JEFF ROBERSON: Historical marker serves as reminder of Babe's legacy

JEFF ROBERSON

It was after “the war” back in the late 1940s, when Babe McCarthy ran into my dad in Pontotoc. Babe’s brother-in-law, Nelson “Doc” Vandiver of Baldwyn, had been one of my dad’s coaches at Pontotoc High.

Babe was from Baldwyn and was coaching there. It was 1948 and he had led his alma mater, Baldwyn High, to a state championship in boy’s basketball. But he was coaching every sport by himself.

“There’s ole Billy Roberson over there,” my dad said he heard above the other voices in the drug store that day in Pontotoc. It was Babe. He talked to my dad about coming to Baldwyn to help him coach.

“Can’t do it,” Dad told Babe. “I’m going to Ole Miss and finish school.”

Not long after, Babe contacted him again, and again dad said, “thanks but no thanks.”

Babe, already recruiting, which would serve him well in the years ahead, was persistent. He called again. But this time it was to tell Dad he had found a coach for Baldwyn. Only a few days later, that coach decided against taking the job. So Babe called again.

“I’ll give you one year,” Dad told Babe. But Jane Gentry was the music teacher at BHS, and after she met my dad had other plans for him. Like staying in Baldwyn.

My dad did move to Oxford for a semester to finish college. But that was after he had coached that “one year” with Babe and married my mother. She went to Oxford with him. Back then, after the war, teachers and coaches were in short supply, and a college degree wasn’t necessary for employment. My dad ended up in the insurance business my grandfather had started, and that one year in Baldwyn has turned into 67.

Last Thursday a hundred or so folks, including my dad, gathered on Main Street in Baldwyn to honor Babe, who died in 1975 at age 51. Here’s what the Mississippi Department of Archives and History marker unveiled that afternoon said.

“James Harrison ‘Babe’ McCarthy: A native of Baldwyn, James H. ‘Babe’ McCarthy began coaching basketball in 1941. During his career he coached high school, college, and professional teams. In 1963, McCarthy sneaked his all-white Mississippi State team out of Starkville to East Lansing, Michigan, to play in the NCAA Tournament against an integrated Loyola team, thus breaking Mississippi’s sports segregation barrier. A three-time SEC Coach of the Year and two-time ABA Coach of the Year, he was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1974.”

Rick Cleveland, director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, was there Thursday. We agreed had Babe lived past the ABA-NBA merger of the late 1970s he would have had NBA head coach on his resume as well.

Babe wanted his players to have a chance to compete at the highest level. He may not have known the lasting impact his decisions were having. But we all do.

Having Babe’s family there Thursday was special.

Another was having several of his former high school girls players in attendance from his time as coach at Baldwyn.

Most recall him being a boy’s basketball coach and a men’s coach in college and the pros. But those girls, now in their 70s and 80s, played for Babe back when he was just a young man himself.

After the ceremony, I watched two of Babe’s former players, Bailey Howell, the former college and pro all-star whose name is on the trophy given to Mississippi’s top college men’s basketball player, and Kermit Davis, Babe’s first signee at State and himself a former State head coach, move over to a group of boys with Baldwyn Bearcats on their jackets. They talked at length.

They are current members of the high school team. Some white; some black. One team.

No doubt, Babe McCarthy would have been most proud of that moment.

Jeff Roberson is the managing editor for the Oxford Citizen and the Daily Journal. Contact him at jeff.roberson@journalinc.com.

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