Was Don Kessinger the best Ole Miss athlete ever? So glad you asked

Published 2:24 pm Thursday, April 22, 2021

By Rick Cleveland

Mississippi Today

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Greatest athlete in Ole Miss history? My guess in 99% of Rebels would blurt “Archie Manning” before the question is completed.

Hard to argue: Manning was an All American quarterback and also an outstanding shortstop in baseball. And then there’s Jake Gibbs, also an All American quarterback so gifted in baseball the New York Yankees paid him $100,000 to sign to play baseball instead of football. That was back when Mickey Mantle was the highest paid player in baseball at a salary of 100 grand.

Manning vs. Gibbs is an argument I’ve heard many, many times through the years. Charlie Conerly, still another All American quarterback and a slugging center fielder, surely deserves to be part of that conversation. At Ole Miss, quarterbacks always seem to take center stage.

But the guy who is quite possibly the greatest athlete in Ole Miss history didn’t even play football — not at Ole Miss, anyway. He would be Donnie Kessinger, whose baseball jersey No. 11 will be retired Thursday night when the Rebels play LSU in the first of a three-game series. The truth is, Ole Miss could have done a two-for and retired Kessinger’s basketball jersey (23) at the same time. He was that good — a consensus All American in both sports.

How good was Kessinger? Glad you asked:

• His .436 batting average in 1964 remains the best in Ole Miss history. His .400 career batting average remains the highest, as well. Yes, and he was a better fielder than hitter, a six-time All-Star shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, twice a Golden Glove winner as the best fielding shortstop in the league. He once set a Major League record, playing 56 consecutive games at shortstop without committing a single error.

• In basketball, he twice led the Southeastern Conference in scoring and had a career scoring average of 22.2 points per game. In 1967, after Kessinger had played for the Cubs for three seasons, Babe McCarthy, coach of the New Orleans Buccaneers in the old American Basketball Association, flew to Chicago to offer Kessinger a basketball contract. Never mind that Kessinger hadn’t played basketball in several years. McCarthy had coached against Kessinger when McCarthy was at Mississippi State. He knew what Kessinger could do.

• Yes, some Ole Miss fans surely will say: “But Kessinger didn’t play football.” Well, here’s the thing: He could have. He was an All-State quarterback at Forrest City, Ark., and led his team to an undefeated state championship season as a senior.

Count Larry Higginbotham, who pitched at Ole Miss when Kessinger played shortstop, among those who believe Kessinger could have played football — “or run track” — at Ole Miss. “Don was such a great athlete, he could have done anything he wanted,” Higginbotham said.

Kessinger no doubt could have played wide receiver, too. He was quick and fast, a great leaper with great hands — “quickest, surest hands I ever saw,” Higginbotham said.