Mississippi sports history has featured epic figures such as Archie Manning and Steve McNair, Charlie Conerly and Walter Payton, Margaret Wade and Lusia Harris-Stewart, Sue Gunter and Peggie Gillom-Granderson, Cool Papa Bell and Dizzy Dean.
During the first sixty years of the twentieth century, sports were segregated throughout the state. Legal segregation produced three major white postsecondary educational institutions (the University of Mississippi [founded in 1848], Mississippi State University , and the University of Southern Mississippi ) along with three major black institutions (Alcorn State University , Jackson State University , and Mississippi Valley State University ). Sports and the athletes who played them have given each institution a unique history and continuing place among Mississippians. That legacy arguably can be traced to the post–World War II years, when the major sports in general began to see significant growth in fan support and enthusiasm across the country.
Mississippi has never been home to any professional franchise in the major sports of baseball, basketball, or football but has produced numerous players who have starred in those sports. Two early twentieth-century baseball players encapsulate the dual society and the opportunities afforded to individuals based on skin color. James “Cool Papa” Bell was born in Starkville, while Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean was a longtime resident of Wiggins. Bell was a star outfielder in the Negro Leagues between 1922 and 1946; Dean was arguably the best pitcher in the Major Leagues during the early 1930s before an arm injury shortened his career. Before Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball in 1947, players from the Majors and the Negro Leagues played against each other in off-season exhibition games, with the black players winning two-thirds of the time. Negro League great Satchel Paige faced off against Dean six times in 1934 and 1935, with Paige winning four of those games. Dean was one of the few white Major Leaguers to publicly admit that many Negro League players had more than enough talent to play in the Majors. Paige, a teammate of Bell’s during the early 1930s, summed up Bell’s speed: “If Cool Papa had known about colleges or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking.”
Other baseball notables with Mississippi connections include Mississippi State head coach Ron Polk, whose teams won more than eleven hundred games during his twenty-nine seasons in Starkville. During Polk’s tenure, Mississippi State produced Major Leaguers Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Thigpen, and Jeff Brantley. Like Polk, McComb native Willie “Rat” McGowen had a stellar coaching career. In his forty years as head coach at Alcorn State (1968–2009), the Braves won 720 games. Don Kessinger, an all–Southeastern Conference shortstop at the University of Mississippi in the early 1960s, played for three teams during his sixteen Major League seasons. Meridian’s Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd attended Jackson State before moving on to a ten-year Major League career.
Mississippians have also had significant roles in the history of women’s basketball. McCool native Margaret Wade played at Delta State in the early 1930s. After a long hiatus, the school brought back women’s basketball in 1973, and Wade became the coach. Her teams dominated, winning three championships and posting a fifty-one-game winning streak. She is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and the trophy awarded to the top collegiate women’s player is named in her honor. Walnut Grove’s Sue Gunter coached women’s basketball (and three other sports) at Stephen F. Austin University from 1965 to 1980. After coaching the US women’s team that did not get to compete in the 1980 Olympics because of the US boycott, Gunter took over the women’s program at Louisiana State University, posting a 442–221 record between 1983 and her retirement in 2004. Wade’s and Gunter’s accomplishments both directly and indirectly created new opportunities for Mississippi’s female basketball players. Among the most notable have been Minter City native Lusia Harris-Stewart, who was a dominating player at Delta State from 1975 to 1977 and a member of the silver-medal-winning 1976 US Olympic team; Abbeville sisters Peggie Gillom-Granderson and Jennifer Gillom, who starred at the University of Mississippi in the 1970s and 1980s; and Greenville’s LaToya Thomas, who holds all-time scoring record—for both men and women—at Mississippi State and who played in the Women’s National Basketball League from 2003 to 2008.
The state’s notable men’s basketball players include Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Bailey Howell, who starred at Mississippi State in the late 1950s before going on to a twelve-year career in the National Basketball Association (NBA). In 1963 the Mississippi State men’s basketball team became the state’s first white institution to play against an integrated team when it met Loyola University of Chicago in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament. Jeff Malone played at Mississippi State from 1980 to 1983 and for four NBA teams over his thirteen-year career. Jackson State’s Purvis Short, a native of Hattiesburg, spent fourteen seasons in the NBA beginning in the late 1970s. Gulfport native Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (Chris Jackson) was one of the most recognizable figures in American basketball from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. NBA players who began their basketball careers in the Jackson public school system have included Lindsey Hunter and Monta Ellis (Lanier High School) and Mo Williams (Murrah High School).
