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Carolyn Kessinger: The matriarch of Ole Miss baseball

Don and Carolyn Kessinger in fall 2016.
Don and Carolyn Kessinger in fall 2016. (Courtesy photo)

OXFORD | Carolyn Kessinger shifted slightly in her seat, her head making a minuscule up-and-down movement as the public address announcer introduced her grandson, Ole Miss shortstop Grae Kessinger, to the plate.

The subtle signs were the only acknowledgement of her connection to the action. Not superstitious or boisterous, the matriarch of Ole Miss baseball paused the eclectic conversation about dog sitters and pickle ball only briefly — for a couple claps of applause — as the action between the Rebels and Georgia State played out in front of her.

It’s Kessinger’s 54th season around the game, spanning three generations and including all levels from Little League to her husband Don Kessinger’s 16 seasons and 2,078 games in Major League Baseball. Her journey has spanned from 18-year-old player’s wife in Chicago to raising children while her husband supported them through the ups and downs of professional seasons. She’s watched her boys — Keith and Kevin Kessinger — achieve notable college careers and sat in Swayze Field while Don Kessinger coached Kevin with the Rebels.

Carolyn Kessinger followed Keith’s coaching career from assistant at Ole Miss to head stops at Carson-Newman and Arkansas State, and now she’s again a constant at Swayze Field for Grae’s freshman season with the Rebels.

Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco recently called Don Kessinger “the Archie Manning of Ole Miss baseball.” If so, then Carolyn is Olivia Manning with more experience.

“I was scanning a lot of Donnie’s old pictures and scrap books and going back through the memories last fall, and wow we were blessed with a storied life,” Carolyn Kessinger said. “When you're in the moments it’s just your life and it’s all you’ve known. But as I look back baseball has been so special to us. It’s all we’ve known.”

The cake to celebrate Don and Carolyn's 50th wedding anniversary.
The cake to celebrate Don and Carolyn's 50th wedding anniversary.

'I thought you played basketball'

Carolyn Crawley was at home in Forrest City, Arkansas, when Don Kessinger called her with his — and their — future plans.

After a college career at Ole Miss that included All-America honors in basketball and baseball, Kessinger made the decision, with the help of his father and Rebels coach Tom Swayze, to pick baseball for his career path and sign with the Chicago Cubs. The Major League Baseball Draft wasn’t yet in existence, and he chose the Cubs over other options in June 1964. He was immediately assigned to Double-A Fort Worth.

“He called, and I was somewhat in shock,” Carolyn said. “I told him, ‘I thought you played basketball.’ He laughed and said he did but this was what he was doing. He thought his career would be longer with baseball.”

Carolyn, who was in eighth grade when Don graduated from Forrest City High School, had known him as more of a basketball player because that was the more popular sport in Arkansas high schools during the time. Her parents took her to Gastonia, North Carolina, for Ole Miss’ baseball regional victory that gave the Rebels a berth in the 1964 College World Series, but with her back home in high school during his college years she didn't see him play often.

Kessinger spent 10 weeks in Double-A and made a brief Cubs debut in September 1964. Carolyn spent her summer in school, accumulating as many college hours as possible with marriage on her mind. She eventually graduated from Memphis, and an Ole Miss professor along the way created a correspondence calculus course so she could advance her hours.

The couple married in February 1965, and the first stop was spring training. Kessinger played well but was the last cut before Chicago headed home with its opening day roster. He was assigned to the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs, a new affiliate the Cubs stocked with prospects. Don and Carolyn moved to Arlington, spending two months in the lower league and getting their first experiences of married life in baseball.

“The road trips in the Texas League were long,” Carolyn said. “I remember trying to fix up the apartment and make it cute. I was just all about the adventure and so young. He was so upset after getting cut in spring training, and I was chipper, asking where we were going. I didn’t get it. And I wouldn’t get it until later on.”

Don Kessinger forces out Pete Rose, who then takes a tumble across the second base bag.
Don Kessinger forces out Pete Rose, who then takes a tumble across the second base bag. (Associated Press)

'It was what he worked for his whole life, and I’m crying...'

