James Clayton (Jim) Bailey (1932–2019)
James Clayton (Jim) Bailey, Arkansas’s most celebrated sportswriter, chronicled a century of growth in the state’s most successful cultural phenomenon—amateur and professional athletics. With his friend and sometime boss at the Arkansas Gazette, Orville Henry, Bailey became inextricably intertwined with the rise to national glory of the athletic program at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County)—the Razorbacks—and with the public’s growing ardor for other school and professional sports. He was an unusually gifted writer whose toils happened to be in athletics. Bailey was voted by his colleagues as the Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year eighteen times and was one of the first sportswriters to be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Jim Bailey was born on October 13, 1932, and reared in the town of Emerson (Columbia County), six miles from the Louisiana state line, where farming and lumbering formed the economy for some 400 people. His father, John Clayton Bailey, was a farmer, and his mother, Annice Dabbs Bailey, taught school before marrying. The family lived in a dogtrot house built of logs.
He graduated from Emerson High School in 1950 and enrolled at Magnolia Agricultural and Mechanical College (which later became Southern Arkansas University) a few miles north of his home. He took journalism courses and wrote about the school’s athletic teams, the Muleriders, for the college paper and the Magnolia Daily Banner News and also furnished correspondence for the Arkansas Democrat in Little Rock (Pulaski County).
The Korean War ended as he was graduating, but he was drafted and spent two years in the U.S. Army, mostly in France. On his return, in 1956, he landed a job with Orville Henry, who was the sports editor of the Gazette. He also met and married Peggy Sue Trexler of Emmet (Nevada and Hempstead Counties); they had one son.
The trio of Henry, Bailey, and Jerry McConnell, who arranged coverage for every high school sports team in the state, put out the most extensive and literate sports pages in the South. The Henry-Bailey sports section, with its avid readership, would be credited with preserving the readership and economic viability of the Gazette after the paper’s immensely unpopular stand against Governor Orval E. Faubus’s efforts to block the court-ordered integration of schools in Little Rock in 1957–1959.
Henry concentrated on the Razorbacks, with Bailey’s assistance, while Bailey covered the other Arkansas college teams and the Arkansas Travelers professional baseball team, in addition to writing columns about his favorite pastime, boxing, during the sport’s heyday at midcentury. He became friends with a few of the pugilists and their handlers, notably the colorful boxing manager Cus D’Amato and Archie Moore, the longest-reigning light-heavyweight champion of the world at the time (ten years). Moore, who fought professionally for nearly thirty years, telephoned Bailey frequently and stayed with the Baileys and their son, Bobby, when he passed through Arkansas.
The dry, understated humor of his conversations with boxers and their handlers and promoters made Bailey’s boxing columns among his most memorable works. He followed the great Arkansas-born heavyweight champion, Charles “Sonny” Liston. The remote and glowering Liston, feared partly because of his long record of crime and reported underworld connections, quickly knocked out world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson in the first round in 1962. (President John F. Kennedy had urged Patterson not to fight the Arkansan.) Liston knocked Patterson out again the next year and ultimately was himself knocked out in the first round by Cassius Clay, who became Muhammad Ali. Suspicion and scandal followed Liston until his sudden death in Las Vegas in 1970 at the age of about thirty-eight.
Arkansans in the 1960s followed their only world champion through Bailey’s columns with a mixture of fascination and embarrassment. Liston was always vague about his age and his background, sometimes claiming that he was born in Sand Slough, an alligator-infested swamp off the Ouachita River near Moro Bay in Calhoun County, and at other times in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County). Liston’s mother, Helen, in apparently the only interview she ever gave, told Bailey that Sonny actually was born in a sharecropper cabin near Forrest City (St. Francis County) in about 1932, the year of Bailey’s birth.
Baseball was Bailey’s other beloved sport. He covered the Arkansas Travelers almost from his arrival at the Gazette in 1956. He wrote a book on the Travelers’ history in 1980 and updated it in 2007, titled, The Arkansas Travelers: 100 Years in Baseball. The pressbox at Ray Winder Field and later at Dickey-Stephens Park was named the “Jim Box” in honor of Bailey and the longtime radio broadcaster Jim Elder.
When Dick Allen spent a lonely spring and summer in Little Rock as the Travelers’ first Black player, his only white friend was Bailey, who would later write about Allen’s ordeal in the deeply segregated community. Allen, who would one day be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, would recall his time at Little Rock—he was greeted with segregationist pickets his first night at the ballpark—with some bitterness.
With Henry, Bailey wrote The Razorbacks: A Story of the University of Arkansas Football Program in 1973. He helped Frank Broyles, the longtime football coach and athletic director at the university, write his memoir, Hog Wild, in 1979.
Bailey’s town was the host for the annual Emerson PurpleHull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tiller Race, and Bailey was the honorary grand marshal of the event in 2001. Bailey was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, inducted into the Arkansas Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 2008, and named to the Sports Media Legends Wall of Honor at War Memorial Stadium in 2010. He earned a lifetime-achievement award from the Arkansas Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame and a fifty-year service award from the Arkansas Press Association.
When the owners of the Arkansas Democrat bought the Gazette from Gannett Corporation in 1991 and the Gazette closed, Bailey worked for a time for the Arkansas Times and then joined the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as a freelance columnist until he developed Alzheimer’s disease and retired in 2013.
Bailey died on January 2, 2019. He is buried in Pleasant Ridge Cemetery near Prescott (Nevada County).
For additional information:
Bailey, Jim. The Arkansas Travelers: 100 Years in Baseball. Little Rock. The Travelers Baseball Club, 2007.
Broyles, Frank, with Jim Bailey. Hog Wild: The Autobiography of Frank Broyles. Memphis, TN: Memphis State University Press, 1979.
Bailey, Jim, and Orville Henry. The Razorbacks: A Story of Arkansas Football. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1996.
McConnell, Jerry. Oral history with Jim Bailey. David and Barbara Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History. https://pryorcenter.uark.edu/project.php?thisProject=2 (accessed November 4, 2021).
Muck, Jeremy. “Veteran Arkansas Sports Writer Dies at 86.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 3, 2019.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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