In the two-plus years I spent researching and writing my book on the historically significant Mississippi State University basketball teams of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the project had a working title of “Babe’s Boys.” So significant was the character of coach James Harrison “Babe” McCarthy to the book, in fact, I long thought it could have just been a biography of him.
I’ve long been perplexed by the question of “What If?” as it pertained to McCarthy. What if he had not died of cancer in 1975, at the age of 51, in the midst of his career as a head coach in the old American Basketball Association? What if he had not left Mississippi State after a decade, in 1965? What if some of his earlier teams had been able to play in the NCAA tournament — namely, the 1959 and 1962 teams? What if? Instead, we know the answers as they are, and McCarthy, despite being one of Mississippi’s most significant sports figures and among the Southeastern Conference’s best head basketball coaches, remains one of those names that many people may have at least heard of — but probably still have to Google.
Which brings us to Thursday, in Baldwyn, Mississippi, McCarthy’s hometown. On a sun-splashed warm fall afternoon, scores gathered for the unveiling of a historical marker honoring McCarthy on Main Street. (So many people showed up, it was standing room only at Lula Lee’s restaurant, where the program took place, with some having to stand outside.) Bailey Howell was there, among many of McCarthy’s former players. McCarthy’s widow and son were there. The mayor spoke. So did my friend and former Clarion-Ledger colleague Rick Cleveland, who runs the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. Then we walked down the street, where this was unveiled:
I told a Tupelo Journal reporter after the ceremony that I was glad the sign would at least introduce a new generation to McCarthy’s name — and hopefully some of those folks will stop to read it and want to learn more. Babe McCarthy, a country boy from Baldwyn who was hired as an SEC head coach at the age of 32 from his job at Standard Oil and disrupted the league in an era in which Kentucky and Adolph Rupp were accustomed to domination, is nothing short of an amazing figure. And he deserves a significant legacy.
Truth is, McCarthy’s legacy has taken on a higher profile in recent years, which saw 50-year commemorations for his championship teams and a flourish of re-tellings of Mississippi State’s 1963 NCAA tournament story. And it’s not as though a historical marker in a small Northeast Mississippi hill country town will suddenly make the guy even more famous than that. But in his hometown, of all places, it should help ensure he isn’t forgotten. And that’s a nice step.