John Villar spent 20 years as the state commissioner of Babe Ruth Baseball in Kansas. Before that he was involved for more than 10 years in the league as a coach, a district director and finally assistant state director, as the various top officers were called before the titles were changed to commissioner.
Strangely, neither of his two sons were involved in that league during that time. Both of them, Paul and Richard, were too old for Babe Ruth when he got involved. That, however, did not keep Villar from making Kansas Babe Ruth Baseball a model for programs all over the country.
Villar was a military veteran, serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II where he was involved in the Iwo Jima and Okinawa invasions. After his military service, he worked in the Kansas Secretary of State's Office. He retired from that job in 1976 and from Babe Ruth Baseball in September, 1987. In December of 1987, he was voted membership in the Babe Ruth Baseball Hall of Fame. Villar and two other pioneers in the Kansas program, George Fellers and LaVerne Marks, both deceased, were charter members in the Hall.
John once said that there were two things he always wanted to do--go to St. Louis and follow the Browns all around the American League (or even the Cardinals around the National League), and to go to spring training and watch the teams.
When Villar became state commissioner in 1968, the national headquarters was not all that happy about the way things had been going in Kansas. The national president met with him at a meeting in Wichita that year and informed him of the things where the Kansas program needed improvement. Kansas had a lack of growth in the program and Villar told him that Kansas was going to try and do better. Do better is just what he did. He build the Kansas program until it had and still has more leagues and teams than any state in the seven state Midwest Plains Region, which includes Missouri, Minnesota and Iowa, states more populous than Kansas. He did it the old-fashioned way--he worked at it.
"We had tried everything in the world to get into Pittsburg", he said as an example of his campaigning. "I knew one of the railroad lobbyists and he suggested I get ahold of his brother-in-law in Pittsburg, Don Gutteridge (the former major league player and manager). It so happened that Gutteridge was coming to the state house that week and I met him and told him about our plans. The next Monday he called to say a meeting had been arranged for the next Saturday if I could get down there."
Villar caught a bus to Kansas City after work that Friday, transferred to another bus for Pittsburg and arrived around midnight of a bitterly cold winter night. He met with 30 or so men the next morning and Pittsburg formed a league. It was one of six new leagues formed in 1972. In 1975, Villar presided over the formation of eight new leauges. The additions kept coming until in 1987, 56 leagues had been formed during his 20 years as commissioner. Not all of them survived, but in 1981 there were 48 leagues for 13-15 year olds in operation and 11 for 16-18 year olds. When he took over the job there were only 17 leagues.
Villar said he tried to lead by example and his example was hard work and persistence, something he said he learned from a former top Emporia State athlete who lived in Newton, where Villar grew up. "This guy worked for an insurance company and I asked him how a guy could make a living selling that," Villar said. "He said, 'John, if you talk to enough people, somebody is going to buy.' I applied that to selling Babe Ruth baseball. I held a lot of meetings and I listened to a lot of excuses. There are all kinds of guys, but they never come after you. They never knock on your door. They never take you by the arm."
Villar had the 13-15 year old programs going so well that in 1978 the organization put the 16-18, along with two specialty divisions under his wing. He was honored when he retired with plaques from the state, as well as one from the Midwest Plains Region as the leading commissioner of that group.
"If you do your job well, you have a good relationship with the brass," he said. "They respect you for what you do and you respect them for treating you the way they do."
Villar told of calling Ron Tellefsen, Babe Ruth National President/CEO, and starting out, "I'm in a helluva lot of trouble out here." Before he could explain, Tellefsen would interrupt, "Like hell you are. If all of the states were like Kansas we wouldn't have any problems."
Villar's love of baseball came from his father who moved him from Pensacola, Florida to Newton when he and Villar's mother were divorced. "He taught me a lot," he said. "I couldn't hit a curve ball, but I figured if you could field and throw the ball that's half of it. I just love the game."
Though he lived in Topeka, closer to Kansas City than Wichita and Tulsa, he traveled often with his son Richard, to those cities to watch baseball more than they went to KC. "I'm a minor league fan," he said. "When we had a team in Topeka, I was out there every night. I wouldn't sit in the grandstand. I wanted to sit out in the bleachers. I got to know a lot of the young fellows who came through here."
A minor league fan, maybe, but a big leaguer when it came to ramrodding the Babe Ruth Baseball program in Kansas for 20 years. John passed away Wednesday, October 6, 1999 after suffering complications from a fall.
On April 7, 2018, John and his wife Virginia were inducted into the Midwest Plains Hall of Fame.
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