Corky Palmer: Hall of Fame coach, Hall of Fame character
Some days you remember for a lifetime. Here’s a memory from 61 years ago, the day I met Corky Palmer, the future Hall of Fame Southern Miss baseball coach who died Wednesday at 68 after a prolonged illness.
Corky was 7, and I was 8. Future college and NBA basketball coach Tim Floyd — he was still Timmy at age 7 — had invited Corky, my brother Bobby and me the Floyds’ house on Mamie Street in Hattiesburg for a backyard baseball game.
“You’re gonna really like my new friend, Corky,” Timmy had told me. “He’s a good ballplayer, and you aren’t going to believe the way he talks. He’s more country than Gomer (Pyle).”
So we started playing ball, Bobby and I against Timmy and Corky, a chunky little guy with a round face, baggy shorts and a crewcut. Early on, Bobby hit a sharp ground ball right at Corky, who bent over to catch it, only to have it go right through his legs. Six decades later, the scene is as vivid as it was comical. Corky stayed bent over and watched through his legs as the ball kept going into some hedges. When Cork looked back up, his eyes were as big around as donuts. He really could not believe he had missed it.
“Well, I’ll be a sardine sandwich!” Corky shouted before turning around and retrieving the ball.
Corky did not miss many balls that day, nor any day we played baseball from then on, which was a lot. Corky became a catcher, a damned good one. He was a sports junkie, but first and foremost he was a baseball guy, just like his daddy, who everyone knew as Punchy Palmer.
Punchy Palmer, a former star all-around athlete Hattiesburg High, was a fixture at baseball parks around Hattiesburg. Didn’t matter whether one of his sons was playing or not. If baseball was being played in Hattiesburg, Punchy Palmer was there. And he was always dispensing homespun baseball wisdom to anyone who would listen — and you were crazy if you didn’t because Punchy knew his stuff.
Corky soaked in all that knowledge and went on to become a catcher for Hattiesburg High and then on to Southern Miss, where he caught for Pete Taylor’s ballclubs in the mid 1970s. He was a solid hitter but he was a marvelous catcher. He really was like a coach on the field.
Doug Munn was Southern’s ace pitcher for much of that time. “Corky caught me for four years and back then we called our own pitches,” Munn said Wednesday. “I don’t think I shook him off once in the entire four seasons. We were always on the same wave length.
“Corky was a joy to pitch to, just a great receiver. He was framing pitches back before that was a thing. I never worried about bouncing a breaking pitch, because Cork blocked everything. Nothing got by him. More importantly, he was a great friend and such a super quality person. Corky was just the best.”
Some folks are meant to be doctors or lawyers or teachers. Corky Palmer was meant to be a baseball coach. He knew it. Everybody who knew him knew it. There was never a doubt.
He steadily moved up the coaching ladder one rung at a time from small-town high schools, to bigger high schools, to Meridian Community College where his teams became a national powerhouse and won 409 games while losing just 160. He moved to Southern Miss as an assistant coach under fellow Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Hill Denson in 1997 and then became the head coach the next year. Over the next 12 seasons Southern Miss won 458 games and lost 281. His teams qualified for eight NCAA Regionals, including seven straight.
He announced his retirement in April of 2009 with his injury plagued team seemingly going nowhere. And then it happened. Much like Ole Miss this past season, the Golden Eagles got hotter than Mississippi asphalt in August. A late season win streak vaulted them into the NCAA Tournament as a 3-seed. Then they won a regional at Georgia Tech. Then they won a Super Regional at Florida. And then they went to Omaha for what remains Southern Miss’ only appearance in the College World Series.
At Omaha, Palmer won over the national media with that same countrified twang and witticisms that blew away Timmy Floyd, my brother and me when we were little boys. The ESPN announcers and all the national writers were smitten.
Mighty Texas outlasted Southern Miss in a first round in a 7-6 heartbreaker. The next day at practice, Palmer told everyone he was going to pitch J.R. Ballinger in an elimination game against North Carolina. He pointed to a light pole in centerfield. “You see that big ol’ light pole out there,” Corky said. “If I asked Jimmy Ray Ballinger to go out there and climb that light pole right now, he’d be out there in seconds shimmying up that pole. He wouldn’t ask why, he wouldn’t ask anything. He’d just go out there and find a way to climb that big ol’ pole. I don’t know how he’ll do against North Carolina. They are a great hitting club. But I do know this: Jimmy Ray is going to give me everything he’s got. I love that boy. He’s what I call a company man. He’s a country boy, so you know me and him get along.”
Well, North Carolina got the best of Jimmy Ray and Southern Miss. But Corky Palmer’s last game as a baseball coach was in Omaha at the College World Series. How splendid is that?
Joe Paul, Southern Miss interim president and a close friend of Palmer’s spoke for thousands when he issued this statement Wednesday: “The University of Southern Mississippi family mourns the loss today of Golden Eagle baseball coaching icon Corky Palmer. While our hearts break at the notion of his special presence not being with us, we do take solace that he has moved from suffering to a rightful and well-earned eternal peace. I am fortunate to have been blessed to claim Corky as my Southern Miss classmate and my friend. His impact on generations of young men ripples out in to the world of baseball and beyond. Corky was definitely one of a kind, and we will honor and cherish his memory here at Southern Miss always…”
As it happens, Tim Floyd and I were together Wednesday when we received the news, which was expected but nonetheless painful to hear.
There were several moments of silence. But before long we were telling Corky stories, smiling because how could you not when talking about such a memorable character and friend.
Tim summed it up pretty perfectly: “Corky lived his dream and he lived it in his hometown doing what he loved. What’s more, he touched countless people while he was doing it. Think about it. When you get right down to it, how many people can say that?”