Most local baseball aficionados are well aware that this year marks the 15th anniversary of the arrival at Trustmark Park in Pearl of the Mississippi Braves, who moved from Greenville, S.C., in 2005. (Hopefully, there will be a 2020 season during which to celebrate that fact.) This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the Jackson DiamondKats’ one and only – and otherwise forgettable — season at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium and the 30th anniversary of the Jackson Mets’ final season at Smith-Wills. The 1990 JaxMets, managed by Clint Hurdle, won a division title and made the Texas League playoffs, marking the 10th postseason appearance for the Double-A club in its 16 years in Jackson. This year also marks the 80th anniversary of a somewhat forgotten championship team, the 1940 Jackson Senators. Playing in the Class B Southeastern League, the Senators went a league-best 89-58 that season and crushed both the Selma Cloverleafs and the Pensacola Fliers in the playoffs, going 4-1 in each series. Managed by Footsie Blair, the unaffiliated Senators played at League Park, a stadium near what is now the Fairgrounds. (It was destroyed by a tornado in 1953.) That team was led by future big leaguer Tom McBride, a .316 hitter who topped the SL in hits with 194 (according to statscrew.com); Paul Fugit, who batted .317 with 11 homers; and 16-game winners Harry Durheim and Gordon Maltzberger, who led the loop in ERA and later coached in the majors for several years. The Senators’ championship in 1940 was the last league title celebrated in the Capital City until Davey Johnson’s JaxMets won the TL pennant in 1981.
On what would have been Opening Day in the major leagues, here’s a few themed trivia questions to jog the memories of Jackson-area pro baseball fans. (Answers below.)
1. When the Jackson Mets played their first game 45 years ago at Smith-Wills Stadium, who was their starting pitcher?
2. What future big leaguer threw a one-hitter for the JaxMets in their 1982 home opener?
3. How many future major league players were in the lineup for the JaxMets in their 1984 home opener?
4. What future major league catcher hit a walk-off home run for the Jackson Mets in their 1985 home opener?
5. What former Ole Miss star hit a walk-off home run in the Jackson Generals’ home opener in 1995?
6. What former Tupelo High standout knocked in the winning run for the Jackson DiamondKats in their home opener in 2000?
7. What former Purvis High star was the winning pitcher in the Jackson Senators’ home opener in 2003?
8. Who hit the first home run in Mississippi Braves history in their season opener in 2005?
9. When the M-Braves played their inaugural home game at Trustmark Park, who scored their first run?
10. What three players hit home runs for the Atlanta Braves when they played a season-opening exhibition game in 2013 at the TeePee?
1. Greg Pavlick, who would go on to be a longtime major league pitching coach, beat Arkansas 6-4 with relief help from Joe Klenda, who threw four perfect innings. A crowd of 2,862 turned out on a drizzly Saturday afternoon.
2. Jeff Bittiger beat Arkansas 2-0; the Travelers’ lone hit was an infield single by Jose Gonzalez with two outs in the eighth inning. Bittiger went 12-5 that season and led the Texas League in strikeouts.
3. Eight: Lenny Dykstra, Mark Carreon, Billy Beane, Dave Cochrane, Randy Milligan, Al Pedrique, Greg Olson and Jay Tibbs. The OJMs, who would win the Texas League pennant in 1984, beat Tulsa 6-0; Dykstra was on base five times, scored twice, drove in a run, stole a base and threw a runner out at third base.
4. Barry Lyons, the ex-Delta State standout from Biloxi, went yard on the first pitch in the bottom of the ninth to beat Shreveport 3-2. Led by Lyons’ 108 RBIs, the ’85 OJMs won their second straight Texas League crown.
5. Kary Bridges, the Oak Grove product now the coach at St. Martin High in Ocean Springs, belted a three-run bomb in the ninth to beat Arkansas 7-6. Bridges batted .301 that season but hit just two more homers.
6. Willie Gardner’s eighth-inning single scored Perry Miley with the go-ahead run in a 5-4 defeat of Alexandria, one of the rare highlights of the independent D-Kats’ lone season at Smith-Wills.
7. Kenny Rayborn cruised through five innings to beat Springfield/Ozarks in a 10-3 game. Rayborn, in the seventh of his 13 minor league seasons, went 10-2 for the Sens, who won the Central League title that year.
