He played in the Kiwanis youth baseball league of Springfield, continued on in to high school and college, too, and eventually found his calling as a coach.

Which helps explain why you’ll always find John Hartley smiling at a baseball field. In fact, ask him why he loves the game so much, and his response is pretty priceless.

“Just came out of the womb that way,” Hartley said.

He has certainly made a positive impact on the game in the Ozarks, and it’s why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame proudly inducted Hartley with the Class of 2021.

A graduate of Springfield’s Central High School and Oakland City (Ind.) University, Hartley earned 1,143 wins combined as a high school, American Legion and travel baseball coach. In fact, he was in the dugout for six Final Four baseball appearances (high school or Legion ball) over four different decades, worked with 75 professional players and 500-plus college players.

Hartley spent a majority of his tenure in Willard, where his teams earned 710 of those wins. At Willard High School from 1985 to 2007 (358 victories), his 1991 club placed third at state and the 2003 club earned a state runner-up. His Tigers also won seven district titles and six Central Ozark Conference championships, while his Legion teams earned 352 wins.

This for a coach who rolled up his sleeves and wisely listened to mentors such as Hillcrest’s Dick Birmingham (MSHOF 2002), David Davis, Kickapoo’s Neil Pittman, Brad Mayfield, Terry Snider as well as his high school coach, Central’s Kenny Williams, and then-Seymour Superintendent Floyd Blankenship.

What a perfect fit for the game.

As Hartley put it, “From rushing to take off my hat in the bathtub at age 4, to Little League from the age of 7 to 14 – to watching my first MLB game at Sportsman’s Park in 1964 with my Dad and Granddad – to a lifelong love of the Cardinals, to coaching all levels of the game, baseball is just a special sport and provided more than special times and memories.”

A key break came in 1981 when Hartley was hired to coach one of two Rookie-level teams for the Kickapoo American Legion. The other coach was Davis, who after the summer went to be the “coach in waiting” under Hillcrest’s Birmingham. That led to Hartley’s promotion as the varsity assistant under Snider, whose retirement in 1983 put Hartley in charge of the Legion program.

In three seasons, Hartley was 116-47, with Kickapoo’s 1984 club placing third and the 1985 club finishing as state runner-up. He also was a volunteer assistant for Kickapoo High School’s 1985 state runner-up team.

That paved the way for the Willard job.

The Tigers’ 1990 team reached the quarterfinals, sparking the 1991 Final Four run. The 2003 team featured six seniors and a midseason win against Liberty High School. Longtime assistants Ron Evans and Garry Highlfill also were instrumental along with a supportive administration.

There, Hartley also assisted the boys basketball team to Final Four berths in 1989 and 2005, and for six years was Willard’s girls basketball coach.

“I have never considered any other profession,” Hartley said. “There are tough times in the profession just like any other line of work. But those times mold who you are. So I endured the few hard times to celebrate and enjoy the many great times.”

His impact has been felt beyond Willard. For instance, he:

  • Helped bolster the Missouri Baseball Coaches Association in the 1980s by creating a winter coaches clinic and later was its president.
  • Was an associate scout for the Kansas City Royals (1992-2008) and Baltimore Orioles (2011-2013).
  • Went 92-36 at New Covenant Academy from 2015 to 2020, with Hartley founding the program and guiding it to a Class 1 state runner-up finish in its second year.
  • Was the head coach for Team Missouri at the 2004 Sunbelt Games, and coached the collegiate travel ball club Midwest Nationals from 2005 to 2012. Those Nationals teams earned 225 wins, and the 2005 team won the national championship in Premier Baseball.
  • Helped launch 417 Baseball, which grew from one team to 20 teams by 2020. It recently merged with the Midwest Nationals and Missouri Titans to form Marucci Midwest Baseball and Softball.

Hartley thanks his wife, Julie Ann, and their children Kelly and Tyler for the support as well as many others for making it all possible.

“The past 40-plus years,” Hartley said, “have been the best of times.”