Weekly Sports Update
BigOSports Remembers John Q. Hammons
*BigOSports published this piece on John Q. Hammons in May of 2007.
The Missouri State Bears probably wouldn't be playing in the Missouri Valley Conference if they'd never had a Hammons Student Center (or soon, the new JQH Arena). The Nationwide Tour would have never sniffed around Springfield, Mo. if there wasn't a Highland Springs Country Club - a plush layout with a meembership willing to make it available to the pros and thousands of fans for a week each year - to host it. And certainly, the Springfield Cardinals would still be the Knoxville Smokies or the El Paso Diablos if there weren't a Hammons Field waiting to welcome 7,000-plus fans through the gates per home game.
Pick up a common theme here? It's scary to imagine how different the Springfield sports landscape might have been if John Q. Hammons had decided some 60 years ago to settle permanently, say, in Joplin instead of Springfield. "Then I'd have moved to Joplin," quipped Missouri State University athletic director Bill Rowe.
The moral of the story? We should neve take for granted what the 88-year-old Hammons has meant to our sporting lives, and should never pass up an opportunity to appreciate it. Although Hammons, in his humble manner, simply says of his work, "I think maybe my zeal for quality and my zeal for growth has helped the local sports community."
That's quite an understatement, says Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce director Jim Anderson, who counters, "In a nutshell, he means everything to our community. There are a lot of people who make Springfield a special place, but at the top of the list is Mr. Hammons."
True, there's a chance someone else would have stepped up and signed the checks to make some of the above landmarks of Springfield sports possible. A chance, we say, because who else has stepped up in that regard? Kudos to the Harry Cooper family for providing the fabulous soccer/tennis facilities that are the Cooper Sports Springfield Park Board - with the help of the Cooper family - for bringing the Springfield Lasers of World Team Tennis to town, though it seems they've come and gone each summer in their crammed-in month of play before many folks realize it. But other than that, without Hammons, Springfield just might be an athletic ghost town.
"It'd make our town about a third of the size that it is," said Missouri Sports Hall of Fame executive director Jerald Andrews of a Springfield void of Hammons' presence. "Nobody else has been willing to put the money behind the dream. A lot of people had the dream, but he's been willing to put his resources into it as well. And people need to understand, not all of them have been windfalls of profit."
With Hammons, it seems typically to be a case of more vision than dream. It explains why he sat on the land purchased for the exquisite Chateau on the Lake hotel and convention center on Table Rock Lake for several decades before finally deciding to build the elite property. Same, too, for the construction of Hammons Field; hammons was approached several times in the late 1980s and 1990s about bulding a stadium to attract an upper-level minor league baseball team, but instead waited patiently until he believed the time was right, starting construction in the summer of 2002. "In business, you have to make sure your market is right," Hammons says, "or you're not going to win."
John Q., The Sports Guy
Why did Hammons get so involved with the athletics side? After all, the man has been building hotels - large, successful, profitable hotels - for more than five decades. It's not like he wasn't making enough money off of those. You can trace it back to his roots in the tiny southwest Missouri town of Fairview, where Hammons played basketball and baseball for Fairview High School. He graduated from Monett Junior College and Southwest Missouri Teacher's College, the latter in 1939, and actually spent a couple of years coaching junior high basketball in Cassville - where his teams lost one game in two seasons - before deciding that he'd rather spend his lifetime owning hotels rather than simply staying in them from time to time. Asked if he would have been a better businessman or coach had he stuck with his former profession, Hammons smiles and says, "Businessman. Business is my world."
Yet, a trip through his ninth-floor office at the John Qu. Hammons Building reveals an affinity for athletics as wel. Surrounding piles of blueprints and photos of hotels and verious projects is a "Who's Who" of autographs, memorabilia and the like from former Ozarks' stars like the late golfing great Payne Stewart, former Lady Bears' star Jackie Stiles, baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial and many others. While most are simply tokens of appreciation for his contributions to area facilities and events, it's clear Hammons was bitten by the sports bug long ago, and hasn't found a cure. It explains why he still makes annual trips both to the Cincinnati Reds' spring training home in Lakeland, Fla., and the NCAA men's basketball Final Four, clearing space on his busy 16 hours a day, six days a week hotel business calendar to honor his long-standing traditions, not to mention making time to catch a few Springfield Cardinals games each season from his personalized suite on the third level at the field he financed.
Those who know Hammons say business pays the bills, but sports has always caught his fancy. "If he has a distraction from work, it's sports," Anderson says. "He loves sports." And, surprisingly, Hammons finds time around his daily excursions across the country to still keep up with the happenings of the professional sports scene, and in particular, at his alma mater. In fact, this interview started with a peppering of questions from Hammons about new Missouri State Lady Bears' basketball coach Nyla Milleson, and her ability to make the jump from NCAA Division II to D-I ball (of which Hammons was quickly assured would not be a problem for Milleson). "He truly is a sports fan," Rowe says. "Whether it's a phone call at nigh - which happens frequently, because he's wanting to know what's going on - to talk about coaching changes or our teams. Most people at his level of competition in the workplace are more concerned with business things. But let me tell you, sports matter to him."
One of his greatest honors was being invited last fall to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game Two of the World Series in Detroit in tribute to his longtime contributions to the Holiday Inn chain of hotels. That was a double treat because he does follow the Cardinals quite closely, a relationship sealed long ago when Stan Musial became his lifelong favorite player. And perhaps now mostly out of tradition, he always manages to keep alive his strings of attending a Reds spring training game in Sarasota, Fla., now at 52 consecutive years, and the NCAA men's hoops Final Four for 51 straight years."
And yes, Hammons will set aside time to watch a game or two on TV ... or, at least have the game on while he's making his legendary late-night phone calls to hotel properties around the country, checking on things like the level of customer service or the occupancy rate of his properties, which now number, by his count, 186 hotels developed in 40 states.
Regarding the upcoming JQH arena, Hammons says, "A lot of places are building these facilities, and we have to keep up. We have to have it. The league's all getting new places. If you're going to be Missouri State, you've got to wear it with pride. You can't have the title of Missouri State unless you're going to wear it and prepare it properly."
Rowe vividly remembers the process of traveling across the southern U.S. looking at several ballparks to come up with ideas for the design of Hammons Field. "We didn't have to have one that cost $32 million. We'd have been happy with something like they had at Arkansas or Nebraska," Rowe says. "but that's the caliber he wanted to put in. With Mr. Hammons, it's always going to be done first class."
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