8. Jeff Francoeur went deep – very deep — at Montgomery’s Riverwalk Stadium in a 9-8 defeat on April 7. Francoeur hit 12 more homers for the M-Braves before his July promotion to Atlanta, where he famously homered in his first game.
9. Jonathan Schuerholz, son of the former Atlanta GM, scored on an infield hit by Scott Thorman in the first inning of an 11-6 loss to Montgomery. The younger Schuerholz is now Atlanta’s assistant director of pro scouting.
10. Dan Uggla, Chris Johnson and Evan Gattis, a former M-Braves catcher whose three-run bomb in the seventh inning landed somewhere in the parking lot beyond left field. Gattis hit 21 homers for Atlanta that season, his rookie year.
Congratulations to Phillip Wellman, the former Mississippi Braves manager who piloted the Amarillo Sod Poodles to a Texas League championship on Sunday, beating Tulsa 8-3 in the decisive fifth game. This is the team’s first year in Amarillo after the franchise – still a San Diego affiliate — moved from San Antonio. (Sod poodle is a pioneer nickname for prairie dog.) It was the second championship for Wellman in 19 seasons as a minor league skipper; he won the other in 2008 in the second of his four seasons with the M-Braves. … Condolences to the Biloxi Shuckers, who lost at Jackson, Tenn., on Sunday in Game 5 of the Southern League Championship Series. The Shuckers, a Milwaukee affiliate, have lost in the SL finals in three of their five seasons on the Coast. … It’s now been 11 years since Mississippi celebrated a pro baseball championship, which is beginning to feel like a drought. Over a 15-year span starting in 1981, Jackson’s Texas League clubs won five championships – the Mets in 1981, ’84 and ’85 and the Generals in ’93 and ’96. The independent Senators won a Central League crown in 2003, and five years later, the M-Braves won their lone Southern League title. Long before that, Jackson-based teams won league championships in 1908, 1913, 1925, 1927, 1931, 1940 and 1947, according to research in the Minor League Encyclopedia of Baseball. The 1913 team, known as the Lawmakers, posted an impressive 71-24 record (.747 winning percentage) in the old Cotton States League. Mississippi did not have a pro club from 1953, when the original Senators left town, to 1975, when the Mets moved into Smith-Wills Stadium.
Here’s a timely trivia question: Who was the winning pitcher for the Jackson Senators in the deciding game of the 2003 Central League Championship Series? It was none other than Jeremy McClain, then a crafty right-hander for the independent Sens, now the newly named athletic director at Southern Miss. McClain enjoyed a highlight-filled playing career. The Houlka native went 45-9 at Delta State – where he is in the Hall of Fame – and still holds school records for career wins, strikeouts and innings pitched. He went 15-0 for the 1999 team that made the NCAA Division II regionals. He had a fling in affiliated ball with the Boston Red Sox, then pitched for two different independent teams at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium. McClain won seven games for an awful DiamondKats team in 2000 and spent two seasons with the Senators, helping them reach the CBL title series in 2002 and claim the pennant the next year. He was the starter for the Sens’ first home opener in 2002, and in Game 5 of the ’03 finals, he came on in relief in the 10th inning and earned the victory when Keto Anderson delivered a game-winning knock in the bottom half. It was McClain’s final appearance as a player, and he said after the game that season was as much fun as he had ever had playing baseball.
Cool idea by the Mississippi Braves to give a nod to the old Jackson Generals as part of the M-Braves’ celebration of the franchise’s 15th year in Pearl. The M-Braves will wear some throwback apparel when the Jackson (Tenn.) Generals (no relation to the other one) visit Trustmark Park from June 25-29. On June 28, the first 1,000 fans will receive a replica Jackson (Miss.) Generals jersey. As a refresher, the Generals were the Double-A Texas League affiliate of the Houston Astros and played at Smith-Wills Stadium from 1991-1999. That club produced a bevy of big league stars, including Billy Wagner, Lance Berkman, Bobby Abreu, Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia, Richard Hidalgo, Todd Jones, Julio Lugo, Daryle Ward, Melvin Mora, Brian Hunter and Scott Elarton, to name, well, more than a few. The Generals won two Texas League pennants (1993 and ’96). Of course, Jackson’s pro baseball legacy extends well beyond the Generals. The Mets – New York’s Double-A club – occupied Smith-Wills from 1975-1990, turned out an array of stars, as well (see Darryl Strawberry, Jeff Reardon, Mookie Wilson, Kevin Mitchell, et al.), and won three TL titles. And before the Mets there were a number of minor league teams that played in a long-gone ballpark at the Fairgrounds for many years up until the early ’50s. Included in that group was a Boston Braves farm team. And let’s not forget that after the Generals departed for Round Rock, Texas, two independent pro teams played at Smith-Wills: the DiamondKats (2000) and the Senators (2002-05). The Senators also won a championship. Bottom line: When it comes to pro baseball in central Mississippi, there’s a whole lot to celebrate.
