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Love of the Game

The Kessinger family reflects on their shared love for the sport of baseball.

Written by Leslie Criss | Photos Contributed by Ole Miss Athletics

A conversation with Carolyn and Don Kessinger quickly uncovers the truth that sports — specifically baseball — have been a huge part of their lives since before they married 58 years ago.

Even before any talking begins, it takes only a glance around the room in their Oxford home to see the tangible proof: all manner of trophies, Don Kessinger baseball cards, a game-used glove and bat, All Star balls and photos.

The man to whom all the awards belong is about as humble as he can be, but his attorney wife is happy to brag on her husband.

Both from Forrest City, Arkansas, Carolyn knew him as a superstar in the realm of sports. In high school he played quarterback, ran track and played basketball and baseball.

“My dad was his doctor,” she said. “And my family traveled to see him play basketball.”

They started dating at Ole Miss, where Don Kessinger attended on a basketball scholarship and played shortstop for the baseball team. She was 17; he was 21. They married, and, shortly after, he signed with the Chicago Cubs in a AA league in Arlington, Texas. While he was gone for two weeks for spring training, Carolyn and her mother were setting up an apartment in Arlington.

“Here I was this little bride, and my new husband was gone for two weeks,” she said. “I couldn’t wait for him to come back so we could settle in our new apartment.”

Instead, Donny, as she called her husband, called excitedly to tell her the Cubs had called and he was going to Chicago. I was so upset and told him, ‘No, you are supposed to come home.’ Here it was, such a great moment for him and I was fussing. I quickly got over it.”

Shortstop Don Kessinger spent 12 years with the Cubs before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he played a year and a half. From there he returned to Chicago to play two and a half years for the White Sox. He was player manager his final year with the White Sox.

During his 16 years of playing pro baseball, the Kessingers became Mom and Dad to two sons, first Keith and then Kevin. It was clear early on both boys were drawn to sports — again, especially baseball.

“You just know,” Don Kessinger said. “You watch your kids, and you can just tell.”

When they were very young, the Kessinger boys could not wait to go to their dad’s games. Their mom rarely missed one.

“In major league, they played 82 home games and 82 on road,” she said. “I made all the home games. I’d show up with a 2-year-old and an infant. I’d often been by myself with two babies for two weeks, and I needed to be around some adults.”

Don Kessinger can’t count the days he’d come home during his pro ball days when his boys, plus a congregation of neighborhood kids, would be waiting for him to play ball with them. And he rarely disappointed the kids.

“Our yard was a mudhole where they played all summer,” Carolyn Kessinger said. “I had to re-sod my backyard every year.”

As the boys got older, Mom bribed both with baseball in exchange for good behavior.

“I’d tell Keith if he was good, he could go onto the field after the game and try to hit home runs into the ivy at Wrigley,” she said, laughing. “And little Kevin would run bases and slide. He would get so dirty, I started bringing a change of clothes to the games.”

Later, the boys played baseball at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, where the family had bought a home when Don Kessinger played with the Cardinals. Like his father, Keith also played basketball. In fact, a longtime lover of the red and blue, Keith attended Ole Miss on a basketball scholarship, but also played shortstop for the Ole Miss baseball team. Kevin attended Ole Miss on a baseball scholarship and was named an All-SEC outfielder.

Though the Kessinger parents loved sports, they never forced any family member to play.

“They never pushed either of us,” said Kevin Kessinger of his brother Keith and himself. “We loved sports and just ended up playing several of them.”

His brother agreed.

“The cool thing growing up in a sports family was there was never any pressure,” he said. “If I’d wanted to play piano, our parents would have been just as supportive. Would Dad have enjoyed it? Probably not. But you’d never have heard him say anything about it.”

The Kessingers moved from Memphis to Oxford in 1990, when Don Kessinger became the head baseball coach at Ole Miss, after the retirement of Jake Gibbs. He coached seven years and then spent four additional years as the associate athletic director.

After college, Kevin was drafted by the Chicago Cubs. A first-season injury forced him to retire. Brother Keith was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles and later played 11 games at shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds.

These days, the Kessinger sons both live in Oxford near their parents. Kevin, 53, is vice president of BNA Bank’s Oxford branch; Keith, 56, is principal broker at Kessinger Real Estate.

Don Kessinger’s jersey No. 11 was retired by Ole Miss in 2021. The baseball legacy he began continues through the next Kessinger generation.

First cousins Chase Kessinger, son of Keith and Laura Kessinger, and Grae Kessinger, son of Kevin and Kelly Kessinger, are carrying on the baseball tradition these days.

Grae, 25, played shortstop for Ole Miss, and in 2019, was signed in the second round by the Houston Astros. Chase, 24, chose to pursue a different position on the baseball field and is a pitcher for the University of Memphis.

“Chase always had a good arm,” said his proud grandfather. “He just gravitated toward pitching.”

A senior at University of Memphis, Chase, like most young men who grew up throwing a baseball, would love to play pro ball, said his dad.

“Whether he does or not, I am 100% sure he will stay in coaching,” Keith Kessinger said. “He will make a wonderful coach.”

When the Kessinger family — including Chase’s sister Anna, 26, and Grae’s brother Josh, 27 — gets together for special occasions, baseball is not always the primary topic of conversation, but you can bet talk will at some point turn to sports.

“We love sports,” Don Kessinger said. “All sports. My parents loved sports and Carolyn’s parents did too.”

There were times through the years when Carolyn Kessinger believed her journey in baseball was finished, but now she sees no ending in sight.

“Every time I thought we were done with baseball, we weren’t,” she said. “First Donny, then Kevin and Keith, now Grae and Chase. I will always be found during baseball season in a ballpark in the dust and heat. It’s been my life, and I’ve loved it. If there are any great-grandchildren who come along to play, I may not be around to go to their games, but if I am, I will be there.”

Her husband quietly nodded his head in the affirmative.

“You will be around,” he said, smiling. “We have had a good life. While we were in the midst of it all, I didn’t realize what a really storied life we have lived.”

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