This was 53 years and several months ago at the old Mississippi Southern College baseball field just off U.S. 49 in Hattiesburg. Delta State College was about to play MSC in baseball. I was 9.
My dad was on the field talking to a tall, broad-shouldered man in a gray flannel uniform with a green cap. Dad waved me out onto the field.
"Rickey," my daddy said, "I want you to meet the greatest baseball player in Mississippi history. This is Coach Boo Ferriss."
Understand, I was a baseball nutcase. Knew every starting line up in the Big Leagues. Learned to read by reading the sports page. Learned to do math figuring batting averages. Played baseball every waking hour and then dreamed about it, too.
The greatest player in Mississippi history... Dad said. That got my attention.
Coach Ferriss could not have been more kind. He asked me what position I played. And when I answered, catcher, he said, "Well that's the quickest way to the Big Leagues. Good catchers are hard to find."
Coach made me feel like a million dollars. He's been doing it ever since.
Delta State beat Southern 1-0 that day. Funny the things you remember when you can't remember where you put your keys or the score of last year's Egg Bowl.
Gift who keeps on giving
What my dad did not tell me that day -- and what I have learned in the more than half a century since -- is that Coach Ferriss not only is the greatest baseball player in Mississippi history, he is one of the greatest men. At 93, he has touched more lives than we can scarcely imagine. In Mississippi baseball, he is the gift that keeps on giving.
You see, Boo Ferriss taught his players about more than baseball. He taught them how to carry themselves, how to treat people, how to make others feel better about themselves.
"At first I thought I was special because he cared so much," says Jimmy Newquist, one of Ferriss's many successful players. "After a while, I figured out he treated everyone like that. Everybody thought they were special."
Coach's players learned so much -- and were so inspired by him -- many became coaches themselves. And they taught their players how to play the game and how to reach people. From the Boo Ferriss baseball tree, the branches keep producing more limbs. His shadow is cast over all.
This past weekend, on a wind-chilled, "goosebump" day in the Delta, people gave back.
The 'great encourager'
Brookhaven sculptor Kim Sessums' handsome, eight-foot, bronze statue of Boo Ferriss, unveiled Saturday, captures Ferriss vividly and in mid-clap. Perfect. Ferriss was forever nurturing his players from the third base coaching box and from the dugout, usually with a loud clap.
"Coach kept things so upbeat," says Mike Kinnison, who went from manager to All-American under Ferriss and has become a coaching institution himself. "The games were important and we wanted to win, but we never felt any pressure because of his demeanor. He was always so encouraging.
"He still is," Kinnison continues. "I'll be fuming about a player who is one for his last 25, and I'll look over and Coach has his arm around him, telling him to keep his chin up, that he's done it before and he'll do it again. I call him the great encourager."
Among the players Ferriss inspired and encouraged is Tim Harvey, a Laurel native, who went on to a splendidly successful career in hotel management. Harvey gave the lead gift for the renovation of the baseball stadium, dedicated Saturday along with the statue. Tastefully modernized Tim and Nancy Havey Stadium/Ferriss Field, is now the centerpiece of a Boo Ferriss baseball complex that includes the stadium, an indoor practice facility, a clubhouse, a Boo Ferriss museum and one of the most appropriate statues in Mississippi -- or anywhere.
Rick Cleveland, (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.