Don Kessinger called his newlywed wife in the summer of 1965 and told her he wasn’t coming home.

It was the end of a two-week road trip, and Carolyn didn’t comprehend much past the “not coming home” portion of the call. The following part, however, would change their lives forever. He was immediately headed to Chicago and would soon take over at shortstop for the Cubs, a spot he held for more than a decade.

“He called and said I’m not coming home tonight,” Carolyn said. “He said, 'I got called up to the Big Leagues,' and I started crying. It was the best day of his life. It was what he worked for his whole life, and I’m crying because I’m lonely. It wasn’t one of my better moments.

"He flew on and I packed everything up and drove to Chicago. My mother flew down and we drove together and found an apartment.”

Family seating at Wrigley Field was behind home plate or around the third base dugout. Carolyn chose the former, and she’s been there ever since. With the exception of road games where there’s no option, she’s found similar seats at every stop along the way. Later on it frustrated young Keith and Kevin Kessinger because they couldn’t catch foul balls because of the netting.

Carolyn was 18 years old, living in Chicago and hearing scrutiny for the first time. Kessinger, despite — or maybe because of — his excellent range, led the National League in shortstop errors in 1965. Hours from Arkansas and the new life amazing but stressful, it took some time for her to find her equilibrium.

There was comfort at the games, as she was surrounded by veteran wives including Eloyce (Ernie) Banks, Judy (Ron) Santo and Shirley (Billy) Williams. It’s a sorority of sorts, as they share a common life and understand that baseball, including the ups and downs, is what sustains them financially.

Jim Hickman and John Boccabella had two of the Kessinger’s favorite families to socialize with during the Cubs tenure.

“People were talking bad about him,” Carolyn said. “At the time I kept getting mad and thinking they didn't know him. Looking back I get it. The Cubs believed in him and stuck with him and he got better.

“I was the baby of all the wives. There were wives that owned homes already and they had children and they had their own lives. I don’t remember much socialization when guys were on road trips, but at games you were surrounded by like company. There was a lot of good in that. It paid my mortgage. When that’s the case, it’s intensely personal.”

Kessinger continued to improve defensively and found enough production offensively to settle into the position. He made the first of six All-Star games in 1968 and won back-to-back Gold Glove awards in 1969 and 1970.

Wrigley Field didn’t add lights until 1988, so the day games allowed for some semblance of normal life. That became important when Keith was born in 1967 and Kevin came along in December 1969.

Carolyn’s quickest memories include Keith imitating Pete Rose’s stance, and the family waiting by the dumpsters at Wrigley for her husband to dress after games and meet them to drive home. They would discuss the day’s action, and the children immersed themselves with the conversation — usually dirt-caked and/or content following some play on the field after the game.

“I’d hold their behavior over their heads,” Carolyn said. “Be good, sit down or you’re not going to the game tomorrow. You’re going to stay with the babysitter. It worked. We never had to use the babysitter.”

'It was a great year until August, and I committed blasphemy'

Kevin Kessinger was born weeks after one of the infamous stretches in Cubs history. Carolyn isn’t sure she’s not the cause of it.

Before the Cubs finally won their first World Series since 1908 last fall, the franchise synonymous with cats, goats and curses collectively cringed when 1969 was ever mentioned.

Chicago led its division for 155 days before an 8-17 finish combined with the Mets' 23-7 close to cap off a 17.5-game change in the standings over the last quarter of the season. The Mets won the World Series, and the Cubs finished eight games behind New York after having a 9.5-game lead on August 19 when Ken Holtzman threw a no-hitter.

“It was a great year until August, and I committed blasphemy,” Carolyn jokingly remembered. “I was pregnant so I thought I needed clothes for the World Series. In August I uttered that out of my lips. We’re going to do this and I need to buy clothes. Kenny Holtzman threw a no-hitter, and we were on our way. Nope.

"We didn’t play .500 ball and the Mets played .750. The way we lost games was unbelievable. The role I played, unintentionally, was we were in the car going home after games, and I’m sure he was sad but I was crying and screaming about the losses and I’m pregnant and emotional and he’d just say we’d be fine tomorrow. It was really a hard thing to believe. Hard to see it happen.”

