A fearless change agent in baseball and GOP politics

Published 9:26 am Wednesday, September 13, 2023

By Sid Salter

At the age of 29, then-Republican Jackson City Commissioner Doug Shanks had no less than the political writers at The New York Times hanging on his every utterance during the Republican National Convention battle between then-President Gerald Ford and insurgent California GOP Gov. Ronald Reagan.

White House Press Secretary Ron Nessen led an impromptu press conference at Jackson’s Ramada Inn on July 30, 1976, that featured Shanks and Meridian businessman and GOP gubernatorial contender Gil Carmichael, then the co-chairmen of the President Ford Committee for the State of Mississippi, answering questions about President Ford’s meeting with Mississippi’s Republican delegates to the 1976 Republican presidential convention.

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For a time, Doug Shanks – a native of Soso, Mississippi – stood at the red-hot center of American politics. The 1976 Republican convention gave Mississippi a moment in the sun as Ford and Reagan sparred for the soul of the state’s GOP and the GOP presidential nomination.

After assuming the presidency following the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon in the depths of the Watergate scandal, President Gerald Ford began in 1975 to seek the 1976 Republican nomination for president that would culminate at the Kansas City GOP National Convention.

In Mississippi, Reagan had earlier won support from Greenville’s Clarke Reed, then-State Sen. Charles Pickering of Laurel and Jackson oilman W.D. “Billy” Mounger. Ford was supported by then-U.S. Rep. Thad Cochran, Carmichael, and Shanks, among others.

But when Reagan chose liberal Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Richard Schweiker as his running mate, Reed defected to the Ford camp and other Mississippi Republican delegates – including then-U.S. Rep. Trent Lott and Pickering – followed.

Nationally, the Ford-Reagan battle for the nomination was almost dead even and both candidates began to scour the country for uncommitted delegates to the convention. 

Because of the so-called “unit rule” – which required that the candidate who had the support of the majority of the state’s 30 delegates got all 30 votes – a procedural vote on a Reagan-backed convention rules change was the showdown vote.

Mississippi’s 30 votes went against the rules change and Reagan’s bid for the nomination was effectively dead.

Montana Technological University historian Chris Danielson, who earned his doctorate at the University of Mississippi in 2006, authored a 2009 article entitled “Lily White and Hard Right: The Mississippi Republican Party and Black Voting, 1965-1980” in the Journal of Southern History that offered this summary of Shanks’ moment in the nation’s political history:

“The Mississippi delegation was officially uncommitted, but after Reagan’s string of victories in the southern primaries, the Ford campaign diverted its resources to other regions. However, Harry S. Dent, Ford’s southern campaign manager, saw a chance for Ford to win (Mississippi’s) winner-take-all primary. Carmichael and Doug Shanks…were the key Ford backers within the Mississippi delegation. One political observer said that pairing the two moderates in the delegation was ‘like boarding a couple of vampires at a blood bank.’”

Shanks, even at 29, was a master of bringing disparate people together. His political papers, scrapbooks and other memorabilia are housed in the Mississippi Political Collection at the Mississippi State University Libraries, including his papers on the 1976 GOP presidential campaign.

As sportswriter Rick Cleveland deftly recorded earlier, Doug had a productive and remarkable second life after Mississippi politics. He coached baseball from Babe Ruth to the college ranks. He is perhaps best known for his long and distinguished career at Mississippi Valley State University from 2000 to 2015.

As a former MSU student, it was evident how much pride Doug took in bringing his Delta Devil squads to play the Bulldogs at Dudy Noble Field. His teams were fundamentally sound and disciplined. Like their coach, there was no quit in them.

A white pioneer of the Mississippi Republican Party coaching college baseball successfully at a historically Black university in the impoverished Mississippi Delta? That’s the kind of good and decent man – and baseball man – that Doug Shanks was. He loved the game.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.