Columbia youth baseball league coach honored at Royals game

Wednesday, April 20, 2011 | 9:55 p.m. CDT; updated 2:55 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 21, 2011
John Kelly shows off a plaque he received during Tuesday's Kansas City Royals game. He was recognized as the Buck O'Neil Legacy seat winner for that game for his contributions to Columbia's youth. Kelly founded a youth baseball league for those living near Douglass Park in 1996.

COLUMBIA — It's often the quiet ones who are the most surprising.

John Kelly, former athletic director and vice principal at Hickman High School, was honored Tuesday at a Kansas City Royals baseball game at Kauffman Stadium. He was named the Buck O'Neil Legacy Seat Winner for his continued dedication to the youth baseball program in the Douglass Athletic Association, which he helped found.

Kelly's involvement with Columbia's African-American youth has strongly contributed to the community, said William E. (Gene) Robertson, MU professor emeritus of community development.

Robertson described Kelly as quiet and unassuming, but always supportive and willing to help.

"He was one of those guys who didn't care who you were; if he could help you, he'd help you," Robertson said. "Like I said, quietly he would help you. He was never pushing or bragging, just helping."

The award is named after former Royals' scout and Chicago Cubs coach John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil, the first African-American to coach in the major leagues.

"Buck's Seat" is filled during every home Royals' game by a person "who, on a large or small scale, embodies an aspect of Buck's spirit," according to the contest's nomination information on the Royals' website. Kelly was nominated by friend and fellow baseball fan Charles Nilon, a professor in the MU Fisheries and Wildlife Department.

During Tuesday's game, Kelly sat in O'Neil's red seat behind home plate. His name was featured twice on a message board during the game; the second time, during the third inning, Kelly said they showed his name on TV. He also received a plaque commemorating the award, as well as a book on Negro League baseball.

Kelly founded the youth baseball league in 1996 to reintroduce children living near Douglass Park to the sport. At that time, he said, there was no baseball program in which those children could afford to participate.

"What we tried to do was establish a program where kids could come in with no pressure to win and not be the all-American baseball players, but just learn the fundamentals of the game, have fun and learn how to respect their teammates," Kelly said.

About 100 children play in the league each summer. Community members volunteer as coaches and umpires, and often crowd the park to watch games.

"It's been a wildly successful program," Kelly said. "It has become a kind of centerpiece for the summer in Douglass Park."

There is a $22 participation fee that funds a 10-game schedule, shirts, caps and medallions for the players at an end-of-summer picnic. Kelly said the program will pay up to half of that fee for those who can't afford it.

Kelly said he first got interested in baseball while listening to the games that preceded his favorite radio show, "The Lone Ranger." He attended his first Major League Baseball game when he was 7 years old.

"In 1951, I got to go to Sportsman's Park to watch the Cardinals and the Dodgers," Kelly said. "As a little kid walking into Sportsman's Park, seeing that green grass and watching my heroes play ... Well, I was hooked."

Kelly's love of baseball followed him through college at MU, two years training teachers in India through the Peace Corps, the Vietnam War and his administrative work at Hickman.

Since retiring from Hickman in 1997, Kelly said he hasn't had as much contact with children. Coaching and running the youth league allow him to continue to be a role model and a positive influence for the players.

"It's kind of nice for me to go back for two months out of the year to be totally immersed in helping kids," he said.

The league is open to children ages 5-10. Registration forms and more information about coaching, umpiring and sponsoring teams is available on the league's website. On-field activities will begin around May 1.

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