Photos by Drew Dempsey and provided
Question: What do Branch Rickey, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, Tommy Lasorda, Eddie Murray, Chipper Jones and the new chief operating officer of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, Bill Blackwell, have in common?
Answer: They are all duly-elected members of the South Atlantic League Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Wow,” says Bill from behind his desk at the MSHOF&M, the one recently occupied by Executive Director Rick Cleveland. “I haven’t thought of it quite like that, but yeah... I guess so. Wow.”
While the name of Bill Blackwell may not be quite as familiar as some of the illustrious company he keeps in the Sally League Hall of Fame, he is no less deserving of the honor than any of the others.
“Bill was the perfect choice,” says Rick, whose job description at the Hall of Fame on Lakeland Drive might be changing, but who undoubtedly will continue to put in far more than the standard 40-hour work week.
“I had told the Board of Directors that I wanted to be freed up to spend more time seeking ways to fund the museum, as well as spend more time writing,” he adds. “I’m working on a book about Mississippi athletes, which is what we’re all about here, and I needed more time to focus on that. Plus I’m not getting any younger,” says the former Dean of Mississippi Sportswriters, who earned the title as a long-time writer and editor at the Clarion-Ledger. “Add in the fact that Margaret (Ferriss-White), who keeps the books and has been here longer than any of us, says she plans on retiring soon, and it just meant we needed to get someone in here with experience running day-to-day operations. Bill is an incredibly experienced administrator, and perfectly suited for this. We’re very lucky to have him.”
“Absolutely,” echoes Oscar Miskelly, the immediate Past President of the MSHOF&M Board of Directors. “There were two other very serious candidates we were considering,” adds Oscar, who was part of a four-person search committee. “All three were excellent candidates. It took us about three months to reach a decision, and I believe we made the right one. Bill wanted to move back to the Jackson area, and his long-standing existing relationships with Con Maloney and the corporate community here were a natural fit. Bill is an incredibly hard-working guy, very old-school in building his contacts and relationships, and he has a tremendous work ethic. He’s in the office every day, and that counts for a lot.”
Bill Blackwell’s strong values and old-school work ethic were born and nurtured on his own personal field of dreams, the family farm just outside the capitol of Illinois, the city of Springfield.
“My dad farmed 750 acres, corn and soybeans,” Bill says. “I was the middle of three boys, none of whom became farmers,” he recalls with a wry chuckle. “Back then we’d net 120-150 bushels per acre, and we thought we were getting rich. Now they’re getting over 200 bushels an acre!”
“Like most kids, I played ball growing up, basketball and baseball. Our high school didn’t have a football team. And I guess I had dreams of becoming a professional ballplayer. But let’s just say my career died of terminal slowness,” he says with a laugh.
“I majored in Radio and TV at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. In 1978 the Cards came to town, and my first job was as the announcer for the Springfield Redbirds, the AAA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. Jimy Williams was the manager the year I got there, and Hal Lanier took over the next year.”
“A. Ray Smith was the owner of the team, and he had a lot of Bill Veeck in him. (Veeck was the late owner of several major league teams, including the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox, and known as the consummate showman and promoter.) I remember A. Ray decided to let the Cardinals’ roving piching instructor, Hub Kittle, start a game against the Iowa Oaks in 1980. I called the game, and Hub pitched an inning and a third of perfect ball. I’d be surprised if his fastball topped 50 miles an hour. He had those guys swinging out of their shoes! It was fun to watch, and even more fun to call.”
With the start at age 63, Hub Kittle became not only the oldest pitcher to ever start a professional baseball game, but the first to pitch in six different decades. Both records still stand today.
Bill switched from the pressbox to the front office in 1982, when he became the General Manager of the low A Shelby (NC) Mets. The franchise later became the Columbia Mets, and Bill and his wife, Judy, made the move to South Carolina with the team.
“That was a fun time,” he recalls. “I was learning the ropes, and we had a lot of talented young ballplayers come through, guys like Mark Carreon, Lenny Dykstra and Chris Maloney”
“I remember once I was standing near the bus driver for the Greensboro Hornets, the Yankees single A club, and he had the bus warmed up ready to go,” recalls Bill. “It was the bottom of the ninth, they were up by a couple of runs, and he was grinning, just knowing they were headed home early. Well, they were headed home early, all right, just not like he wanted.”
“The manager, Rich Miller, called me in to pinch-hit,” says Jackson native Chris “Hammer” Maloney, who played first base, outfield, and catcher for the Columbia Mets, and now serves as a coach for the major league Saint Louis Cardinals. “The bases were loaded, we were down two runs, and their closer Fritz Fedor was on the mound. He was a right-hander, and I was a switch-hitter, so I batted lefty against him for a better look at the ball. He had a good splitter (split-fingered fastball), but he bounced one in the dirt and I worked the count to 2-0. I was looking fastball, he hung one over the plate, and I put it over the right centerfield wall. Ball game! A walk-off grand slam. I never hit another walk-off homer, so it was pretty cool. Definitely the highlight of my playing career!”
Bill and Judy stayed with the Columbia Mets until 1987, when fate played an interesting card that had far-reaching effects on their futures.
“Chris’s dad, Con Maloney, was the owner of the Jackson Mets, the club’s AA franchise. His wife, Betty, was in town to watch Chris play. I don’t recall what we had going on, I think it was an advertiser’s night promotion or something, but we had the largest crowd of the year. It was a standing room-only sellout, the park looked great, the weather was perfect, and she came back home and told Con how impressed she was.”
“Betty always says I never take her advice,” says Con, former Jackson Mets and Generals team owner, and a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in his own right. “When my General Manager Mike Feder left in 1987, I remembered her telling me how impressed she was with the GM in Columbia, and how much she had raved about how nice he had the park looking. She had recommended in a not-so-subtle way that if I ever had an opening, I should give him a call. So I did, and it ended up being one of the best moves I ever made. He came over and looked around, he liked what he saw, we liked him, I offered him the job, and never regretted it once.”
“I remember when Bill had been here just a couple of months, and we were about two weeks into the season, he came up to me and apologized,” recalls Con. “’For what?’” I asked him. One of the first things he did when he arrived was to have the entire stadium completely steam-cleaned, and he was apologizing because not one person had come up to him and told him how great the stadium looked. I just laughed, and told him that was okay, because for once, not one person had come up to me and complained about how dirty it was!”
“When he got here, I asked him what he needed, and he said a personal shower. I wasn’t sure why, but I said okay, and it soon became apparent. Bill would spend a good portion of the day working out on the field or in the stadium, then he’d come in and take a shower, and by game time he’d be in a clean shirt and tie. That’s the mark of a good manager.”
“I’ve never minded paying good people well to do a good job. It counts for a lot to be able to walk away knowing that things are in good hands. Bill was that way when he was with the ball club, and now he’s the same way with the Hall of Fame. We just recently completed the 2015 Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, and thanks largely to Bill we had the largest attendance ever.”
After 38 years in the business, several championship seasons, and having rubbed elbows with everyone from Nolan Ryan to Satchel Paige, Bill Blackwell shows no signs of slowing down. He is from the roll-up-your-sleeves, get-down-and-dirty school of sports management, and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum is fortunate to have him back in Jackson, in charge of its daily operations as it heads into its third decade.o