Football arguably elicits the most fan support in the state. More than 240 of Mississippi’s public high schools and 80 private high schools field teams, and Friday night games are the biggest events in many small towns. Many of these high school players go on to play at the collegiate level, and some have become stars in the National Football League (NFL). Clarksdale’s Charlie Conerly played at the University of Mississippi around the time of World War II before spending fourteen years with the New York Giants and leading the team to the 1956 NFL championship. The trophy given to the state’s top collegiate player is named in his honor. Drew native Archie Manning is truly legendary in the state, not only for his stints as quarterback at the University of Mississippi (1967–71) and in the NFL (1971–84) but also because two of his sons, Peyton and Eli, have gone on to have exceptional collegiate and professional careers. Archie Manning set numerous records on the field, though perhaps his greatest achievement was his exciting style of play, which brought positive national exposure to the university just a few years after the riot that accompanied James Meredith’s integration of the school showed a very different picture.
Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State, and the University of Southern Mississippi have arguably produced the three greatest NFL players at their positions, Columbia’s Walter Payton, Crawford’s Jerry Rice, and Gulfport’s Brett Favre. Running back Walter Payton, a Columbia native who attended Jackson State, was twice named the league’s Most Valuable Player and helped the Bears to victory in the 1986 Super Bowl. Wide receiver Jerry Rice of Crawford was relatively obscure while in college at Mississippi Valley State in the early 1980s but won four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers and retired after the 2004 season as the holder of numerous NFL records. Kiln’s Brett Favre quarterbacked Southern Mississippi from 1987 to 1991 and finished as the school’s career leader in passing yards, completions, and touchdowns before going on to win three NFL MVP awards with the Green Bay Packers, setting many league records over his twenty seasons.
Other notable NFL players from Mississippi include quarterback Steve McNair of Mount Olive, who starred at Alcorn State and for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens; running back Deuce McAllister of Jackson, who played at the University of Mississippi and for the New Orleans Saints; and wide receiver Eric Moulds, a Lucedale native who attended Mississippi State before playing twelve seasons in the NFL, mostly with the Buffalo Bills. On 1 December 2003 Mississippi State hired Sylvester Croom, the first African American head football coach not only at the school but also in the Southeastern Conference.
Outside of team sports, Mississippi offers hunters more than two million acres of wild game habitats within the forty-one state wildlife management areas, twelve National Wildlife Refuges, and six National Forests. Some of the most popular game species include white-tailed deer, eastern wild turkey, and migratory waterfowl as well as small game species such as mourning dove, quail, squirrel, and rabbit. White-tailed deer is the most popular species and can be found in abundant numbers throughout Mississippi, which has the highest deer density per acre in the nation.
Fishing is also one of the most popular outdoor activities in Mississippi. The region’s mild climate promotes a year-round growing season for the state’s game fish, and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks operates twenty-four fishing lakes offering a total of 6,044 acres of picturesque waters. Approximately 175 different species of freshwater fish are found in Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico offers saltwater fishing. Species that live in the Mississippi River include catfish, walleye, carp, and gar.
Mississippi has more than 145 golf courses that can test the skill of every level of golfer. Outstanding public courses include the Preserve Golf Club in Ocean Springs, Cranbrake Golf Club in Hattiesburg, Dancing Rabbit Golf Club in Philadelphia, and the Dogwoods at Hugh White State Park in Grenada.
Sports have played a pivotal role in Mississippi’s social, economic, and political life, and that impact has arguably been strongest in the area of race relations. Mississippians black and white, young and old, male and female participate in and are fans of sports that were segregated until the 1960s. Since 1992 the State Games of Mississippi have brought together thousands of athletes of all ages and skill levels each June to compete in more than thirty sporting events. The fact that the citizens of Mississippi take for granted integrated sporting events, venues, and teams testifies to the impact sports have had on the state.
- Dick Clark and Larry Lester, eds., The Negro Leagues Book (1994)
- Patrick Miller, ed., The Sporting World of the Modern South (2002)
- Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (1983)