban Johnson League playing days as catcher on the Katz team that won BJ titles in 1955 and 1956.
Under the tutelage of coaches Lew Denny and Pat Nolan, Laffoon, a 1961 graduate of Missouri, says he learned the rudiments of baseball.
“It was probably the most important thing that happened to me at that age,” said Laffoon, who attended Southeast High School. “It got me a ticket into the University of Missouri. I got a scholarship to catch at MU, which allowed me to get a civil engineering degree. I don’t think that would have happened had I not played those years for Katz.”
Like Laffoon, Gary Patton can make a correlation between his Ban Johnson career and his profession as a lawyer. Patton played on the 1976 Boyle’s BJ champion squad, the first of three consecutive Boyle’s title teams. His years with Boyle’s also provided Patton with summer employment. He worked for Bob Boyle at Boyle’s Famous Corned Beef in Kansas City and it gave Patton insight into running a company.
It taught Patton something else, too, something he carries with him to this day.
“Every day, Bob Boyle’s wife (Viola) used to come and fix lunch for every single person in the company,” said Patton, who graduated from Winnetonka High, then William Jewell College in 1977. “It was an incredible display of loyalty to her husband and to the employees. Those things taught me about how to treat your employees and how to be generous with them. Mr. and Mrs. Boyle treated me very well.”
Similar sentiments resonate for Jason Spalitto, who has been in the real estate business for 24 years. Before that, he was a member of the Ban Johnson League’s UMB Bank squad that won four consecutive titles from 1987-90.
Spalitto, who attended Blue Valley North and graduated from Kansas State in 1993, said his Ban Johnson League career had a marked impact on his life away from the baseball diamond.
“It’s about how many people I met during those Ban Johnson days who later helped me or I’ve been able to help them in their professions,” Spalitto said.
And those four Ban Johnson titles are as valuable to Spalitto as the contacts and networking he gathered.
“(Longtime Ban Johnson manager) Cary Lundy used to have a sign business, and I’d get my real estate signs made by him,” Spalitto said. “Other guys I met through baseball might have an insurance company or a roofing company. I made a lot of contacts during those years I played Ban Johnson baseball.”
Connections produced in the Ban Johnson League are rooted in the relationship between player and coach. Take Tom Dailey, for instance, who managed Regal Plastic to the 2017 Ban Johnson summer championship after his team won just five of its first 16 games.
That adversity, Dailey says, was a classroom of sorts in which he and his players learned important life lessons.
“There’s an opportunity to teach the things that will make you great in baseball and translate them to things that make you great in life” said Dailey, who has been coaching for 24 years, including seven in Ban Johnson. “As a coach, I teach them to live in the moment. Don’t worry about the next inning or the results of the game. Never give away an at-bat, a pitch, an inning. Stay in the moment and have an understanding of the situation. It’s true in life, too.”
Katy Nolen O’Dowd, a mother of two Ban Johnson ballplayers, years ago penned the following words to longtime and legendary Milgram’s manager Don Motley as a gesture of appreciation.
I want to personally thank you for being a wonderful role model to my sons, Nolen and Clarke. Growing up, my father, Don Nolen, and brother, Chuck Nolen, always talked about how wise you were. As a young girl, I assumed they only meant about baseball. As a grown woman and mother of two of your ballplayers, I realize that my dad and brother were talking about so much more than baseball. Your compassion, dedication and respect for all the young lives you have touched over the years cannot be measured or equaled. You expected the best and received respect. Thank you is not enough, but thank you!
The Ban Johnson Hall of Fame inductee teams — squads that have won at least two consecutive league titles since 1946 — will be honored at the BJ90 Celebration. They are Milgram Food Stores (1951-52), Katz Drug Company (1955-56), Feld Chevrolet (1961-63), Western Auto (1966-68), Butternut Bread (1973-75), Boyle’s Famous Corned Beef (1976-78), Milgram Mustangs (1985-86), UMB Bank (1987-90), and two BJ Raiders squads (1997-98 and 2002-05).