The old Negro Leagues, which Major League Baseball is celebrating today, produced not only great players but great teams. Mississippians played major roles on some of the best. There is surely ample debate about which Negro League team deserves to be called “the best,” but the short list would have to include the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords. There were four future Hall of Famers on that team, five if you count Satchel Paige, who was on the roster but held out most of the season. The center fielder and leadoff batter for the Crawfords, the Negro National League champs in ’35, was James “Cool Papa” Bell, the Starkville native and Hall of Famer whose speed is legend. Clarksdale native David “Lefty” Harvey was a pitcher on that team, which also featured the incredible slugger Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Judy Johnson. Bell was also the leadoff man for the 1930 St. Louis Stars, another NNL champion with a stacked lineup that included Willie “The Devil” Wells, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe (from the Ken Burns films) and George “Mule” Suttles. Nicknames apparently were a Negro Leagues staple. William Foster, who grew up in Rodney and played and coached at Alcorn A&M, didn’t have a nickname — he was known simply as Bill or Willie — but did have a great arsenal of pitches as the left-handed ace of the 1927 Chicago American Giants. That team won the NNL pennant and the Negro World Series, with Hall of Famer Foster throwing a shutout in the decisive eighth game. The Giants’ roster also featured Pythias Russ, “Gentleman Dave” Malarcher, Walter “Steel Arm” Davis and Willie “Pigmeat” Powell. The 1945 Cleveland Buckeyes, with Jackson native Buddy Armour playing center field, won the Negro American League pennant and the World Series in a sweep against a Homestead Grays team that trotted out a 42-year-old Bell and Greenwood native Dave Hoskins. The Buckeyes, 53-16 in the regular season according to “Only the Ball Was White,” were led by future major leaguer Sam “The Jet” Jethroe and the brothers Jefferson, Willie and George, both pitchers. Hattiesburg’s Rufus Lewis was the ace of the 1946 Newark Eagles, who won the NNL title and the World Series in seven games against Kansas City’s Monarchs. Lewis won Game 7. Future big leaguers Larry Doby and Monte Irvin and Max “Dr. Cyclops” Manning were other stars on that great Newark team. … All MLB players, managers, coaches and umpires will wear today a patch commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League. The logo is based on the official logo created by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
William (Bill) Foster, widely considered the best left-hander in Negro Leagues history, was born on this date in 1904 in Texas. His mother died when he was 4 and he was raised by his maternal grandparents in Rodney, according to Negro Leagues historian James Riley. A ghost town no longer on the map, Rodney is listed by the National Baseball Hall of Fame as Foster’s hometown. It was 12 miles from Lorman and Alcorn A&M, where Foster reportedly made the college baseball team while in sixth grade. In the Negro Leagues, Foster was credited with 143 wins, played on several championship teams and started and won the inaugural East-West All-Star Classic in 1933. He was selected to Cooperstown posthumously in 1996. Foster, who claimed to hold a winning record head-to-head against the great Satchel Paige, threw a variety of pitches. “Now, if you can keep a man off balance, he can’t hit the ball hard,” Foster told historian John Holway. “How do I keep him off balance? And with what pitches? It boils down to the fact that I had to have one motion to control every pitch.” After his pro playing days, he served as a coach and dean at Alcorn State from 1960 until just before his death in ’78. The Braves’ field bears his name.
