By MATT CRANE
While Ruth Morgan's visit to Starkville's Church of the Living God was meant for gathering old photographs of the Do-Right Church in the Needmore Community, her search led to a surprising revelation and veritable historical jackpot.
Morgan's historical find came in the form of Elon Walker, a former Starkville resident who played for the Memphis Red Sox baseball team in the Negro Baseball League during the 1950s. From 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Feb. 23, the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum will open for an exhibit viewing on Walker and Starkville-native baseball hall of fame player James "Cool Papa" Bell in honor of Black History Month.
Morgan said after speaking with Walker's half-brother C.L. Carlisle — a current Starkville resident — she contacted Raymond Doswell, Vice President of Curatorial Services for the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. to reveal her fascinating find.
"He told me how rare it was to find any information during this time period conceding the Negro Baseball League and thought it was wonderful that we discovered all the original documentation on Elon's time with them," she said. "He said if I sent him the documents and photographs that we had the museum would begin building a profile on him."
With the Negro Baseball Leagues dissolving by 1958, Morgan said she is excited to have found out about Walker and his place during this time in American sports history.
"It's extremely rare information that you cannot come across according to the museum," she said. "When you find something like this you feel very interested in trying to resolve some of this lost history."
Walker's display includes everything from personal letters and photographs, glove, baseball, bat and his entire uniform still intact, a valuable commodity for sports history enthusiasts.
Museum board member Bill Poe said another interesting fact surrounding Walker's time playing for the Memphis Red Sox was his team member who would go on to make a name for himself in the recording industry.
"It was cool to find out about Elon playing alongside Charley Pride," he said. "That is such a special connection and we have sent him copies of Elon's information and what we have. We are hoping Charley can come down and see the museum and everything associated with our information on the Negro Baseball League."
After retiring from baseball in 1958, Pride went on to become the best-selling performer for RCA Records since Elvis Presley during the early-to-mid 1970s as a country music artist. The museum now has a personal letter correspondence from Pride to Walker.
The museum's exhibit showing for Black History Month also features a tribute to James "Cool Papa" Bell who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.
Poe said Bell — born in Starkville in 1903 — was instrumental in helping out another very famous African American player during his time.
"What's unique about 'Cool Papa' is that he helped Jackie Robinson learn how to play who he could be the first African American to break the sport's race barrier," he said. "It is highly significant that Bell, who was offered that position first, directed those teams to Robinson and said, 'This is the man you want.'"
Poe said the exhibit can be enjoyed about a wide variety of people looking for history on sports, Starkville and everyone in between.
"For its size, Starkville is unique for the fact that we have three hall of fame players in three different sports who claim this as home — Bell, Jerry Rice and Bailey Howell," he said. "And now that we have learned about Elon Walker, it is fascinating to know that Oktibbeha County boasts to players who participated in the historic Negro Baseball Leagues."
The museum's display of Elon Walker and James "Cool Papa" Bell will be open for a special viewing Saturday, Feb. 23 from 10 a.m. to noon.
For more information, call 662-323-0211.