Rick Cleveland remembers Dizzy Dean

June 24, 2014 

We are coming up, soon, on the 40th anniversary of Dizzy Dean's death. Four decades: hard to believe. Not so long ago, on a drive home from the Gulf Coast, we paid a visit to Ol' Diz in Bond, the community he once made famous. It brought back a flood of memories.

The cemetery is modest, perhaps the size of a football field, surrounded by a chain link fence. It's out from Bond, which is out from Wiggins, about 28 miles south of Hattiesburg. Here, Jay Hannah "Dizzy" Dean rests side by side with his wife, Pat, in the morning shade of a cypress tree.

You turn off Highway 49 onto a bumpy country road, and turn off that country road onto a bumpier country road. You drive through a blue-collar area where the folks don't appear to have much. Knowing Ol' Diz, he probably would feel right at home here. These were his people.

Dizzy Dean and his sidekick Peewee Reese introduced my generation to baseball at a time when baseball really was our national pastime. We were all Dizzy's "podnuhs." He made the games so much fun, no matter the score.

We'd be out in the yard playing ball, and Mama would come to the window and yell, "Dizzy's coming on TV!" And we'd scurry in the house to hear Diz describe the game and tell stories. That he made his home 30 miles down the road made him all the more special. He bragged on Mississippi, his adopted home, all the time.

Ol' Diz did not speak the King's English. Willie Mays didn't slide into third base; no he slud. When somebody accused Diz of not knowing the King's English, he shook his head and said, "I know the king is English. The queen is English, too."

When teachers criticized his syntax, Diz remarked, "Sin Tax? What will those folks in Washington think of next?"

He was special, Diz was. I loved him like a favorite uncle and was thrilled beyond words -- speechless, actually -- when my daddy introduced me to him at a golf tournament one day in Hattiesburg. I followed him around 18 holes. He shot 75, beat his pro, and had more fun than anybody there -- except maybe me. He wore bright red pants, which accentuated the fact that he was widest at his equator. He hit a pronounced slice on nearly every shot.

"My banana ball!" he called it. "You'd hit a slice, too, if you had to swing around this belly."

That night, he sang The Wabash Cannonball, his trademark song (borrowed from Roy Acuff), at the tournament's pro-am party.

Several years later, in July of 1974, Diz died. By then, I was writing sports and was sent to cover the funeral at the First Baptist Church of Wiggins. My dad went with me. It was a sweltering summer day. You could see the heat devils rising of Highway 49. When we pulled up at the church, there were TV trucks parked and people spilling out of the church.

"Uh oh," Dad said, "This is going to be a long one I'm guessing this preacher hasn't had this many people or this many cameras before."

Dad was right. The preacher seized the opportunity and kept on seizing for more than an hour. We sat and sweated with press and VIPs in a roped-off area right behind Bear Bryant and Johnny Vaught. Our clothes were soaked, our mouths were parched.

On the way home, we stopped at an old roadside honkytonk -- The Toot and Tell It -- and went inside for one of the coldest beers in the history of the world. We toasted Jay Hanna "Dizzy" Dean.

We ordered Falstaff, of course. That was Ol Diz's beer. And so it was ours.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is the director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, which houses the most extensive Dizzy Dean collection in the world on its mezzanine.

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