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Pearl River’s Wendell Magee Jr. to be inducted into MCC Sports Hall of Fame

POPLARVILLE, Miss. — When Jonathan Ray closes his eyes he can still see Wendell Magee’s ball cutting through the air as a nearby airplane passes over head. There was a clear, blue sky over Pensacola’s ball field on that spring 1992 day. As Magee stepped to the plate, a plane began its descent to the nearby airport.

PING.

“He hits a ball and it’s a rocket; maybe 12-15 feet high off the ground on a line,” Ray recalled recently. “As the plane passes over, the ball is going out of the park in right-center. You could see them together — the plane and the ball. That’s something that always stuck out to me. It sounds dramatic like something from a movie but that’s how it really was. It’s something you remember.”

That’s when his teammates and coaches first realized what Wendell could become.

“It was a ball no one else was capable of hitting,” Ray said. “We hit home runs but they’d have a little air and drop over the fence. He hit blasts.

“That’s why he made the majors. He had that kind of power.”

It was that prolific power that left teammates in awe and got the two-sport star noticed by Division I recruiters and eventually Major League scouts. The Hattiesburg native was a Philadelphia Phillies draft pick in 1994 and rapidly climbed to the Majors, carving out a seven-year career in MLB.

On Tuesday, Magee will be inducted into the Mississippi Community College Sports Hall of Fame during a ceremony at Hinds’ Muse Center in Pearl. The MCC will also honor the Class of 2020, which includes Pearl River’s Elaine Powell; last year’s ceremony was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is such a great honor,” Magee said when he was informed of his induction. “Pearl River is where everything happened for me. Pearl River was my gateway. I don’t know what would have happened to me had it not been for Pearl River. It gave me a second chance.” 

‘HE WAS LIKE JOSH GIBSON’
Like many who walked the halls of Pearl River before going on to incredible careers, Magee’s road to the majors was a winding one.

It might seem odd to read in print, but the future Big Leaguer never played high school baseball. The very same kid who grew up on the famed Hattiesburg Black Sox fields never put on a HHS baseball uniform. 

“He was like Josh Gibson in our league growing up,” said future New England Patriot and lifelong friend Larry Whigham. “He would hit home runs and playing in the Little League all-stars with us and he was a year younger than me because he was a slugger.”

Magee didn’t have an answer, either.

“I remember walking to the gym to see if my name was on the board. If your name wasn’t, you weren’t on the team and my name never was,” he said. 

Luckily for Magee, while baseball was his passion he had been noticed for his football talents and ultimately signed to play at Tennessee State. 

Following one season in Nashville, Tenn., Magee returned to the Pine Belt.

“They knew I was only coming if I could play baseball. The deal was I could play both,” Magee said.

TSU’s coach soon learned Magee was far too valuable to share.

“He called me into his office and said, ‘you’re going to be my starting tight end. You cannot play baseball. We need you,’” Magee said. “But the good Lord found a way.” 

THE ROAD TO POPLARVILLE
As fate would have it, Willie Coats, the same man who had coached Magee at HHS had just been hired as Pearl River’s football coach prior to the 1991 season, was looking for talent. 

“He called me and asked how I was doing,” Magee said. “I told him the situation and he told me to come on down to Pearl River. He said he’d give me a half scholarship in football and talk to the baseball coach about doing the same. I thought, ‘hallelujah.’”

Whigham remembers vividly his conversation with Magee after learning he was coming home.

“He said ‘I’m going to give baseball another shot,’” Whigham said, asking how they were going to manage that if he was on a football scholarship.
“I don’t know but I’m going to ask,” Whigham remembered him replying. “He didn’t even know if they were going to let him play. But he goes out, makes the team and ends up playing seven years in the Major Leagues.”

Unlike at TSU, the Wildcat coaches kept their end of the deal. After earning First Team All-MACJC honors as a tight end, catching 21 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Magee swapped his shoulder pads for a baseball bat just in time for the 1992 season.

“Wendell was a good player and a good person. Those kinds of people you’re always looking for when you’re recruiting,” Coats said recently. “He was always a team player. Everybody liked him. Anything you’d ask him to do, he’d do it.

“If you can coach those kinds of kids, you’d never quit coaching.” 

‘DEFINITION OF FIVE TOOLS’
Just like on the gridiron, Magee was an immediate success on the diamond.

“The biggest thing was his raw talent.” Ray said. “He didn’t have a polished swing and wasn’t a polished outfielder but he was a five-tool guy. He was big, too. He could hit for power, hit to all fields, could cover the outfield and had a strong arm. He was the definition of five-tools.”

What Ray might remember most, however, was not Magee’s ability but rather how he played the game.

“He was like a kid,” Ray said. “He just loved being out there.”

During a year in which he hit .325, Magee remembers coach Jim Nightengale calling him to the front of the bus to tell the young slugger word was traveling out of Poplarville.

“Coach was driving the bus to Meridian,” Magee said. “Coach Nightengale says ‘I know a scout that wants you. They really want you.” 

Magee said Nightengale was an advocate for him. 

“He saw the potential in how I was playing,” Magee said. “I remember him telling me I should be playing in the minor leagues somewhere, right now.”

After his lone season in Poplarville, Magee signed as a dual-sport athlete with Samford. Like PRCC, the Bulldogs let Magee play both sports. In addition to learning from the likes of head football coaches Terry Bowden and Chan Gailey —  plus offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher — Magee continued to tear the cover off baseballs in 1993 and ’94. His .380 career average is still the highest in program history. Following his ’94 season, the Phillies selected Magee in the 12th round of the MLB Draft. 

To the surprise of no one, Magee, who still resides outside of Birmingham in Hoover, Ala., rapidly rose through the minors and made his Major League debut on April 16, 1996 as a pinch hitter against the San Francisco Giants. Three games later Magee and the Phillies visited Dodger Stadium

“My first game I come into the clubhouse and I can remember it like it was yesterday,” Magee said, painting a picture of the Phillies’ room. “They had all this gear spread out for me and I thought, wow, I’m in the Big Leagues.”

During his first game against the Dodgers on April 20, Magee is batting leadoff. Already a two-hit day, he remained in center field in the final frame of a 3-1 game.

“Tim Wallach comes up with a runner on and two outs. All they needed was a hit to tie the game,” Magee said. “He hit a blast to me and I go up and rob him of a home run. Everybody is cheering.”

Over parts of seven seasons with Philadelphia and the Detroit Tigers, Magee hit .247 with 24 home runs and 122 RBIs.

“The Lord truly blessed me right there,” Magee said.

Magee’s rise to prominence in his field was a huge sense of pride for Whigham, who also overcame long odds as an oft-injured HHS Tiger to play for Louisiana-Monroe and eventually walk out to midfield for Super Bowl XXXI in 1997 as a captain for the New England Patriots.

“A lot of people come through Pearl River in Poplarville, Mississippi, but everyone don’t stay and take care of their business,” he said. “If you do that you can really use it as a springboard to get back into the game of life, chase your dreams and be where you want to be.”