Rick Cleveland

Hometown teams are what make Mississippi, Mississippi

Column by Rick Cleveland

FILE - In this July 18, 2010 file photo, Houston Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt throws in the first inning during a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh. A person with knowledge of the deal says Houston ace Roy Oswalt has agreed to waive his no-trade clause and accept a swap to the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday, July 29, 2010. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
FILE - In this July 18, 2010 file photo, Houston Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt throws in the first inning during a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh. A person with knowledge of the deal says Houston ace Roy Oswalt has agreed to waive his no-trade clause and accept a swap to the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday, July 29, 2010. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File) ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mississippi is a state of cities, towns and communities that rally around "Hometown Teams." One example follows:

Roy Oswalt, retired from Major League baseball stardom, lives in the metropolis of Starkville now, but he grew up in the small town down Highway 12 called Weir -- pronounced "where" -- home to about 500.

Until Choctaw County schools consolidated in 2013, Weir was a small school football powerhouse, winning Class 1A State Championships the way Alabama dominates in the SEC. Oswalt, himself, played wide receiver and defensive back on state championship football teams.

"In Weir, you played football; that's what you did," Oswalt once told me. "You grew up going to those games on Friday night and you couldn't wait to be out there on that field yourself."

That doesn't exactly differentiate Weir from a lot of small-town Mississippi communities, where football is king and Friday nights are challenged only by Sunday mornings as religious experiences. Weir was just better at football than most. Weir seemed to specialize in 140-pound linebackers who would knock you into next week.

Oswalt was different in one respect from most Weir Lions. He had this magical arm hanging off his right shoulder that could throw baseballs like a rifle shoots bullets. Until Oswalt came along, Weir had no baseball team. That changed. An arm like his needed a team. But first, it needed a baseball diamond. Weir created one. Oswalt's father, a logger by trade, cleared the land for the field. The Weir citizenry chipped in. So Weir had a baseball field and a baseball team, and Roy Oswalt went on to become one of America's greatest pitchers, the most famous citizen in Weir history.

You couldn't make up a story like this, yet Mississippi is full of them. America is full of them. The Smithsonian Institution, our national museum, recognizes this, recognizes hometown sports teams are the thread that runs through small-town America, a huge part of our social fabric. Sports have reflected the trials and triumphs of the American experience and helped shape our national character. That's why the Smithsonian commissioned a traveling exhibit called "Hometown Teams" to celebrate sports as an indelible part our culture and community.

"Hometown Teams" explores this integral part of American life and "Hometown Teams" will tour Mississippi beginning this week and for the remainder of 2016.

The exhibit, brought here by the Mississippi Humanities Council, begins its Magnolia State tour this week in the place where Mississippi's sports history is celebrated and always on display: the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. Following six weeks (Friday-April 30) in Jackson, Hometown Teams will visit Natchez and the Historic Natchez Foundation (May 5-June 26), Amory Regional Museum (June 30-August 5), Gulfport's Lynn Meadows Discovery Center (August 13-Sept. 24), Delta State University (Oct. 1-Nov. 12) and Corinth Public Library (Nov. 19-Dec. 31).

Each host site is charged with putting together programs and exhibits, which feature hometown teams unique to those locations.

In a half century of covering sports in Mississippi, this writer has seen first-hand the galvanizing effect of sports and hometown teams, from Little League, to high schools, to collegiate sports and beyond. I've followed the Payton brothers of Columbia, the Short brothers of Hattiesburg, the Manning family of Drew, the inimitable Ralph Boston of Laurel and so many others. I watched Charlie Hayes play in the World Series, but before that I saw him play for a Hattiesburg team in the Little League World Series when his glove was almost as big as he was. Where but Mississippi could produce the likes of Money's Willye B. White, who won a high school track meet by herself at age 11 and a silver medal in the Olympics at age 16? She competed in five different Olympics, the only American track and field athlete to have done so.

Stories like these exist all over America, although I would venture none are more special than ours. Hometown Teams: They are part of what make Mississippi, Mississippi and America, America.

Rick Cleveland is a syndicated columnist and historian at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. His email address is rcleveland@msfame.com.

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