Groundbreaking coach memorialized

Thomas Wells

Daily Journal

BALDWYN – The city of Baldwyn unveiled a new historic marker Thursday commemorating the groundbreaking Mississippi State University basketball coach James “Babe” McCarthy – a Baldwyn native who broke racial barriers in 1963.

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, McCarthy defied the university’s unwritten policy prohibiting white athletes from competing against black athletes.

As the Southeastern Conference champions, MSU was scheduled to play Loyola University – who had four black starters at the time – but administration denied the team’s involvement in the NCAA tournament.

McCarthy went anyway, sneaking out of town with his team at night.

The game was celebrated as one of the most important moments for racial change in the South.

“What he did in 1963 took a lot of courage,” said Rick Cleveland, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum and sports columnist, during an unveiling ceremony Thursday. “Probably 70 percent of Mississippians thought white people shouldn’t play black people. He obviously thought differently and had the courage to do it.”

When Cleveland was 16, he took McCarthy out golfing. Cleveland’s father met the legend while he was recruiting at the University of Southern Mississippi.

“He had me laughing the whole time,” Cleveland said. “He was really funny. There was something about him. Besides being funny, he was wise.”

Cleveland said McCarthy was known for taking inferior talent and beating better teams. He went from coaching all-white teams at Mississippi State to coaching nearly all-black teams in New Orleans.

“He was just as successful,” he said. “He didn’t see black and white; he saw basketball.”

McCarthy, known as the Ol Magnolia Mouth because of his so-called “honey-dew Mississippi drawl,” had a way with words, according to Baldwyn native and former basketball coach Larry McKay.

McKay attended a basketball camp at MSU in the early ’60s with around 120 boys. McCarthy spoke with half of them for two hours.

“He never raised his voice. He’d talk to you about what meant the most to you in your life,” he said. “He always mentioned your mother and what she meant to you. We never got bored. He kept your attention.”

Kyle Veazey, politics editor of the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, wrote a book in 2012 titled “Champions for Change: How the Mississippi State Bulldogs and their Bold Coach Defied Segregation,” chronicling the teams McCarthy coached between 1959 and 1963.

In his research, Veazey found that McCarthy coached Baldywn High School to a boys state basketball championship in 1948.  He became an oil salesman for Standard Oil in Clarksdale at the age of 32.

After he was hired in 1955 by MSU, he won the SEC championship within four years. He went on to win three more after that.

“I don’t think people recognize how consequential a person Babe McCarthy was, not just in Mississippi sports, but to some degree, the whole civil rights context of that era,” Veazey said.

McCarthy died in 1975 at the age of 51 from colon cancer, but the historic marker – placed on Main Street in Baldwyn – keeps his legacy alive.

“There’s no telling what Babe might have achieved. He died when he was 51 and probably still had another 16 to 19 seasons left,” Cleveland said. “Right after he died is when the NBA and ABA merged, and I guarantee you, he would have been one of the NBA coaches.”

Twitter: @thedaily_zack

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