You’ll find it on most any list of the best World Series moments: Enos Slaughter’s “mad dash” for the St. Louis Cardinals. It happened on this date 70 years ago in Sportsman’s Park in the eighth inning of Game 7 against Boston, and it produced the winning run in a 4-3 victory. Let’s not forget who delivered the hit that sent Slaughter dashing for home: Pascagoula native Harry Walker. Facing Boston’s Bob Klingler with Slaughter at first base and two outs, Walker ripped a shot into left-center field that was chased down by Leon Culberson (grandfather of current Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Charlie Culberson). As Slaughter tore around the bases, Culberson threw to shortstop Johnny Pesky, who appeared to hesitate before he threw home. Slaughter slid in safely. It was the seventh hit and sixth RBI in the 1946 World Series for Walker, the man known as “The Hat,” a .296 career hitter and two-time All-Star who would have turned 100 on Oct. 22. He passed in 1999. It’s worth noting that Boo Ferriss, the legend from Shaw, started that game for Boston, looking for his second win in the Series. He was lifted in the fifth. The final out was made by Tom McBride, who played for the Jackson Senators in the late 1930s and early ’40s. He bounced into a force out with two runners on in the ninth, and St. Louis celebrated its sixth world championship.
As the Mississippi Braves and Jackson (Tenn.) Generals square off in the 2016 Southern League Championship Series, here’s a Mississippi minor league postseason primer:
1 – Number of Southern League pennants won by the Mississippi Braves, who arrived in Pearl in 2005 and won the title three years later at Trustmark Park.
1 – Number of SL pennants won by the Jackson Generals, the Tennessee version, who took the title 16 years ago when they were known, regrettably, as the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx.
2 – Number of Texas League pennants won by the Jackson Generals, the Mississippi version, who claimed those crowns in 1993 and 1996.
1 – Number of pennants won by the Jackson Senators, who captured the independent Central League title at Smith-Wills Stadium in 2003.
3 – Number of pennants won by the Jackson Mets, who took Texas League championships in 1981, 1984 and 1985.
8 – Streak of Texas League playoff appearances reeled off by the Jackson Mets from 1980-87.
4 – Southern League postseason appearances by the M-Braves.
3 – Number of Southern League awards won by the 2016 Jackson Generals: Tyler O’Neill was MVP, Ryan Yarbrough was pitcher of the year and Daren Brown was manager of the year.
1 – Number of M-Braves who made the SL postseason All-Star team: outfielder Dustin Peterson.
9 – Wins, in 15 games, by the M-Braves against the Generals this season.
5 – Number of Southern League starts in 2016 by M-Braves lefty Michael Mader (0-3, 2.40 ERA), slated to go in Game 1 of the SL Championship Series tonight at Jackson, Tenn.
9 – Number of wins, in 12 decisions, this season by Andrew Moore, the Generals’ scheduled starter in Game 1. He has a 3.16 ERA over 19 starts.
6 – RBIs by Carlos Franco, on 7-for-15 hitting, in the M-Braves’ South Division series win against Pensacola.
7 – Hits, in two postseason games, by M-Braves newcomer Kade Scivicque, the former Southwest Mississippi Community College (and LSU) star.
152 – Strikeouts this season, most in Double-A, by M-Braves lefty Sean Newcomb (8-7, 3.86 ERA), who is slated to start Game 2 against Jackson.
8 – Number of players from the 2016 M-Braves’ original 25-man roster who are still on the club.
1 – Number of former M-Braves on the Generals’ current roster: pitcher Ryne Harper.
