Cleveland at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame

Twenty years ago, Mississippi’s sports legends were being honored with a block of wood on the wall of the lower level of the Coliseum. Rick Cleveland thought that was a shame.

“I was covering high school basketball there,” Cleveland said. “An old, dusty plaque was all there was to recognize Mississippi’s best. For a state like Mississippi, I thought it was insane that we treated our heroes that poorly.”

And so the then Clarion Ledger sports writer penned a column, former agriculture commissioner Jim “Buck” Ross read it, and, as they say, the rest is history. Now, Cleveland is at the helm of that story with a museum he thought should have been there years ago.

After the untimely death of Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum director Michael Rubenstein earlier this year, Cleveland was the natural choice to fill Rubenstein’s shoes. His last day with the city’s only daily newspaper was April 15 and he moved into his office on Lakeland Drive on May 1.

“I enjoyed what I did (at the paper),” the 59 year-old Fondren resident said. “I’d get up everyday and I had one fast ball to hit. They let me write about what I wanted to. Now I have 30 pitches coming at me from every direction.”

That he does. Cleveland is in charge of fundraising and bringing awareness to the museum that started with $4 million of seed money from the state. “We don’t get a dime of tax money. We raise it and depend on corporate support.” He says he’s learning fast what it takes to raise a buck. “The thing I do have built-in are contacts. I can get in the door so that helps some.”

Cleveland, the author of “Boo: A Life in Baseball, Well Lived,” a book about baseball legend Boo Ferriss, said plans for the museum include updating technology and adding exhibits. “We need to give people a reason to come back,” he said. And for him, the reason is the stories. “It ranks up there with blues music and the great writers. The leading passer, rusher and scorer in NFL history, all from small towns in Mississippi? I don’t know what it is but it must be something in those water bottles on Friday nights.”

While the business of his vocation has changed, the passion he showed in every printed news column has not. “When I knew I’d made the right decision coming here is when I wrote a handwritten letter to each living hall of famer my first week in this office,” he said. “One hundred and fifty-three of them, and I realized I’ve covered these guys and I know their families. It’s the right thing for me.”

Those stories are what Cleveland will continue to tell. He said he won’t miss his job of 33 years at the paper nearly as much now that the Sports Hall of Fame and Museum has a new website. “I’ll write (for the website) on a regular basis,” he told us. “It’s just a different venue. We have a great story to tell. ”

A Fondrenite since the day after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (“we didn’t have power the first three weeks in our new place,” he said), Cleveland wishes he had lived here his whole life. “I love it. I love the trees and the flowers and the funkiness of it all.” He cites the convenience of walking to everything as one of the highlights of his experiences here. “It’s a seven-minute walk from my house to anything and everything I need.”

In all of his years of sports writing, Cleveland knows football. And half time shows. “If you just go for the half time,” he said, referring to JSU’s Sonic Boom, a staple in Fondren at Veteran’s Stadium. “It’s cool to have them playing here.” And the food’s good, we reminded him. “Yeah, such a different experience than in Oxford or Starkville. And the barbecue is better, too.”

2017 Update: Cleveland is now a syndicated newspaper columnist and historian at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum and has been inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.