Rivalries in baseball may not boil the blood as they do in football and basketball, but they still have a special feel. Red Sox-Yankees. Dodgers-Giants. Mississippi State-Ole Miss. Similarly, Jackson State-Alcorn State isn’t just another conference series. The longtime rivals meet this weekend to open SWAC play. Today’s Game 1 and Sunday’s series finale will be played at JSU’s Braddy Field, with the middle game on Saturday moving to Smith-Wills Stadium. Fans of the two schools don’t need to be reminded that Alcorn State won the 2019 football game – in convincing fashion – and Jackson State swept the two men’s basketball games this season. There’s a measure of pride at stake this weekend. The Tigers lead the all-time series 158-101-1, according to an Alcorn press release. JSU is 3-4, led by a dynamic offense that features C.J. Newsome (.500, eight runs, three steals) and Jaylyn Williams (.500, six RBIs). Steven Davila has been JSU’s steadiest pitcher, with a 1.23 ERA over three appearances. Alcorn’s staff ERA is 7.16, though Joe Smith, a product of Jackson’s Jim Hill High, has pitched well (3.60 in two outings). Travaris Cole paces the 2-3 Braves’ attack at .391 with three homers and 11 RBIs. Tristan Garcia (.438) had a four-hit game at Ole Miss last week. P.S. It was announced Thursday that the SWAC Tournament will be played at Smith-Wills for the next three years. The 2020 dates for the eight-team, double-elimination tournament are May 13-17. This isn’t the first time the event will be played at the old ballpark on Cool Papa Bell Drive. The 2000 and 2007 tourneys were played there. The 2006 event was held at Trustmark Park in Pearl. From 1988-95, the SWAC played its championship in Natchez.
So many iconic college coaches have worked in Mississippi over the years that the legacy of Willie E. “Rat” McGowan can get lost in the shuffle. McGowan, who died on Tuesday, was the Alcorn State coach for parts of four decades (1972-2009). When you start reeling off the names of the state’s coaching greats — Ron Polk, Boo Ferriss, Hill Denson, Bob Braddy, Mike Bianco, Mike Kinnison, Bobby Halford, Jim Page, et. al — McGowan belongs in the conversation. He accomplished impressive things at a small school with relatively limited resources for baseball. McGowan, who doubled as a football assistant coach during much of his time in Lorman, is Alcorn’s all-time leader in baseball victories with a 720-663-7 record. His last two teams each won 29 games, the school record. He was a four-time coach of the year in the SWAC and is in the conference’s Hall of Fame. The school’s baseball stadium bears his name. The only Alcorn player to make the big leagues – Al Jones, who pitched for the Chicago White Sox from 1983-85 – played for McGowan, as did a dozen others who were drafted. A McComb native, McGowan played baseball and football for the Braves in the late 1950s.
Corey Wimberly, the former Alcorn State star and longtime minor leaguer, is coaching for Peoria in the Arizona Fall League, which began play Wednesday. He has managed in the Boston Red Sox organization for the last two seasons, spending 2019 at Class A Salem. His charges lost in the Carolina League title series. Wimberly was an All-SWAC infielder for Alcorn who batted .462 with 42 stolen bases, 55 runs and 32 RBIs in 38 games in 2005. (Somehow, he did not win the Ferriss Trophy.) He was drafted as a sophomore-eligible in the sixth round by Colorado in 2005. Wimberly played 12 years of pro ball, reaching the Triple-A level (including a stint with Atlanta) but never getting the big league call. He batted .297 with 351 stolen bases for his career. He last played in the Mexican League three years ago. P.S. There are three Mississippi college products on the current AFL rosters. Ole Miss alum Brady Feigl, a right-hander in Oakland’s system, pitched a scoreless inning for Mesa in its opener. Ex-Southern Miss standout Kirk McCarty, a pitcher in the Cleveland system, is also on the Mesa club. USM product Bradley Roney, who pitched for the Mississippi Braves this season, gave up a home run but registered a hold for Scottsdale. M-Braves alum Trey Harris, Atlanta’s 2019 minor league player of the year, went 2-for-4 with a homer for the Scorpions.