Photo: Carlos Franco of the M-Braves heads for home. Joe Culpepper/Shuttergig.com
There were seven no-hitters – two by Max Scherzer — in the big leagues this season, running to 294 the total number of official no-hitters since 1876. You won’t find Mississippi legends Guy Bush, Claude Passeau or Boo Ferriss on that list. Atley Donald, Joe Gibbon and Oil Can Boyd aren’t on there, either. In fact, no Mississippian (native or college alum) has thrown a complete game no-hitter in the majors. However, five players with Magnolia State connections have been involved in no-no’s. Vern Bickford, who pitched for the original Jackson Senators in the ’40s when they were a Boston Braves farm club, threw a no-hitter for Boston against Brooklyn on Aug. 11, 1950. On Sept. 25, 1986, former Jackson Mets pitcher Mike Scott tossed a no-no for Houston against San Francisco. On June 11, 2003, in one of the strangest no-hitters, Weir’s Roy Oswalt and ex-Jackson Generals star Billy Wagner pitched the first and last inning, respectively, of a six-man gem thrown by the Astros against the New York Yankees. And on Sept. 1 of last year, Mississippi State product Jonathan Papelbon got the last three outs for Philadelphia in a four-man no-hitter vs. Atlanta.
The Jackson Senators live. Well, the name lives. On the billboard out front of Smith-Wills Stadium. The Senators are 10 years gone from their short stay at the old ballpark, but the independent team’s name is still out there. It’s a safe bet that a lot of folks cruising by on Lakeland Drive are given to wonder: “Who the heck are the Jackson Senators?” For the uninitiated, they were the fourth pro team to occupy Smith-Wills, following the Mets, Generals and Bandits, uh, I mean, DiamondKats. The Senators reached the Central Baseball League championship series in their inaugural season in 2002 and won the pennant in Year 2. A pall was cast over the whole operation in 2004 when news broke that Atlanta was moving its Double-A club to Pearl for the 2005 season. By this time in ’05, the Sens were history. Nothing official had been announced by the local ownership group, but it seemed inevitable. The metro isn’t big enough for two pro baseball teams. The Central League split up after the 2005 season, and the Senators quietly faded away. Hill Denson managed the last Senators team, which finished 35-58. There were some good players on the roster, including Selwyn Langaigne, Josh Tranum, Gerard McCall, Fontella Jones, Rusty Camp, Jake Dickinson … . Erick Mejias hit a walk-off homer in the Senators’ last home game, on Aug. 13, 2005. And if you saw them play at all, you surely remember Vince Faison, the right fielder. Former No. 1 draft pick by the San Diego Padres. Also a prep football star in Georgia. He could flat-out play. Hit for the cycle in ’05. Hadn’t thought about him in years. But on a drive down Lakeland, there’s that billboard. The Jackson Senators live.
The 40th anniversary of the first game at Smith-Wills Stadium comes next April. What a shame it would be if the Jackson ballpark is no longer standing at that time. Reports are out there that the old yard may be demolished. To make way for a Costco. A Costco on Cool Papa Bell Drive? Squeezed in between the Sports Hall of Fame and Museum and the Murrah High baseball field? Smith-Wills still serves a purpose. Not only does Belhaven University play there, but in recent years so have junior colleges, high schools, youth teams and semi-pro squads. Heck, maybe Biloxi’s homeless Southern League team could move in there next season. Smith-Wills has an unappreciated history. It has been nine years since the last pro game was played there and 15 since the final Texas League game. People forget. They should be reminded. This was a place where stars came out, from Lee Mazzilli to Selwyn Langaigne. Darryl Strawberry called it home, and Mookie Wilson and Jeff Reardon and Lenny Dykstra and Gregg Jefferies. And Billy Wagner and Bobby Abreu and Lance Berkman. Fernando Valenzuela made a visit there, and Pedro Martinez and Mark McGwire and Roberto Alomar and Johnny Damon. The list goes on. Will Clark and a host of other Mississippi State and Ole Miss stars played there, too, in the old Mayor’s Trophy Game. Max Patkin and the San Diego Chicken performed there. And the Silver Bullets and The King and His Court and two U.S. Olympic squads. Six pro teams won league pennants while playing there. These things should not be forgotten; they should be celebrated. They want to take this tradition and put up a wholesale store? Carole King ought to write a song.