Coming full circle: It all began over red beans and rice

Rick Cleveland
Rick Cleveland

Twenty years ago, a group of us got together over plates of red beans and rice at Hal and Mal’s. We shared a dream: a museum to showcase what Mississippians do best.

Two decades later this week, I have accepted the job of executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, succeeding my late and dear friend Michael Rubenstein, who ate the beans and rice that day, too. For the past four decades plus, I have covered Mississippi athletes and have become more and more passionate about their achievements and their major role in our state’s heritage. Our museum is a showcase of what Mississippians do best. I intend to see it grow and prosper

It is a little known story of how the museum became a reality, and now seems as good a time as any to share it:

The call came late one afternoon 20 years ago. The bright voice on the other end of the line said, “Would you please hold for Commissioner Ross?” Me being a sports writer and all, I thought to myself, “Commissioner Ross of what? What league have I ticked off now?” The only commissioners I ever wrote much about back then were named Kramer and Rozelle, Ross didn’t ring my bell.

Jim Buck Ross
Jim Buck Ross

After a few seconds, another voice came on the line, deep, slow and gravelly, almost like it was coming from the bottom of a well. “Mr. Cleeeeeveland, this is Jim Buck Ross ,” the voice said. “I kind of like that idea you had in your column this morning about a sports hall of fame for Mississippi. “Now, if you really want to see it happen, I’d like to talk to you about it. Can you be in my office in 10 minutes?”

I only had to run one red light to get there in time.

I had heard stories all my adult life about Jim Buck Ross’s incredible power in Mississippi politics. I remembered that famous slogan: “Make a cross for Jim Buck Ross.”

Political writers had told me about how Ross could make happen whatever he wanted to have happen. About how he could cow legislators into passing whatever he wanted passed whether or not it made good sense. I had seen the Jim Buck Ross Agricultural and Forestry Museum rise and spread on Lakeland Avenue. Ross Vegas, some people called it. But I had never met the man, and I didn’t know what to expect.

We talked baseball at first. I learned how much he loved Dizzy Dean and Boo Ferriss, and Mississippi State and the Cincinnati Reds. Then, I learned he had a plan. He said there was land available across from Smith-Wills Stadium, adjacent to the agricultural museum. He proposed to sell the soft drink rights for the State Fairgrounds, Mississippi Coliseum, the agricultural museum and the proposed sports hall of fame building. He said he figured that would raise a million dollars in seed money; then he’d see what he could do with the legislature.

When the soft drink bids came in at $750,000, the commissioner wasn’t satisfied. He called all interested parties together, said the bid wasn’t high enough, took the fairgrounds out of the deal, and reopened the bidding. I saw jaws drop, and I remember thinking, “They’ll never go for this.”

They did. He got his million. And then he went to work on the legislature. And, in the end, we have this splendid museum that tells the wonderful, uplifting story of Mississippi’s sports heritage. It tells about Jim Buck’s favorites, Dizzy and Boo, but it tells so much more. Many others were involved who deserve credit for seeing the project through.

Jim Buck Ross put Wood Brown in charge from his end. Charlie Williams was instrumental in the legislature. Archie Manning, Ferriss and others helped beat the drum. And some of us in the media played a smaller role. But Jim Buck Ross got it done. He made it happen. I saw it happen, I saw his power, and I will forever be amazed. Our splendid museum doesn’t have Ross’ name on it, but his handprint is all over it.

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