by Claude Jones
We Jones boys loved to play baseball. It was the norm for us to bring baseballs, bats and gloves to family reunions, and a ballgame broke out as soon as enough gathered to pitch and hit. We divided up and the game began.
Once the feast was spread, the women folk would have to threaten us with bodily harm to stop the game in order for us to eat. Most of us boys wolfed down the delicious food, swallowing half chewed chicken and choking down buttered creamed potatoes so quickly that the butter only served as a lubricant, not as a flavor enhancer. Sweetened ice tea was gulped from jelly glasses. The only lag time noted was during the devouring of the coconut pie, which featured piled meringue that sprouted swirls on top, tips browned golden and crisp. Each bite brought new excitement because of the too soon melting of the custard, but the tough, stringy, hand-grated coconut flavoring the pies was chewed and chewed again to extract every morsel of flavor possible. Then back to the ballgame.
We had fun playing ball by ourselves, but when Jewel Shempert, who was married to our first cousin, Martha Sudduth Shempert, joined in the game, we enjoyed the ultimate in good times. Jewel was a great ballplayer, but he could contain his athleticism to the level of the game in which he was playing. He pitched for both sides. He threw hard to the better players and softer to those with less ability or younger in age. He allowed each batter to hit the ball, then ran to the base line and ran backward in front of the base runner to encourage the runner to run faster and harder. He caught balls hit back to him and pretended to fumble the ball to give the batter a chance to beat his throw to first base.
Jewel always yelled encouragement to each player. He ran to the outfield to congratulate a good catch or a good throw. He insisted that the ones who did not hit so well be given an extra strike, or he would call “foul ball” to a ball tapped in front of home plate. Jewel kept everyone excited, even encouraging the older generation to participate in the fun.
Jewel was one of those few amazing athletes who could throw with either hand. To make us laugh he’d put his glove on the wrong hand, turn his cap backward and play the local idiot. He made even the most stoic of the family laugh at his antics.
After I grew to my teen years and had the privilege to play with Jewel in “real” baseball, I saw how talented and competitive he really was. Jewel Shempert hated to lose. He gave more than 100% every time he played in a baseball game. He threw his body into contorted slides to make the base. He would dive and catch hot grounders. If a pitched ball came near him while he was at bat, he always got hit and got on base. Jewel’s fervor and absolute resolution to do his best makes me that much more appreciative of his playing with us boys and containing his ability in order to enhance our self esteem as players and to encourage us as athletes. He helped us understand that baseball and all sports are to be fun and to be enjoyed. I only wish I could have been mature enough to understand Jewel’s motives and the amount of sacrifice he made to ensure we all had fun and that we all had the opportunity to play baseball.
Jewel Shempert is one of my heroes. I wish everyone could have a Jewel Shempert in his life – someone willing to sacrifice his abilities and time to ensure fun and to allow those less gifted to feel a part of activities. Jewel Shempert never let life be dull. He would, when wishing for something, cross all his fingers. He took one hand and lapped one finger over the other and then did the same to the other hand, then wished it would not rain so we could play ball or wished it would rain to fill out the butterbeans on the vine.
Jewell drove the bus to ballgames for Algoma (Mississippi) High School for years. He was their biggest fan. After he no longer played ball himself, he was an ardent supporter of all local teams. Although he could still outplay most of those on the field, he did not criticize anyone; he encouraged the players and cheered their success.
The mark of a man is his legacy. Jewel Shempert left to many of us a picture of how important it is to give to others while doing one’s best in life.
Claude Jones writes:
"I have lived all my life in Pontotoc, Mississippi -- raised on a farm where we milked cows, raised cotton, corn, and had a peach orchard. I've worked for Pontototc Electric Power for 31 years. My wife Ann and I have two sons, both are pharmacists, and we have two grandchildren."
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