HottyToddy.com contributor Steve Vassallo comments: “How does one describe Don Kessinger….Ole Miss superstar; professional baseball great; role model; outstanding father; business icon; multi talented; devout Christian; or all of the above? My vote is all of the above. This gentleman has enjoyed a life that happens only in fairy tales. And through it all he has never lost “grounding” knowing that his Savior is the ONE who made it all happen. One of the greatest days that ever occurred on the Ole Miss campus is the day that Don Kessinger arrived! Here’s his story…..”
HottyToddy.com — Don, please share with us where you grew up.
Don Kessinger — Forrest City, Arkansas. In high school I played all sports and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a number of universities. Because of my basketball and baseball abilities, I narrowed the choices down to 4 schools….Ole Miss; Arkansas; Memphis State; and Mississippi State. Baseball was my primary passion and Ole Miss had the best program in the south at that time.
HottyToddy.com — Because of your Arkansas roots, was there added pressure to attend there?
Don Kessinger — Arkansas was not a member of the SW conference in baseball then (the 1960-61 school year was my first at Ole Miss).
HottyToddy.com — Tell us about your baseball history and the fact that you were a switch hitter is somewhat rare.
Don Kessinger — I was not a switch hitter coming into Ole Miss. I was blessed to have been coached by a great man (Coach Swayze) and while at Ole Miss I hit over .400. I signed with the Cubs and was assigned to their Double A team in Ft. Worth. In 1964 I was sent to the big leagues and in 1965 developed my hitting from both sides of the plate. I felt I had to do this to survive and remain in the big leagues. In retrospect, it was the right decision.
HottyToddy.com — Tell us about your early years with the Cubs.
Don Kessinger — Leo Durocher was my manager. In 1966 I only hit around .200 early in the season, but I ran well. My hitting coach was Lou Fonseca. Once I started swinging from the left side as well, my average increased from .230 to .266 to finish the year. Our spring training at that time was in Scottsdale, Arizona.
HottyToddy.com — Your career didn’t end with the Cubs however?
Don Kessinger — That is correct. Bill Veeck asked me to consider becoming a player/manager for the White Sox which I did in 1979.
HottyToddy.com — In my opinion (as well as many others) the two greatest baseball players ever to play for Ole Miss are yourself and Jake Gibbs. Your thoughts?
Don Kessinger — To be mentioned along with Jake is a great compliment. I never had the opportunity to play on the same team with him due to the fact freshmen could not play with the varsity at that time. Jake was a senior my freshman year. He is one “great” individual in every respect!
HottyToddy.com — Your success in Major League Baseball has to be an inspiration to even our players of this era.
Don Kessinger — I played in six Allstar games of which we won five. The one we lost (in Detroit) is remembered for the colossal homerun Reggie Jackson hit there.
HottyToddy.com—Putting my baseball nostalgia hat on for a moment, tell us other outstanding shortstops you played against or recall.
Don Kessinger — Pee Wee Reese; Ozzie Smith; Dick Groat and Mark Belanger were some of the very best.
HottyToddy.com — When you hear the name, Derek Jeter, what comes to mind?
Don Kessinger — Consistency and respect. Playing 20 years in the same city, for the same organization is quite an accomplishment. And his “off the field” image is equally great.
HottyToddy.com — After your lengthy successful career in baseball, you ultimately would return to Oxford.
Don Kessinger — When Jake retired (1990) I was asked to become our baseball coach. Warner (Alford) was AD at the time.
HottyToddy.com — While at Ole Miss (as the Manager) you also enjoyed many great moments.
Don Kessinger — My son, Kevin, was still playing here and I was able to coach him for two years. He was an all SEC player as a center fielder. And he signed with the Cubs also. My son, Keith, was drafted by Cincinnati as a middle infielder. One photograph I cherish is a picture of the three of us as we all played for Ole Miss and at one time we were all members of the Cubs organization.
HottyToddy.com—What came next as to life after baseball?
Don Kessinger — For four years I served as Associate AD under Pete Boone. During this time my wife, Carolyn, and Kevin founded our Real Estate firm which I later joined. Keith who was the head baseball coach at Arkansas State joined the firm about 8 years ago.
HottyToddy.com — You are recognized as one of the top leaders in business in the history of Oxford. What has been the secret to your business success?
Don Kessinger — We have great agents! God has blessed our company as no one has left us. Currently, we are around 22 agents.
HottyToddy.com — What about Oxford’s future?
Don Kessinger — This is a great place to live and is such a unique place. The folks who comehere only seven times a year only get a snapshot. There is no comparison to Oxford.
HottyToddy.com—Reflecting back, what was your greatest thrill?
Don Kessinger — The privilege of playing 15-16 years at the highest level of my profession. Being able to live in a great city (Chicago) and playing in Wrigley Field were special. Having Hall of Fame teammates such as Ernie Banks; Billy Williams; Ferguson Jenkins; and Ron Santo made my career even extra special.
HottyToddy.com — Your teams were always above average.
Don Kessinger — Between 1968 and 1972 we were as good as any team in baseball. In 1969 we led the league most of the season until the “Miracle Mets” passed us at the end.
HottyToddy.com — Is there actually a rivalry between the Cubs and White Sox?
Don Kessinger — There always has been and always will be. My first game with the White Sox Manager Bob Lemon (1977) put me in as a pinch runner. The response from the crowd was overwhelming. The standing ovation temporarily halted play. It was a moment I will cherish forever. We were playing the Yankees on that evening.
HottyToddy.com—What did you enjoy most about playing for Ole Miss?
Don Kessinger — “I am a Rebel”. There are so many great memories like playing basketball in the old gym. I made all SEC (three years) in basketball and was an All-American. It was extremely tempting to also play in the ABA, but I could not seemyself playing two major league sports.
HottyToddy.com — Your thoughts on Ole Miss 2014?
Don Kessinger — This is as exciting a time to be a Rebel as there ever has been. All that is happening here now is sensational.
Leaving Don’s office after the interview, I was truly touched by how very humble this man is. I believe you define greatness more because of someone’s character than his God-given natural abilities. In the case of Don Kessinger, God blessed him in every way. And thankGod, he came to Ole Miss!
Steve Vassallo is a HottyToddy.com contributor. Steve writes on Ole Miss athletics, Oxford business, politics and other subjects. He is an Ole Miss grad and former radio announcer for the basketball team. In addition, he is a certified economic and community developer and currently, a highly successful leader in the real estate business with Premier Properties of Oxford. Steve’s lifelong dream has been to live in Oxford full-time. “I am now living my dream daily as is my wife Rosie, who works with the Oxford Chamber of Commerce,” Steve said. You can contact Steve at email@example.com or call him at 985-852-7745.