Dr. Pete Smith, a journalism professor at Mississippi State and an advisory board member of the Mississippi Free Press, originally published this essay on the history of the MSU baseball team’s never-give-up spirit on June 20 as the Bulldogs were headed to Omaha to compete in the College World Series. Now, Mississippi State is national champions. Hail State!
On a recent Saturday, I was standing under the first-base concourse with friends in a stadium that held over 14,000 that day for the first game in the Super Regional series between Notre Dame and Mississippi State. It was hot and humid—more like “deep-into-August hot” than “June hot”—and the stadium was packed. The “standing room only” space was two or three rows deep under a concourse that curves around the front of Dudy Noble field, starting at the first-base line and stretching around behind home plate all the way down the third-base line.
At some point, I noticed a little girl—she couldn’t have been older than 3 or 4—up the steps from the first base chair-back seats to the concourse. She was crying. Her mother walked behind her, with her hand on her back, gently guiding her daughter up the stairs through the sea of people standing on the concourse toward the direction of the restrooms. The little girl must be hot, I thought, because the Mississippi summer heat has been known to bring grown people to tears.
As they passed, I heard the mother say, “It’s OK. I promise we’re coming right back to watch more baseball.”
Everyone within earshot chuckled. A few of us looked at each other and nodded in agreement, as if to say, “There goes another one, and she has it bad.” The fanbase’s love affair with the sport and its college team goes back decades, long before the team started playing in NCAA Super Regional weekend series with trips to the College World Series on the line.
‘Mississippi State Has Been Down So Long’
In May 1918, the Columbus Dispatch reported that “big crowds” were expected in town that weekend for Mississippi A&M’s first game of the baseball season against the University of Mississippi, with the Columbus railway operating cars at “frequent intervals” to manage the expected number of travelers. Thirty-five years later, The Clarion-Ledger reported that a home crowd of 4,000 State fans saw the University of Georgia beat State 3-1 in the first game of the SEC playoffs—at the original Dudy Noble field, located near what is now known as “The Junction.”
Even so, MSU’s first CWS appearance almost 20 years after that SEC playoff loss wasn’t even front-page news; so new was the experience for much of the fanbase that newspaper accounts provided an explanation of the Omaha double-elimination tournament that must have been unfamiliar territory for most MSU baseball fans.
Two years before the team’s 1979 CWS appearance, though, something clicked; the team, under then second-year head coach Ron Polk, went 33-15 (11-9) in 1977, 38-18 (13-8) a year later. The bleachers at 4,500-seat Dudy Noble field—then in its current location—started filling up, with crowds spilling over into the outfield and pickup trucks backed up to the left-field fence line with portable grills releasing smoke into the afternoon sky.
The 1978 season saw ticket sales reach 1,176, an NCAA record that year—the first of many for MSU baseball. The fanbase finally had something to hang its collective hat on, and it never looked back. “Mississippi State has been down so long,” 1969 MSU graduate Bill McCrillis, who made the trip to Omaha in 1979, told AP reporter Chuck Schoffner. “Ole Miss has been the big sports school. But we’re coming on now.”
Enter the Cowbell: ‘Our Fans Are Crazy’
That year, Omaha locals were introduced to the cowbell for the first time and to a fanbase that Schoffner called “easily the loudest, most enthusiastic group assembled” for that year’s CWS. “Our fans are crazy,” Polk told Schoffner. “They follow us all over, to Hawaii, everywhere. We’ve played in front of 115,000 fans so far this year.”
“Dawg Fans Bring Bedlam” read The Clarion-Ledger headline that framed Schoffner’s story, but that headline could easily describe any one of the team’s next 10 trips to Omaha: 1981, 1985, 1990, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2007, 2017, 2018, 2019.
“Mississippi State maroon dominated the stands as well as the pregame festivities around the stadium. Not only were the Bulldog fans seen, but they were heard as well,” J.P. Scott wrote for Bleacher Report in 2013, the year that MSU baseball made it to the CWS finals before falling to the UCLA Bruins. “It might as well have been a home game for Mississippi State.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of MSU’s first visit to Omaha—a trip that many later trips probably eclipsed—but it is no less significant. That team, led by four-time SEC Coach of the Year Paul Gregory, featured 1st Team All-American third baseman Philip Still and a team that tied for the most wins in school history (with the 1970 team). Future teams would certainly have more flash and power—1985’s “Thunder and Lightning” certainly comes to mind—but the 1971 team featured a hard-nosed group of veterans and young players with a reputation for winning crucial come-from-behind games.
“It was typical, too, of a team that lost its first three SEC games (to LSU) then fought back to win the loop’s Western Division title, the overall crown, and a berth in the NCAA District III tourney,” Clarion-Ledger sports columnist Carl Walters said of the team that won that District III tournament, and a trip to Omaha, on a walk-off, three-run home run by senior outfielder Dave Phares.
Never-Give-Up, Never-Give-In Attitude
Perhaps, then, it’s fitting that on the eve of MSU baseball’s 12th CWS appearance 50 years after its first, we are again celebrating a team known for winning so many crucial come-from-behind games this season. Like the 1971 team, this year’s squad has its All-American heroes and its young talent. Both the 1971 and 2021 teams were written off at various points in their respective seasons, too, but they knew how to win when it mattered.
Both teams also represent what makes MSU and its baseball culture so special: a blue-collar work ethic, a “never-give-up, never give in” attitude reminiscent of the school’s first generation of students, most all the sons of dirt farmers, and its first baseball teams, known by such names as the “1906 Invincible Nine.”
It’s that mindset that has driven both the 1971 and 2021 teams—and the other 10 CWS teams in between—to try and win their university and fanbase its first national championship. It’s that mindset that persuades fans to travel hundreds of miles just for a weekend series or draws almost 15,000 of us to a crowded ballpark on a hot, humid June afternoon.
It’s that mindset that makes a little girl fall in love with a game she doesn’t quite yet understand but still makes her cry at the notion of missing even one minute of the excitement. It’s that mindset that will travel to Omaha for yet another special year, bringing with it the most passionate and recognizable fanbase in college baseball.
Maybe this is the year they bring the trophy back with them.