The stakes are higher now for Delta State and many others in the state. Fresh off another Gulf South Conference Tournament championship, DSU will host an NCAA Division II South Sub-Regional starting Thursday at Ferriss Field in Cleveland. The Statesmen (39-12), who won the GSC title for the 15th time last week, will play Embry-Riddle in their opener. Eckerd and Valdosta State meet in the other game. Tampa is hosting the other sub-regional with West Florida, Nova Southeastern and Spring Hill also in the field. Mississippi College, which went 2-and-out in the GSC tourney, did not get a regional bid. MC’s season ends at 28-17, and GSC player of the year Blaine Crim’s career ends, as well. He hit .379 with 11 homers in 2019. … Jackson State, 30-22 and a 2-seed in the SWAC Tournament, plays Texas Southern on Wednesday at New Orleans, while Alcorn State (14-29 and a 3-seed) meets Grambling. The tourney winner gets an NCAA bid, likely the only one the SWAC will receive. … The NJCAA Division II Region 23 Tournament begins Wednesday at Fulton, with host and MACJC champ Itawamba Community College playing Mississippi Gulf Coast, Jones meeting Pearl River and Northwest drawing No. 1-ranked LSU-Eunice. The region winner goes to the Juco World Series. Gulf Coast, powered by Brandon Parker and Cullan O’Shea, swept Meridian in their best-of-3 playoff, but the other three series went three games. Northwest beat Northeast, Jones topped Hinds (behind Coleton Ausburn’s Game 3 shutout) and Pearl River whipped East Central (thanks in part to another big homer by Dexter Jordan in the rubber game). … MUW, 16-11 in its second year of competition, opens play today in the non-scholarship USCAA Small College World Series at DuBois, Penn. … The MHSAA Tournament finals begin Wednesday at Trustmark Park in Pearl. DeSoto Central hosts Northwest Rankin today for a berth in the Class 6A finals against St. Martin, which is coached by former Ole Miss and Jackson Generals star Kary Bridges.
Jackson State will enter the SWAC Tournament next week as a 2-seed but sporting the credentials of a tourney favorite. The Tigers, who finished second to Alabama State in the Eastern Division, have won 17 of their last 20 games (two of those losses were to the Hornets). JSU also leads the league in hitting and ERA and is tied for second in fielding percentage. Clearly, it’s a well-rounded club, one capable of winning a third tournament title under coach Omar Johnson, who has never had a losing season in 13 years at the helm. The Tigers (29-21) play at Kansas on Tuesday and Wednesday in their final tuneups for the SWAC event, which starts May 15 in New Orleans. JSU opens with West 3-seed Texas Southern. Alcorn State, the No. 3 team in the East, plays Grambling in its opener. Mississippi Valley State, which finished last in the East, is ineligible for the postseason. The Tigers’ array of hitting heroes includes Jaylyn Williams (.411, 51 RBIs), Equon Smith (.374, 39 steals, 54 runs), Raul Hernandez (.363, eight homers, 51 RBIs) and Chris Prentiss (.372, 10 triples). Nikelle Galatas tops the pitching staff at 7-3, 4.30. Garth Cahill and Kevin Perez have five wins apiece. The wide net Johnson casts in recruiting is reflected in that group. Williams (Greenville) and Prentiss (Vicksburg) are Mississippi natives, Smith and Perez are from Florida, Galatas from California, Hernandez from Puerto Rico and Cahill from South Africa. The roster also lists players from Canada, the Virgin Islands, Nevada, Michigan and New York.
Presumably the dust has finally settled at Rat McGowan Field in Lorman, where Alcorn State and Jackson State played a three-game SWAC series which may have set a new standard for wacky. JSU won all three games, 17-10, 9-2 and 13-8. Alcorn committed a jaw-dropping 10 errors in Friday’s Game 1, and yet somehow led in the ninth inning. JSU’s Stephen Vidal tied it at 10-all with a two-run homer, and the Tigers proceeded to score seven times in the 10th, aided by three of the Braves’ miscues. There was some pitching in Game 2 on Saturday as JSU’s Kevin Perez (5-1) threw a seven-hitter. Dezmond Chumley and Wesley Reyes got three hits apiece in a 14-hit attack for the Tigers, who again benefitted from Alcorn’s shabby defense (three errors, five unearned runs). In Game 3 on Sunday, the Braves forged an early 8-4 lead, but the Tigers roared back with nine runs (four unearned) over the final four frames. Alcorn pitchers walked 12 batters (29 for the series) and JSU stole six bases on the day. Wacky, indeed. Chumley, a junior from Texas, had a great series, with seven hits, seven runs, seven RBIs and two homers. JSU is 17-6 overall and alone in first place in the SWAC East at 9-3. Alcorn (6-17) sank further into the cellar at 1-8. The rivals meet again in late April at Braddy Field in Jackson. We can’t possibly know what to expect.
