Hey Mister Hager! Remember me?”
For John Hager, the question can come from anyone — a 13-year-old at a theater or a 40-year-old at a farmers market. When you coach little league baseball for 50 years, a lot of people remember you.
In his dusty blue “EM” hat with the bright-red bill, Hager is a fixture on Diamond 4 at the 3&2 Baseball Club of Kansas City, Missouri at Bannister and Blue River roads, where fall ball is in full swing. But he is more than the skipper of the Electrical Materials team. Now 76, with wisps of white hair curling across his otherwise bald head, he has served as league president for decades.
“The thing I got out of it was how much heart and soul he had put into that organization to make it successful,” White said. “And when he was honored he was like, ‘I can’t believe this.’ His humbleness came right through. He does this because he loves it. He never expected to get anything else out of it.”
But he probably will get something else out of it.
“When he finally does retire we’ll probably unveil some sort of wrought-iron gate entrance that says something like ‘Kansas City, Missouri, 3&2 Baseball, John Hager Field,’” said longtime friend and fellow coach Kevin Schlitzer, who also is a member of the 3&2 board.
Well earned, those who know him say.
“Kansas City, Missouri, 3&2 Baseball would not be what it is without him,” said board member John Rellihan, who coached with Hager for two years. “But going further, 3&2 baseball wouldn’t even be here without him. He made sure there was a place for kids in Kansas City to play baseball.”
In the early 2000s, 3&2 faced a financial crisis. Over Hager’s objections the board voted to make numerous improvements to its facilities.
“We spent money before we had donations,” Schlitzer said. “I remember John saying, ‘We can’t be doing this.’ But he’s the one who saved our bacon.”
When the group couldn’t pay its bills, Hager loaned it more than $50,000, Schlitzer recalled.
Hager, who still works full time as a lawyer, doesn’t want to talk about the money. He doesn’t want credit. He doesn’t even like people to know.
Hager would do most anything for 3&2. It has been a second family to him.
Hager has a wife and a grown son and daughter. His father worked as a pit broker for the Kansas City Board of Trade, and his mother owned a drapery shop. Born in Kansas City, he grew up near 71st Terrace and Belleview Avenue with three brothers and a sister.
“My mom and dad were very principled people,” he said. “Never had a lot, but they had a lot of love. Great people, and my house was warm.”
But Hager has seen his share of tragedy. In 1976, one of his brothers, a 30-year-old priest, drowned while swimming in Lake Michigan. And in 2000, his first wife, Phyllis, died of lung cancer after 37 years of marriage.
“It made me realize that you live every day to the fullest,” he said. “You never know when it’s your time.”
Hager doesn’t dwell on the bad times. He’d much rather talk baseball. And as anyone can tell you, he has a million stories.
Take the one about David Cone.
A pitcher with the Royals, Mets and Yankees, among others, Cone carved up hitters as one of the best in the ’90s. He was a five-time All Star and a player on five World Series championship teams, led the majors in strikeouts from 1990 to 1992 and won the 1994 Cy Young award. But in the 1970s, Cone was just another kid who wanted to be on Mr. Hager’s team.
“They tell the story all the time that I cut David Cone,” Hager said in his clipped voice. “I didn’t cut him. David came out for my team, and we had 30 kids. He was only 7 or 8. I said, ‘David, I got too many 9- and 10-year olds. Why don’t you be my bat boy?’ And he said, ‘Mr. Hager, I’m too good to be your bat boy.’ And he threw the bat down and walked off. He said, ‘I’ll see you next year.’”
Before he could coach the boy, Hager decided to manage a different team closer to his south Kansas City home. The next year young Cone joined the team that Hager left and eventually pitched against Hager’s new squad.
“Beat me like a drum,” Hager recalled. “Shut me out 3-0. Never forget it. Struck out 17 of us.”
Kansas City 3&2 was formed in 1943 and, like its counterpart in Lenexa, was named for the full count against a batter — three balls and two strikes. Drawing players from throughout the metro, it is the oldest and most diverse youth baseball league in the area. Hager has coached black and white, rich and poor. He even remembers seeing sons of people on welfare play against sons of millionaires.
