One of the jewels of the Springfield sports scene was on display this week as about 900 people packed into the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds E-Plex for the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame’s baseball enthusiasts luncheon.
It’s always a good time when the Hall of Fame pays tribute to those who have made lasting impacts, no matter if it’s the major-league level or high school athletics. Having them on the same stage is even better.
The featured honoree was Danny Cox, a big-game pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals during their glorious “Whitey Ball” decade of the 1980s, when Manager Whitey Herzog led them to three National League pennants.
Cox is best remembered for his complete-game shutout victory over the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 1987 National League Championship Series.
“Probably the highest I ever jumped after a game,” Cox said with a laugh. “I was put into that position the night before when John Tudor threw a gem. Fortunately, I threw another gem right behind him.”
The Cardinals went on to lose a seven-game World Series to the Minnesota Twins, two years after coming up short to the Kansas City Royals. Those memories still sting, all these years later.
“It just wasn’t meant to be,” Cox said. “It’s fun to be on good teams, but when you lose the last game of the year, that’s kind of what you remember more than anything.”
Cox did get to be a part of the Toronto Blue Jays’ world championship in 1993, but it’s his association with the Cardinals and Herzog that will live on forever.
“The ‘Rat’ was a good man,” Cox said of Herzog. “I came up as a young kid, 23, learning the game. He told me what I could and could not do and what the expectations were gonna be. I grew up quickly. He’s been a friend ever since. We fish and hunt together.”
During a news conference prior to the luncheon, Cox enjoyed listening to high school coaches tell their stories of success. A common theme of tradition and teamwork was used by most.
The Cardinals were one of the most tradition-rich organizations in baseball when Cox joined the team as a rookie in 1983. They had captured the World Series title the year before and it was quite an atmosphere to join for a 23-year-old.
“I learned quickly about how to go about things,” Cox said. “I went through the system pretty quickly and I learned when I got up there how to be a professional in that atmosphere.
“You learn ways to represent yourself and the team in the proper manner.”
Building tradition a theme among inductees
The same could be said on the high school level for the Licking High School baseball program, which was honored for the 1983-89 era. Byron Hagler — later head coach at Hillcrest High School and pitching coach at Drury University — was the head coach at Licking when things got rolling.
He recalled how winning fed winning and the tradition multiplied with each successful season. Licking won two state titles and went to the final four six times.
“They started winning and they liked it,” Hagler said of the players and community. “The rest is history. It was an expectation.”
That sort of tradition also included softball on the college level. Kay Hunter was the head coach of the 1974 Missouri State softball team that won the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women national championship.
That was in the days before NCAA-sanctioned athletics for women and before Title IX, which helped the women attain opportunities in terms of scholarships and facilities.
Hunter called compiling her roster from women on campus “who were fantastic at the game.” The Bears eventually beat Northern Colorado in the national championship game.
Hunter coached the Bears from 1972-82, winning 227 games and two regional titles. It started a tradition of excellence in softball that carries on today at Missouri State, with this season’s team led by veteran coach Holly Hesse in the NCAA Tournament.
“I called Holly and said, “Dream big, you never know.’ That’s what I did in ’74,” Hunter said. “The legacy is there. She’s carrying it on.”
Cox said being a part of a tradition — whether it’s at Licking High School, Missouri State or with the St. Louis Cardinals — is special. He called his Missouri Sports Hall of Fame induction “humbling.”
“As a kid you play the game because you like it and it’s fun,” Cox said. “As you get older, it becomes a way of life. You work for this and work for that and you feel that you earn what you get.
“When you get here and find out you’re getting inducted, it is something special.”
Missouri Sports Hall of Fame Baseball & Softball honorees
A look at the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame inductees from this week’s Baseball & Softball luncheon at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds in Springfield:
- Danny Cox, major league pitcher for 11 seasons with St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Toronto
- Brad Mayfield, Odessa High School baseball coach
- Kay Hunter, Missouri State softball coach
- Trevor Vance, Kansas City Royals senior director of groundskeeping and landscaping
- Licking baseball program 1983-89 era
- Marion C. Early softball program 1987-2008 era
- Billings 1990 state championship baseball team
- Pleasant Hill 2000 and 2001 state championship softball teams
- David McQueary, Springfield businessman, the President’s Award