A lifetime of service

Published 11:01 am Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Murray Johnson with his awards, presented to him four years ago for 40 years of service to Atmore.

Each summer Atmore’s Tom Byrne Park is given new life as hundreds of kids crowd into its baseball and softball fields, anxiously awaiting the beginning of a new season playing America’s favorite pastime. Each year the rosters change. The coaches and sponsors may also change. But one aspect of summer-league play has remained unchanged for more than 40 years – district commissioner and league president Murray Johnson.

Johnson, who moved to Atmore from Evergreen in 1963, with his wife Jean, their son Carl and daughter Susan (daughter Sandy was born here in 1964), quickly established himself as a businessperson and community volunteer.  Johnson said his more than four decades with Atmore’s baseball, softball and football leagues began with a simple visit to the local ball fields.

“I stopped in up there (at the ballpark) in 1966 or so, just watching some games and the next thing I knew a local pharmacist, Billy McCorvey, called me and said he and Joe Brogden had a team and they weren’t going to be able to be there for some games, so I went up there and liked it,” Johnson said.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

For the next three years Johnson spent baseball season as the  assistant coach of the Rex Sporting Goods Colts. In 1968 he co-founded the Atmore Pee Wee Football League, which he is also still involved with.

In 1973, however, Johnson returned to the ballpark, this time as President of the league, a position he has held ever since.

“Tony Albert, who was the owner of Rex Sporting Goods and the past president, asked me to take over in the fall of 1972, and I took over the in summer of 1973 as president,” Johnson said. “Things were a lot different back then, The park roads weren’t even paved and there was no grass in the bleacher and concession stand areas. People just don’t realize how far it’s all come.”

And through all the progress, which includes the construction and improvements to what is now Tom Byrne Park’s three baseball fields, Johnson was there overseeing the upgrades.

But Johnson said his real motivation for taking the position came from the unfair treatment of several young players.

“What got me into this really, is seeing that there were some kids that were not treated fairly,” he said. “They were being mistreated. Some players were hardly ever being put in the game even though they were at every practice.  Just simple politics and ‘daddy ball’ was prevalent.”

Johnson’s subsequent decision to take over the program has led to legacy of supporting athletics in the lives of countless young people and, in most cases, their fathers, uncles and cousins before them.

Over the years, Johnson said he has seen enough joy, sadness and even anger in some cases to write a book. Sitting behind his desk at Johnson Insurance, the company he has owned since 1981, Johnson can still point to trophies and recall with amazing detail the games that won them and even the names of the players. He tells stories of come-from-behind victories, parents arguing over their children’s games, and pranks perpetrated in the park bathrooms by rambunctious children,…and he smiles.

But he can also tell tragic stories of heartbreak and loss. Maybe none more unexpected than the death of 14-year-old baseball standout Coby Smith, who was killed in a car crash last September.

“There were so many people at the vigil we had for him on the baseball field,” Johnson remembered. “You saw grown men breaking down talking about him. I almost broke down.”

But more often than not the happenings inside Tom Byrne Park’s baseball fields are happy ones. And after 44 years, Johnson can still be found there most nights, usually until everyone else has left.

While his longevity and dedication are impressive, Johnson continually defers the thanks.

“I have had so many people help me with this over the years,” he said. “At one time I had as many as 70 to 80 volunteers.”

And he can still list most of them today, however, with the chance someone would be overlooked, he is reluctant to do so.  Johnson said the support of the city has been tremendous and the sponsors have been extremely supportive as four sponsors have been involved for over 50 consecutive years. He added that he hopes the next city administration will be as supportive as the present for youth recreation.