With two kids and a husband playing for the Cubs, Carolyn became somewhat of a single parent. Since the family had just one car, she remembers getting the kids up in the middle of the night after road trips to pick him up from the airport. The family split time between Oxford, Chicago and Arizona throughout the year, and as the children became older, it made organizing and seeing all activities incredibly difficult.

The last player remaining from the 1969 team, Kessinger was traded to the Cardinals in October 1975 for Mike Garman and Bobby Hrapmann. The family sold its Chicago residence and moved to Memphis while also having a home in St. Louis.

“I was a single parent,” Carolyn said. “I had a little transistor radio. I’d be at a kid’s game, so I would take one and have a friend take the other and I’d listen to Donnie’s game and it got increasingly harder as they were in school.”

The Cardinals traded Kessinger to the White Sox late in 1977, allowing him to return to the city where it started but instead on the South Side. It was his final professional stop, but it had its adventures.

Kessinger locked his players in the clubhouse during the hectic portion of Disco Demolition Night.
Kessinger locked his players in the clubhouse during the hectic portion of Disco Demolition Night. (Associated Press)

'I had kids by myself and the whole place was doing pot and had gone nuts'

Disco Demolition Night — the brainchild of White Sox owner Bill Veeck, his son, Mike, and radio disc jockey Steve Dahl — was a promotion at Comiskey Park on the day of a doubleheader between the White Sox and Detroit Tigers in July 1979.

Hoping to increase attendance for the twi-night event, Chicago admitted spectators for 98 cents if they brought along a disco record. Instead of the small attendance burst hoped for, Dahl’s enthusiasts filled every cranny of Comiskey and provided a volatile atmosphere that resulted in a forfeit for the second game and some minor injuries as the stadium was overtaken by partiers.

Dahl blew up the disco records on the field between games, and fans flooded the playing surface. Prior to that, spectators threw the records toward the field, causing them to splinter and produce enough sharp points to puncture the ground when they landed.

“I remember people in the left field upper deck pouring lighter fluid down the left field foul pole, which was metallic, so it wasn’t going to burn,” Chicago sportscaster Les Grobstein told Chicago Magazine. “I witnessed that. I did.”

Don Kessinger, in his last season in professional baseball, was a player-manager for the White Sox. With most of his team in the clubhouse for safety, he locked the door and tried to wait it out. Carolyn Kessinger started the day in the stands with her sons.

“That was bad. I had kids by myself, and the whole place was doing pot and had gone nuts,” Carolyn said. “You could smell it throughout the ballpark and the whole thing was scary. Donnie had to go back in the clubhouse, so I was up there with two little children in the stands. They had sent a guard to try to round up the families because the players were worried about it, so they took us down into the deep dungeons of Comiskey Park. It was frightening.”

Kessinger was the last American League player-manager during his third season as a White Sox infielder. He retired from both positions on August 2, 1979 after a lunch with Bill Veeck and was replaced by Tony La Russa as manager.

Having experienced all roles from 18-year-old newlywed from Arkansas to manager’s wife with the White Sox, Carolyn tried to be a supportive presence around the other players’ families.

“It was hard for him to write himself in the lineup instead of a young player. and obviously if that young player had a wife in the stands — I was one of the older people by the time — it was tough,” Carolyn said. “I was trying to be encouraging. It was hard and I knew the young wives and where they had come from.”

Don and Carolyn took their family to Wrigley a few years ago.
Don and Carolyn took their family to Wrigley a few years ago. (Courtesy photo)

'She’s baseball. She sees everything from the outside looking in'

Ole Miss baseball coach Jake Gibbs — the school’s only other two-sport All-American —retired following a 23-29 record in 1990.

Gibbs had led the program since 1972 and taken the Rebels to Omaha in that first season. He also won the SEC in 1977 but had losing seasons two of his final three years. Ole Miss didn’t qualify for a regional during the 1980s.

