These eyes have seen some seismic changes in nearly a half century of covering Mississippi sports.
The most dramatic, of course, has been the integration of all sports, even at the academies that sprang up as a result of integration. Sports have shown us, in living color, blacks and whites could work and bond together and be better for it.
Number two would have to be the meteoric rise in participation of females in sports. Hard to believe that fewer than 50 years women were thought to be too dainty to play full-court basketball, much less run a mile.
High on the list of change, perhaps as high as third, would have to be the advancement of high school baseball as a sport of emphasis in the Magnolia State. The teens who begin their prep baseball seasons this week would be astonished at how much the sport has changed in the last half century.
High school baseball is no longer an afterthought. It once was — and not that long ago.
Gone are the days when an assistant football coach was forced to also coach the baseball team whether he wanted to or not, and all too often he didn’t.
Gone are the days when baseball teams played schedules of 10 or 12 games and there were no playoffs.
Gone are the days when games were played on fields where infielders risked their teeth because the infields were about as manicured as a minefield.
Gone are the days when the games were attended by a sprinkling of a few moms, dads and girlfriends.
Gone, for the most part, are the days when spring football practice took precedence over baseball.
Today, with few exceptions, high school baseball teams play on pristine fields before hundreds of fans. The state championships are played in a state-of-the-art minor league ballpark before thousands.
Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Corky Palmer has had a front-row seat for all the change. He played at Hattiesburg High in the early ’70s. His ultra-successful coaching career included stops at both Columbus and Columbia, where he was an assistant football coach as well as the head football coach.
“Sometimes we had to hold baseball practice at night after spring football practice,” Palmer says. “I just prayed some of my best baseball players wouldn’t get hurt playing football. It was not ideal.”
At Columbia, Palmer coached offensive backs on the football team and will admit right away: “I didn’t know much. They just stuck me out there.”
But here’s the deal: That’s how it had always been in baseball. School officials just stuck a guy out there whether he knew baseball or not.
Palmer says the two biggest influences on the improvement of high school baseball were Boo Ferriss at Delta State and Ron Polk at Mississippi State.
“Coaches flocked to their clinics and learned how to coach baseball, learned how to organize practices and teach the sport,” Palmer says.
At DSU, Ferriss’s baseball program became a de facto finishing school for future baseball coaches, including guys like Jerry Boatner, Stacy Hester, Jeff McClaskey, Larry Watkins and so many others who have been on the front lines of Mississippi’s high school baseball revolution.
Says Palmer, “One big factor has been the baseball booster clubs that have sprung up all over the state that have raised private money from outside the school systems to improve the facilities and put money in the programs.
“I don’t know that Mississippi’s overall baseball talent has improved that much, but the instruction surely has and so has the quality of play,” Palmer continues. “These kids today, they know how to play. They’ve been taught how to play.”
An example: Germantown High School, a Class 5A high school that is all of four years old, has a staff of six baseball coaches. Six.
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.