SPRINGFIELD – The letter from a player’s mom, written in 1992 but never revealed to her son during her battle with cancer, rarely sees the light of day. Which is understandable.
Byron Hagler, a longtime high school baseball coach set to be inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, tears up just reading it. The letter included a copy of her son’s college scholarship application, which praised Hagler’s positive impact.
“Wanted you to see 1st hand what a great job you’ve done. You’ve produced a lot of ‘winners,’ not just winning teams over the years, and I believe all the Moms of your ball players feel the same way I do,” wrote Shelia, the mom of Licking High School’s Jason Todaro. “Continued success Byron – you’re a real blessing to our kids and our community.”
Indeed, the man who grew up listening to St. Louis Cardinals games through the crackle of an AM radio on his parent’s cattle farm in Texas County — and who absolutely loved the game – certainly made a difference in baseball. Just the way he wanted.
And now, after 577 wins in 28 seasons as a high school head coach, comes a tremendous honor – induction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. The ceremony is May 27 at the University Plaza Hotel and Convention Center in Springfield.
“My dad told me, ‘For work, if you pick a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” Hagler recalled, and that’s exactly how it played out. “I never thought coaching baseball was work. It was fun.
“There wasn’t much money in it,” Hagler added. “But seeing a kid get better, seeing them going off to college, now that’s money.”
Overall, Hagler was 577-200 in high school baseball, ranking No. 2 all-time in state history. He reached the state semifinals nine times combined at Licking and Hillcrest, winning the Class 2 state championships at Licking in 1988 and 1989, and placed fourth in Class 4 for Hillcrest in 1998 and 2006.
Additionally, Hagler’s 2002 Hillcrest summer team won the American Legion state championship with a 43-11 record, despite a roster of only 11 players.
This for a coach who got his start at a place, Climax Springs, whose baseball uniform pants were denim jeans – Levis at home, Wranglers on the road – before Hagler wanted a more appropriate look. Attention to detail? That’s Hagler.
“He was more than just a coach,” said Brad Green, a senior pitcher on Licking’s 1988 state championship team. “For most, he was a surrogate father figure to all of his players. He had the ability to bring out a player’s (best) that they didn’t even know they had inside.”
Hagler’s greatest strengths: he connected with ballplayers, rural or city; and became a student of the game long before life began tugging on the back of his own jersey.
He also cherished the small things in life, especially the relationships with players. Todaro’s mother, who passed away in the year 2000, asked that the coach never show her son the letter. Hagler agreed, until recently.
“I found it again looking through the scrapbook, which I haven’t gone through for probably 20 years,” Hagler said.
A player’s coach
On the field, Hagler knew how to navigate through the rough waters of a season.
A case in point: Licking’s 1989 state quarterfinals and the next two games. You might call it Hagler’s best work.
Days before the quarterfinal, the team lost its top pitcher, Phillip Gambill, to an apparent season-ending, eye injury in a freak batting practice accident.
At a small school, there usually aren’t many other options. Hagler, however, found one. He turned to Gary Case, despite the pitcher getting roughed up days earlier.
Yet Hagler’s pep talk, in which he implored the young man to forget about the last outing and that his talent could succeed, led to Case pitching a beauty and pitching the team into the final four.
However, Hagler had another trick up his sleeve.
The night before the state semifinals, Gambill received medical clearance so long as he wore a protective guard in the field and while batting. Hagler worked him out privately as a precaution, secretly packed the helmet in a dusty bat bag but didn’t reveal the situation to the team.
Talk about a covert operation.
Hagler, sensing the MSHSAA would want proof of medical clearance, ordered Gambill to retrieve a doctor’s note. It meant Gambill missed the bus trip and wasn’t initially on site in Columbia, home of the state tournament, as the team warmed up in a nearby field.
“Out of nowhere, Gambill walks up and he’s dressed in full uniform,” Hagler said. “He said, ‘Here is your doctor’s note.’ I said, ‘Here is your helmet.’ And (players) knew he was going to play then. He looked like Darth Vader of Star Wars, and the first song (on the PA) that came on was from the Star Wars theme.”
For a team trying to repeat as state champs, Hagler struck the right note and the pre-game music was a positive sign. The team responded with two wins, with Gambill hitting for the cycle in the semifinals and pitching a complete game in the championship.
That team finished 16-3, a year after Licking finished 18-5 in winning its first state title.
