There’s no knock against the quality of the 2020 Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum class announced recently.
In addition to some truly elite athletes like former Ole Miss and NFL linebacker Patrick Willis, some great hidden gems are thrown into the group. That includes the late Pete Brown of Jackson, who in 1964 became the first black golfer to win on the PGA Tour; and Janet Marie Smith, also from Jackson, who was the primary architect of the Baltimore Orioles’ stadium, Camden Yards, which upon its opening in the early 1990s set off a renaissance of downtown ballparks that has reached almost every major league city.
It’s a good function of the Hall of Fame to shine a light on these accomplishments so the whole state can take pride in them. But the same could be said about another Mississippi sports figure whose continued omission from the Hall of Fame represents a missed opportunity for the state to address its biggest problem, especially as Mississippi is perceived throughout the rest of the nation. That, of course, is race relations.
The late Clay Hopper serves as an ideal example of how much Mississippi has changed from its white supremacist past.
Hopper, of Greenwood, was a college-educated man at what is now Mississippi State University and served as a key lieutenant in the minor leagues to legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey. He coached seven future Hall of Famers and won nearly 2,000 games over an almost three-decade managerial career.
Rickey, as most everyone knows, was responsible for signing Jackie Robinson and integrating baseball. Rickey chose Hopper, who was white, to be Robinson’s manager with the Montreal Royals in 1946, in what was the equivalent of AAA ball. The Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 called up Robinson, whose courage and dignity helped wake up the nation to the unfairness of treating blacks as second-class citizens.
The uncomfortable truth is that Hopper initially asked not to manage Robinson, saying he would have to move his family from Mississippi. Rickey allegedly reported, although the source of the anecdote is unclear, that Hopper once used a racial slur regarding Robinson in a conversation between the two baseball executives.
Yet the beauty of the story is how Hopper changed. Robinson himself said that Hopper always treated him fairly, and Rickey said Hopper came back to him after the 1946 season and apologized for his earlier statements, saying he was ashamed of them.
“By overcoming his own sense of bigotry, Hopper became redeemed,” Chris Lamb, a journalism professor at Indiana University of Indianapolis and author of a book about Robinson, said in a 2013 column. “But more than that, he represented how countless others — ballplayers, managers, spectators and even those who had previously given little thought to baseball — were transformed by Jackie Robinson.”
Donny Whitehead, an amateur baseball historian from Greenwood, has lobbied for years to have Hopper inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, yet for reasons unknown it has repeatedly declined to do so.
Hopper’s account represents how sports can tell the larger story of the world around it in a way that reaches people more directly and personally than most history.
If Clay Hopper could change, then all of Mississippi can change. That’s a hopeful note that the Jackson museum needs to sound.
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CORRECTION: An editorial about Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center in Friday’s newspaper incorrectly described Ochsner Health System as a for-profit institution. Ochsner is Louisiana’s largest non-profit, academic healthcare system.