Hill Denson on Tuesday became the eighth Mississippi baseball coach chosen for induction into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. And, yes, this is an award that usually comes after a coach retires.
In Denson’s case, they probably figured he was never going to retire. And they are probably right.
When reached Tuesday morning, Denson, a 73-year-old native of Bay Springs, was busy recruiting players for Belhaven University, while adjusting to the Blazers’ switch from NAIA to NCAA Division III.
In essence, Denson is an old dog learning new tricks.
“The thing is, I don’t feel too old,” he says. “I still have the energy to do the job. I still love the sport and love coaching it.”
As a baseball coach, Denson is 73 going on 43. Perhaps that’s because he didn’t become a college head baseball coach until he was about to turn 40 years old.
He has made good use of the last 33 years, first winning 468 games at USM and then winning 590 more at Belhaven. That’s a lot of winning. That’s also a lot of bus rides.
And this is a long way from Chamberlain Hunt Academy, where Denson took his first coaching job 51 years ago as an assistant football coach and head baseball coach (of a brand new program), and where he taught three classes of high school chemistry, two classes of junior high science and also mowed the fields.
Denson, a 2008 inductee into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, deserves this most recent honor just on the basis of what he achieved at Southern Miss. There, Denson took over for Pete Taylor, who had held a penny-pinching baseball program together for 30 years, playing primarily with football and basketball players, and while handling various other coaching and administrative duties at the school.
Denson had a vision of what USM baseball could be, and what it has since become. He told athletic director Roland Dale he wanted to sell tickets and then season tickets.
“Hell, Hill, we can’t get people at the games now and it’s free,” Dale responded. “You won’t sell enough tickets to pay for the ticket taker.”
So, Denson used reserve baseball players to take up money at the gate. And he sold a few tickets and then season tickets. He sold the season tickets
himself. And he began to recruit some real baseball players. And he began to make improvements to the baseball facility. And then he began to win. And win. And win.
But whether he was losing, as he did plenty at first, or winning, as he has done ever since, he always dearly loved the sport and the coaching of it, and he always saw the humor in it, even when he was the butt of the joke.
His first Southern Miss team, in 1984, won 13 games and lost 36. They were the Bad News Bears on a college level.
“We went to Starkville to play State when they had (Will) Clark, (Rafael) Palmeiro, (Bobby) Thigpen, (Jeff) Brantley and all those guys,” Denson said. “It was the best college baseball team ever. I knew what was going to happen when we went up there.”
Sure enough, it did. State easily won the two-game series.
“But I thought we did a pretty good job on Palmeiro and Clark,” Denson said. “They only hit six home runs.”
Two of Denson’s best friends drove up to Starkville from Jackson for the series but left in the middle innings because State was winning so big.
“They were out in the parking lot, heading for their car when Will almost killed them with a line drive homer,” Denson said, laughing.
It’s just like Denson to remember stories like that one on the same day he goes into a national coaching hall of fame. That kind of humor, in those kind of moments, is surely what keeps him fresh at 73.
Mississippi coaches in American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame (in alphabetical order):
Jerry Boatner, Bob Braddy, Hill Denson, Boo Ferriss, Paul Gregory, Dudy Noble, Ron Polk, Tom Swayze.