Laurel native Ralph Boston, a three-time Olympic long jump medalist and surely one of the most accomplished athletes in Mississippi history, died April 30 at his home in Peachtree City, Ga., following a massive stroke suffered in late March. Boston would have turned 84 on May 9.
In addition to his remarkable athletic accomplishments, Boston will be remembered as a smart, friendly, courteous gentleman, immensely proud of his Laurel and Oak Park High School roots and the fact that he was the first Black athlete ever inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame (1976).
Boston won a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, a silver medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and a bronze in the ’68 Olympics at Mexico City. “Yes sir, I got the complete Olympic set,” Boston once told this writer, which was as close to boastful as Boston would ever get.
The story behind the bronze medal at Mexico City might tell us more about Boston’s sportsmanship and character than all his other accomplishments. Those were the Olympic Games when Bob Beamon set perhaps the most astounding track and field record ever, leaping 29 feet, 2.5 inches, an amazing two feet beyond the world record.
Beamon, making a promotional appearance in Jackson three decades later, sat down for an interview with this writer. “What people don’t know is that I wouldn’t have done any of that if it hadn’t have been for Ralph Boston,” Beamon said. “I fouled on my first two attempts and was about to get disqualified and then Ralph told me how I needed to adjust my footwork leading to my takeoff. I figured I had better listen to the master, and I did. The rest, as they say, is history. I owe a lot to Ralph Boston.”
A few days later, Beamon’s words were recounted to Boston, who chuckled and then said, “He beat me by two feet; that’s a heck of a way to treat your teacher isn’t it. If you see Bob again, tell him I’m still waiting for my check.”
Another time, Boston recounted the day that made him famous. The 1960 U.S. Olympic track and field team was holding a conditioning meet in preparation for Rome at Mt. San Antonio College near Los Angeles. Boston leaped 26 feet, 11 inches, breaking the 25-year-old record of the legendary champion Jesse Owens. It was the last world record Owens owned.
“Suddenly people recognized me,” Boston said. “Before that night nobody outside of Laurel, Mississippi, knew who I was, and the people in Laurel knew me as Hawkeye Boston, not Ralph Boston.”
Boston remembered a short time later getting ready to board a plane for Rome and the Olympics. A handsome, strapping young man from Louisville, Ky., stopped him and asked if he could have his photo made with him. Said Boston, “He introduced himself as Cassius Marcellus Clay and told me, ‘You don’t know who I am yet, but you will soon.’ You don’t forget moments like that.”
Boston recalled entering the Olympic stadium in Rome for the opening ceremonies. “I was just a bright-eyed, skinny kid from Laurel who didn’t know which way was up. And then I walked into that stadium and there were more people there than I had ever seen in my life. I thought, man, what have I gotten myself into.”
And then the skinny kid from Laurel won the gold medal. “Boston! Boston! Boston!” a crowd of nearly 75,000 chanted. He had just turned 21.
Today, the same feat most likely would earn Boston millions in endorsements. Back then, there were no such rewards for Olympic athletes, who were amateurs in the strictest sense of the word. Boston worked as a school counselor and trained and competed on the side.
“I’ve got no complaints, no regrets,” Boston said when a writer mentioned that 40 years later. “I did OK for myself.”
He surely did. The 10th of 10 children born to a Laurel farmer and his wife, Ralph Boston did far, far better than OK.