After just more than a decade of watching Keith and Kevin move up through the age groups and eventually to Ole Miss — and to professional baseball for Keith — Don Kessinger replaced Gibbs and spent six seasons as his alma mater’s head coach.

“Jake is a super great guy, and Donnie didn’t seek that job,” Carolyn Kessinger said. “Jake Gibbs gave both my boys a chance to play. We loved him. Just like for Donnie six years later they wanted a change, and Donnie was there.”

Bianco has two sons committed elsewhere for college baseball because he wants them to have a normal experience without dad as coach. There have been examples of the situation working and others with it failing, but it went smoothly with Kevin Kessinger as an outfielder for his father.

Kevin hit .359 in 1991 and .314 in 1992 after starting every game in Gibbs’ final season.

“Donnie didn’t recruit him, and he was already there and playing,” said Carolyn regarding why the situation played out well. “He played well, and there weren't any hesitations.”

One of the family’s best moments during this time period came away from Swayze. Keith Kessinger was called up by the Reds in 1993 and played in 11 games, going 7-for-27 offensively and singling against the Braves in his first at-bat. Carolyn Kessinger was practicing law in Memphis and commuting each day from Oxford.

Her oldest son’s only Major League home run came during one of those commutes.

“They were on the radio, and I heard it and went crazy,” Carolyn said. “I should have pulled off the road.

“I flew out to Denver and saw him play. Donnie was never able to watch him in person.”

Don Kessinger went 185-153 at Ole Miss, including a regional finals appearance in 1995. That team won 40 games and lost to Florida State with a trip to the College World Series on the line. All-American David Dellucci remains friends with the Kessingers and remembers Carolyn fondly.

“She was the team mom, just the kindest, most positive lady that you could ever meet,” Dellucci said. “She was so savvy and was great for the players but more importantly for the parents. The head coach is in the dugout, and she’s his representative in the stands. So warm and welcoming to all the parents.

“She’s baseball. She sees everything from the outside looking in.”

Carolyn Kessinger with grandsons Grae (left) and Chase.
Carolyn Kessinger with grandsons Grae (left) and Chase. (Courtesy photo)

'I’m going to go, though. Sometime in the next three years'

With personal baseball obligations complete after more than 30 years, Don and Carolyn Kessinger traced the South, chasing children and grandchildren around the game they love.

After four years as an assistant coach at Ole Miss, Keith Kessinger became head coach at Carson-Newman and then Arkansas State. Don and Carolyn bought a second home in Jonesboro, Arkansas, to have an option near Keith and his family.

They didn’t see as many Ole Miss games in those days, except when Keith was in the other dugout, but things have wrapped back around over the years.

“People would ask who I was for when Ole Miss played Arkansas State,” Carolyn said. “I birthed the coach in that dugout. Those were the only games I wasn’t for the Rebels, but we never wore team gear or anything. That’s not our style.

“We took Grae and (Keith’s son) Chase to baseball camps and just tried to see as many games all over that we could. That’s continuing now.”

Keith Kessinger joined the Ole Miss radio network in 2011 following his tenure with the Red Wolves, and Kevin’s family moved to Oxford a couple years ago. Grae and Chase were both members of Oxford’s back-to-back 5A state championship teams, and Chase has signed with Northeast Community College.

Grae Kessinger played in the 2015 Under Armour All-American Game at Wrigley, fielding the same position as his grandfather years ago.

"Being on that same dirt was a blessing," Carolyn said. "It was emotional, just a blessing."

Carolyn Kessinger’s decades-long baseball whirlwind began with that regional in Gastonia and through the Texas League in the mid 1960s. More than a half century later, she’s still behind home plate like always and battling the butterflies that come with her loved ones being on the field.

As Grae moves to his left, gathers the grounder against Georgia State and throws across, Carolyn leans in and in a whisper, “That looks like how DK used to do it.”

And so it goes. Another generation and more memories. And maybe some new ones in the relatively near future.

“You know, I’ve never been to Omaha,” Carolyn said. “I’m going to go, though. Maybe with a Kessinger there. Hopefully sometime in the next three years.”