Former Jackson City Commissioner and Mississippi Valley State baseball coach Doug Shanks coached the Hartfield Academy pitcher last spring. He was a baseball man to the end. Credit: Shanks family

News of the death of baseball’s Doug Shanks earlier this week brought back several vivid memories, including the one that follows.

This was a bluebird Delta day, in February in 2010. The previous day’s rainstorm had passed. The ground was soggy, but the sky was cloudless and a deep blue. The bright sun brought warmth, but the air was crisp and cool. It was a splendid day to be alive. Opening Day always is. And, as opening days go, this one was extra special.

Shanks and his Mississippi Valley State baseball assistant coaches were busy, helping their one-man “grounds crew” prepare the soaked field for the season opener. The Delta Devils, who called themselves the Ragamuffins, were scheduled to play Notre Dame. Yes, that Notre Dame, the one that spent more money on its slick baseball media guide than Shanks had in his entire MVSU baseball budget. Notre Dame had spent $60 million on football the previous fall. Valley’s entire athletic budget was $3 million. 

Rick Cleveland

The one-man Valley grounds crew wore a green and white striped uniform, but it wasn’t because green and white are two of the MVSU school colors. No, he was on loan from a nearby prison.

“Hardest worker you ever saw,” Shanks told me. “But we have to have him back at the farm by 4.”

Shanks and his coaches had worked through the night and all morning to make Magnolia Field playable. They stopped only to watch Notre Dame’s luxury bus pull up, and the strapping Fighting Irish players step off in their navy blue jerseys, with gold lettering and green shamrocks on the sleeves. Some wore those bright gold batting helmets. 

Yes, Shanks brought Notre Dame to Itta Bena. I remember telling Shanks it could go on his tombstone.

Notre Dame won that day, 12-4, but there were no losers. 

I remember asking Irish coach Dave Shrage why he would bring his proud program to Itta Bena and a baseball field that guaranteed standing room only crowds because there was almost no place to sit. Shrage said that before he took the Notre Dame job he had been at Evansville and had made a trip down south to play games in Memphis. Rain spoiled that so he called Shanks at MVSU looking for a place to play. Long story short: The two team buses met in Grenada and headed south on I-55 with Shanks promising that he knew every baseball field in Mississippi and would find a dry one.

They wound up playing a double-header at Smith-Wills. Shrage never forgot the effort or the hospitality. That had been the real reason for Notre Dame coming to Itta Bena. Shrage was repaying a favor.

Interesting – isn’t it? –those Valley-Evansville games were played at Smith-Wills Stadium. Shanks, himself, was largely responsible for the stadium being built. As a young Jackson City Commissioner, Shanks had spearheaded the plan to build the stadium and bring a minor league franchise to Jackson, which led to the Jackson Mets coming to Jackson in 1975. What’s more it was Shanks’ idea to bring all Dizzy Dean’s memorabilia to Jackson and create the Dizzy Dean Museum adjacent to Smith-Wills.

Many long-time readers will know the rest of that story: The Dean Museum was a huge part of the genesis of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Museum being built across the parking lot from Smith-Wills. The Dizzy Dean wing of the MSHOF on the second floor remains the highlight of any visit to the shrine.

Shanks was a huge part of all that. Selling Dizzy Dean on the idea of moving his stuff from Wiggins to Jackson was not hard, Shanks once told me. But Pat Dean, Diz’s wife, ran the show. Shanks convinced them both that so many more people would see Diz’s treasures in the state’s biggest city. And they have.

He was a baseball man, Doug Shanks was. His daddy, Fred Shanks, had been the great Boo Ferriss’s catcher at Mississippi State. Doug Shanks was active in youth baseball before and after his successful 15-year stint at Valley as the SWAC’s first White baseball coach. He began the Jackson 96ers, a summer, high school-aged travel team, that became a national powerhouse.

“Doug loved baseball and he lived it,” was the way Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame baseball coach Hill Denson put it, “Mississippi baseball is a whole lot better because of Doug Shanks.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.