“The only place these people are ever going to meet is on a 3&2 ballfield,” he said.
Growing up, he said, he was an average athlete and spent years playing 3&2 baseball. Not fast enough to play shortstop, he generally played second or third.
But, boy, could he hit.
He still remembers his boyhood teams. The Joe Nolan Cubs, South Side Cubs, Ready Mix Concrete and Kehoe Sportscaster. It was a different time then. His parents were busy. He had to hitchhike to his games at stadiums throughout the city.
He loved it. It was baseball, after all. And baseball was … perfect!
His favorite team: the minor league Kansas City Blues.
“I remember the game (on June 26, 1947) where Carl DeRose pitched a perfect game against the Minneapolis Millers,” he said.
He played 3&2 ball until it was time to go to college. His parents didn’t have the money, so Hager put himself through Rockhurst College, earning a bachelor’s in economics. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Law in 1963, he took a job in Kansas City.
His 50-year association with Kansas City 3&2 began two years later when his boss asked him to help coach a team.
“We had tryouts, and we only had one kid show up,” he said. “As teams cut players, they would send them to us. The first game we got no-hit. Second game we got clobbered. Third game was even worse.”
Hager didn’t yell. Instead he focused on fundamentals: how to hold a bat, how to get your glove down. He preached respect, hard work and good sportsmanship. Winning wasn’t the only thing. But goof off, and you’d run. And if you wanted a trophy? Go win one.
“We kind of caught fire, and we won half of our remaining games,” he said with a wistful look in his eye. “The next year we won the championship.”
Hager was hooked. He continued to coach, and to succeed. At some point he became league president. Was it 35 years ago? Forty? No one seems to remember, even Hager.
He has coached EM now for 35 years. In 2006, when Electrical Materials closed its doors, Hager sponsored the team himself, preserving the “EM” name and logo.
For Denny Kies, who has coached with Hager for 25 years, that’s vintage Hager, who always put the program and his players first.
Today Hager’s memories could fill a baseball encyclopedia.
“I had a boy about six years ago,” he said. “When I put him on the mound I could just go home. Nobody could touch him. … He’s over at Shawnee Mission East. Joey Wentz. He hit 15 home runs when he played for me when he was 10. We only had two home runs this whole year as a team. He had 15 by himself! And they were long drives. Joey was just fun to watch. He’s a ballplayer.”
Wentz, a senior pitcher and first baseman, has accepted a baseball scholarship to play next year for the University of Virginia. He returned Hager’s compliment:
“He’s coached people who have been in major league baseball organizations, the field is going to be named after him … and everybody who plays there knows what he is all about — helping kids with baseball and with life.”
As president, Hager sometimes had to suspend players. One such troublemaker stopped by one of his practices six years after being kicked out of the league.
“I want to coach for you,” the young man said.
“No you don’t,” Hager shot back. “I’m too much of a disciplinarian.”
“I always liked you.”
“Why?” Hager asked. “I kept kicking you out.”
“You were the only one who ever disciplined me. You always talked straight.”
On the diamond, as in the courtroom, Hager’s life has been full of exciting victories and disappointing losses. He has seen players grow up to become teachers, priests, businessmen and fellow coaches. He has also seen promising players who could have made the majors lose the battle to drugs.
Joseph Cambiano, who works with Hager at Rubins, Kase, Hager and Cambiano, praised his integrity.
“He doesn’t pull punches, but he also does it with kindness,” Cambiano said. “That goes back to his involvement with 3&2. When you work with young people as many years as John has, you learn respect, and you give respect. And respect is something John has certainly earned from everyone he has come in contact with.”
When Hager finally does retire, he knows how he wants to be remembered.
“As being very fair and principled, straightforward and a warm, loving and respectful person,” he said.
That’s exactly how he will be remembered, said board member Rellihan. For that, and his half century of service.
“Fifty years of dedication,” Rellihan said. “Holy cow! I’m only 48 years old, and he’s been doing this longer than I’ve been alive. That’s simply amazing.”