At Licking, Hagler also won eight Frisco League championships and 13 of 15 district titles. His 1983, 1985 and 1994 teams finished as state runners-up, and the 1986 team placed third.
“Especially at Licking, we talked about baseball being a lot like life: There are days you are going to go 0-for-4 at work, but you’ve still got to do your job and go on,” Hagler said.
“Can you give back to the game? That’s how I gave back. At Licking, it wasn’t training to go pro. It was trying to be a better person.”
In his youth
The son of the late June A Hagler and Lura Hagler, the coach grew up on a 290-acre farm and paying attention to detail came naturally.
Perhaps that helps explain Hagler’s deft touch in strategy. He knew the game well, having emerged as a standout shortstop at Licking High School — his .634 batting average in 1970, his senior year, stood atop Licking’s chart for years – before going on to earn a bachelor’s at Harding University in Arkansas.
Best of all, along the way, Hagler was the even keel kind of coach.
“I definitely think that’s why I gelled with him,” said former Hillcrest pitcher/shortstop Justin Skinner, part of the ’02 Legion state championship team. “He was someone to look up to, someone who would keep his composure and it really was easy to get along with him.”
Hagler is one of only four coaches in Hillcrest High School history. After 15 years at Licking (348-94), he won 222 games at Hillcrest, including seven Ozark Conference championships and five district championships.
It was proof that the strategy of small-town coaches can work in higher levels. In his final 27 seasons, Hagler’s teams never finished below .500.
“Hags, he is a great motivator,” said Mark Stratton, a former rival at Glendale High School and later his boss at NCAA Division II Drury University. “He doesn’t rah-rah and do double back flips. But once he gets the rubbing compound out, he starts polishing you.”
Hagler spent 2007 to 2014 as Drury’s pitching coach, with the team winning 259 games and reaching two NCAA D-II Tournaments. Hagler developed the program’s first draft pick, right-hander Will Landsheft, a 36th-rounder in 2014.
Only three of his high school players reached the minor leagues – Licking right-hander Tony Floyd (21st round, 1988), Hillcrest’s Jon Barratt (fifth round, 2003) and Hillcrest’s Eddie Deckard, who signed a free-agent deal in 1996. However, many others went on to college, including Todaro.
It’s been quite a career for Hagler. He and his wife, Dana, have a son, Lance, daughter-in-law Andrea and four grandchildren.
“It was just amazing,” Hagler said of coaching baseball. “Sometimes, it wasn’t the guy you thought was going to be great. That’s the beauty of it. That’s what I love about baseball. You have to prepare them all.”
WANT TO GO?
The ceremony: The Baseball Sports Enthusiasts Luncheon presented by Ozarks Coca Cola/Dr Pepper at is 11 a.m. Wednesday, May 27 at the University Plaza Hotel and Convention Center in Springfield.
Tickets & sponsorships: $40, or $100 for a head table ticket. Numerous sponsorships are available, including a table of eight for $400, which includes associate sponsorship recognition in the printed program.
For Coach Hagler tickets & sponsorships: Contact Marty Willadsen at 889-3100.
- St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa will be honored as a Missouri Sports Legend, in which a specially commissioned sculpture, cast in bronze, will line the Legends Walkway.
- Byron Hagler, who won almost 600 baseball games and reached nine state final fours as the head coach of Licking and Hillcrest high schools. His 1988 and 1989 Licking teams won Class 2 state championships.
- Former Saint Elizabeth High School softball coach Diane Juergensmeyer, who won more than 400 games and three state championships in 1992, 1994 and 2002.
- Former fast-pitch softball standout Roy Burlison, who played on teams in St. Louis and Springfield.
- John Schaefer, CEO of Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper, is the recipient of the President’s Award.
- Diamond 9: baseball standouts Jack Burrell of Humansville and Southwest Baptist; Brad Simmons of Glendale High School and the Kansas City Royals; Kelly Snider of Hillcrest High School the Oklahoma Sooners and the Los Angeles Dodgers; Barry Short of Mansfield High School, Three Rivers Community College and the New York Mets; Jim Lumpe of Glendale High School, the Mizzou Tigers and Montreal Expos; and former American Softball Association or college/high school softball standouts in Marionville’s Janice Crumpley Bluebaum, Hillcrest graduate Tim Blasi, Caitlin Chapin of Ozark High School and Missouri State; and Missouri Southern graduate Diane Miller.