“There are no secrets in baseball,” he said, referring to his success.
No secret formula, no certain strategy, nothing.
John Lee “Johnny” Reagan was a legendary coach at Murray State, but he credits the players as the reason for success, not a secret strategy.
Born in 1926, Reagan has been around the game his whole life. He said he’s a Missouri boy, though he pronounces it Mizzura.
Originally he was more drawn to basketball than baseball, but that would change later in life.
It was simpler to practice, he said. With a goal in the back yard, he didn’t need to have someone else to play with.
Either way, he was good at both sports from the time he went to high school in Bismarck, Mo.
“I guess my greatest high school athletics was my senior year when we won a state basketball championship and I was named Mr. Basketball,” Reagan said. “I played baseball, too, but basketball was pretty much my thing when I grew up.”
He was so good that he was offered scholarships in both sports at multiple universities. At the time, though, Reagan had no intentions of going to college.
It was the mid-1940s, and it was a time of war. Like most men of his age at the time, Reagan was going to join the military. He was drawn to the Air Force.
His plans changed, though, as the war ended before he ever made it past the Air Force Reserves.
So, Reagan turned his attention to college. Growing up, he kept up with Oklahoma A&M – now Oklahoma State – and he was originally offered a scholarship there.
Thinking he’d be fighting in a war, he had declined the opportunity. The door wasn’t closed, though, as Murray State gave him a chance to play both sports.
“I had a neighbor friend in my hometown that was in the Navy here and (Murray State) permitted the Navy players to play basketball,” he said. “He enticed me to come down here so we could play together. However, the war ended, the Navy left, and after I got here, he left. That’s pretty much the story of my getting to Murray.”
During the war, Murray State discontinued baseball, so Reagan only played three years, in addition to his four years on basketball court.
His memories go beyond the field and court, though.
“Some of the fellas that had been in the service were coming back,” Reagan said. “Most of my teammates were older than I was because they had been in the service a couple of years. Your greatest memories are your teammates, and I still stay in contact with those that I can.”
Despite all his success in the sports arena, Reagan said one thing stands above all.
“I can say that my most successful venture at Murray State was I got a young lady to accept a wedding ring,” he said. “That’s probably the greatest accomplishment I took away from there.”
Still, Reagan went on to accomplish much more.
With an opportunity to play professionally in either sport, he said it was easy to pick baseball, though he liked them equally in college.
At only 6 feet tall, he felt his NBA chances were slim, so he chose baseball.
His career was limited, but he did not leave the game altogether. He ended up coaching both baseball and basketball for several years. He started at his old high school for seven years in both sports.
From there, he coached basketball at Northeast Louisiana – now Louisiana Monroe – for two years. After that, Murray State offered him a job as both a baseball and basketball coach.
While there, he found his calling on the diamond, where he became one of the winningest baseball coaches of his time.
The Murray State News Sports Editor Ryan Richardson sat down with Reagan to ask about coaching, changes in the sport and what Reagan does now.
Ryan Richardson: Why did you lean toward baseball?
Johnny Reagan: I don’t know. Basketball, at that time, was pretty much a 12-month sport, as all of them are now. Baseball was only a spring sport and that was appealing that I could just spend half a year in a sport rather than a full year. It just seemed more enjoyable to me.
RR: What was different about college then and now?
JR: From the time I graduated, nine years had elapsed before I came (to Murray State) and it had changed. It had become more intense. They began ranking teams, and that always gets the athletic directors stirred up to do more. It was beginning to really blossom at that time.
RR: Tell me about your time as a coach here.
JR: I had pretty good players for the most part. That’s what gets you the wins, not the coach. There are no secrets in baseball. If you get the talent, you’re going to have a pretty good record. My first 10 or 15 years here, we were only playing 20-25 games of baseball. We didn’t start in cold weather. I never played the number of games they play today. I never felt it necessary to play the limit just because there was a limit.
RR: What were some of the fun things in coaching?
JR: As in any sport, I think, the good thing about it is the camaraderie. It’s really interesting in high school and in college to see young men mature from 18 to 22.
Some come to you and they’re already mature. Some come to you and they’re not close to it.
The interesting part to me was seeing what happened between the time they arrived and the time they left and getting them through commencement. With a few, that would always be a challenge, and you would love it when they did.
Of course, I guess you could say winning is the most comforting thing.
RR: Did you guide the players off the field?
JR: I knew the direction they wanted to go and started to go, and I tried to keep up with them simply by talking to them, not using a paper trail.
RR: Are there any seasons that stick out to you? You had a few long playoffs and got close to the World Series a couple of times.
JR: In 1975, we were ranked as high as 12, which is the highest ranking we ever had. In ’79, we got within one game of the World Series, but we ran out of pitching there at the end.
Those two teams were the ones to go to the national tournament. Had there been the opportunity, there would have been several others that would have won. The ’58 team of ours was about as good as any. The ’63 team, in my mind, certainly was one of the best in the country, but there was no ranking then.
You don’t get a national ranking by beating OVC teams. You have to play some of the big boys.
RR: Was it ever disappointing at the end of a season, or are you just proud of what you did each year?
JR: The last game is always a disappointment. There were times, even in our good teams, when we didn’t win the last game. If you’re talking about championships, that’s bad news.
RR: What does it mean to have jerseys retired and fields named after you?
JR: Well, you wonder how that ever came about. It’s very meaningful and very complimentary, but on the other hand it’s pretty humbling.
RR: Do you still go to many games today?
JR: I go to the majority of basketball games, especially when the weather is decent. I go to nearly all baseball games.
Unfortunately, it’s so cold for some of them I have to be in the press box.
RR: Do you watch baseball as a fan or coach?
JR: I’m a fan. There are some things I would do or not do, but there are no secrets in baseball. A lot of it is rolling the dice. Not that I don’t care who wins, but I can watch it as a fan.
RR: What did you like more? Playing or coaching?
JR: Oh, playing. It’s more fun to play. Let somebody else make a decision and see if you can carry it out. Playing is a challenge because you know what your assignment is and you’re trying to live up to it.
RR: What changes have you seen in the game from playing as a kid to now?
JR: Baseball hasn’t changed that much. A few things have changed, but it’s still three strikes and four balls and three outs.
Basketball is an entirely different matter. It’s a different game. When I coached basketball, it was a finess game. It was a cerebral game. Today it’s a speed and strength game. It’s as simple as that.
RR: What’s a typical day like for you now?
JR: I really stay busy. I don’t know what I do, but I stay busy. I’m on the computer a lot. I don’t know of anything of major significance I do. I do read a lot, and I eat a lot.
I go to cardiac rehab twice a week, but I don’t have a routine. I don’t go to McDonald’s and have coffee with a bunch. I’m a pretty private person.
I have a lot of friends of course. Some of them are ill and in the hospital right now. I’m at the hospital and the funeral home quite a bit, but I don’t have a routine.
I do what my wife says to do. That pretty much takes my day.
Story by Ryan Richardson, Sports Editor