The conversion from closer to starter has been a smooth one for Southern Miss’ Nick Sandlin, who was named national pitcher of the week by Collegiate Baseball on Monday. The junior right-hander had a 14-strikeout game against Texas-San Antonio over the weekend and is 3-0 with a 1.32 ERA in his five starts. He had 10 wins and eight saves out of the pen in 2017, earning several All-America honors. … Thomas Dillard has been a welcome power source for surging Ole Miss (19-2), having already set a season-high with five home runs. The sophomore from Oxford, batting .333 this year, hit .206 with four homers in 48 games in 2017. … Mississippi State’s weekend rotation of Konnor Pilkington (1.55 ERA), Ethan Small (3.04) and Jacob Billingsley (3.52) has been excellent but is just 4-5 combined for the 10-10 Bulldogs. State, last in the SEC in scoring with 89 runs, could find a rhythm tonight when Alcorn State, staff ERA 7.24, comes to Starkville. … Jackson State leads the SWAC in hitting with a .302 average, and Raul Hernandez is second in the individual stats at .403. … Dalton Minton, a transfer from Northwest Mississippi Community College, has emerged as an ace at Delta State. The left-hander is 4-0, 3.90 and has the 19-2 team’s lone complete game. … Mississippi College leads the Division II Gulf South Conference in batting at .334, led by East Central CC transfer Billy Cameron at .397. … Blue Mountain (18-6) is in first place at 5-1 in the Southern States Athletic Conference standings. NAIA nationally ranked William Carey (19-8) is tied for third at 4-2. BMC travels to Columbus today to take on MUW, 10-7 in its inaugural season. … Millsaps (17-6) tops the D-III Southern Athletic Association standings at 7-2. Transfer Jimmy Johnstone is hitting .449 for the Majors.
Sports Illustrated’s ranking of the Top 100 players in the big leagues includes Southern Miss alum Brian Dozier (41), who “lacks the exposure he deserves” in Minnesota; ex-Ole Miss star Zack Cozart (87), who left Cincinnati for the Los Angeles Angels; and as-yet-unsigned UM product Lance Lynn (93). Former Mississippi Braves standout Freddie Freeman is No. 22. … Ole Miss product Matt Tracy, whose one MLB appearance came three years ago, reportedly has signed a minor league contract with Toronto. Tracy, 29, was drafted by the New York Yankees in 2011 and made a two-inning appearance for the Yanks on April 11, 2015. The left-hander, who has a 4.03 career ERA in 151 minor league games, pitched in Minnesota’s system last year (7.64 ERA in Triple-A). … MUW notched its first-ever win – and then added another – by sweeping Crowley’s Ridge, 5-4 and 11-1, on Thursday at Columbus. Johndavid Birdsong, who got a walk-off hit in Game 1, is 5-for-10 with three RBIs for the Owls (2-3). … Vicksburg native Dmitri Young and former Jackson State star Marvin Freeman, both ex-big leaguers, are among the dignitaries expected in New Orleans for this weekend’s Andre Dawson Classic, formerly known as the MLB Urban Invitational. Alcorn State is in the field. … MGM Park in Biloxi, home of the Shuckers, has an interesting doubleheader slated for March 14: William Carey vs. Mississippi College followed by Mississippi State vs. Southeastern Louisiana. … Luke Wallner, brother of USM star Matt Wallner, is a freshman pitcher on Meridian Community College’s roster. The 6-foot, 195-pound right-hander pitched at Forest Lake (Minn.) High last year. … Baseball America ranks Gulfport High No. 40 in its Top 50 preseason prep poll. The Admirals were 33-6 in 2017 and finished runner-up (to Tupelo) in the MHSAA Class 6A playoffs. Outfielder Joe Gray of Hattiesburg High made BA’s All-America first team.