- Associated Press - Sunday, September 24, 2017

ASHDOWN, Ark. (AP) - A baseball memorabilia display will be unveiled at 2 p.m. Sept. 30 in the Two Rivers Museum in Ashdown, Arkansas, honoring the late Walter Ray Matthews and his baseball career with the Houston Astros.

The Texarkana Gazette reports Matthews came from a place called Hicks, Arkansas, east of Ashdown.

After graduating from Ashdown High School, he attended the University of Arkansas and became a two-sport letterman in baseball and football. He averaged 20 yards a catch as a 6-3, 200-pound end and one of coach Bowden Wyatt’s famed “25 Little Pigs” that lost to Georgia Tech in the 1955 Cotton Bowl.

Matthews, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 79, served the Houston Astros organization for 51 years, which is the longest in franchise history.

“The Houston Astros are leading their division this season and Walter Ray would be so proud. I think this is the perfect time in the season to share his story. We appreciate the Two Rivers Museum for allowing us to showcase Walter Ray’s extensive sports memorabilia collection from his collegiate football experience with the Arkansas Razorbacks, as well as his career with Minor and Major League Baseball, and as one of the Houston Astros’ most respected talent scouts,” said Vicki Matthews, who is Matthews‘ widow.

Astros veteran pro scout Paul Ricciarini was a close friend of Matthews and credits him with being a major influence on his career.

“I think of Walt, the man, so unselfish and just so much larger than life,” he said. “I used to call him another Duke Wayne. He had that kind of presence and just that engaging personality. He had a great sense of humor, great wit. Boy I tell you, he was as good as it gets because he would always take the time for all of us. If we had questions, he could sense if we were confused about an issue with scouting and he’d sit right in without embarrassing or undermining and just help you work through it,” according to an article written by Brian McTaggart, who is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag’s Lines.

Upon graduation from the University of Arkansas, he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals but would spend the majority of his Minor League career as a first baseman and outfielder in Houston’s farm system with the Durham Bulls beginning in 1961. Matthews set a franchise record with 30 home runs in 1963 while with the Bulls.

More importantly, Matthews was credited with helping many young players, most notably an 18-year-old Joe Morgan, with whom he played with at Durham in 1963. As a result of the racial slurs and threats Morgan faced from opposing fans that season, he intended to quit the team and return to his home in California.

But Matthews encouraged Morgan to stay and was successful in reducing the racial abuse. As a result of Matthews‘ encouragement, Morgan stayed the course and continued to flourish, ultimately going on to a Hall of Fame career. Morgan has often spoken about the influence that Matthews had on his early career.

Matthews became a talent scout for the Astros in 1967 and would remain with the organization until his retirement in 2012. After a lengthy illness, he passed away on April 28, 2014.

“He was a tremendous inspiration and influence on so many people, not just because of the wisdom from a scouting and baseball acumen, but for the person that he was,” Ricciarini said. “There was so much character, so much fun to be around. Walt was a terrific athlete himself, so he could really back up what he used to talk. We miss him terrifically. Each day I think of him, and that says a lot about someone. There’s not a day that goes by I don’t think of Walt.”

After learning about Matthews‘ death, Morgan wanted to talk about his friendship with Matthews.

“Walt was my Pee Wee Reese to Jackie Robinson. He helped me to survive the racism,” Morgan said in a telephone interview with the Texarkana Gazette.

“Looking back now, I wish I made it a little more public how he helped me. He didn’t want that. We had a special bond, and he didn’t want me to tell people. I would talk about it, and he would say ‘Oh, shi_.’ But he said (that) to everything,” Morgan said.

It was Matthews‘ confidence and swagger that helped Morgan survive.

“Hell yeah, he (Matthews) was like John Wayne. He was a big guy and had an air about him and confidence. He was a man’s man. He had a walk and helped everybody,” he said.

“I just knew he was in my corner. When I needed somebody to talk to, he was always available,” Morgan said.

Morgan never knew what Matthews said to the racists to calm down the taunts. Matthews described them as “big old tobacco farmers” similar to the “big old cotton farmers” back home.

The display will be on exhibit through March 30.

Some of the baseball display includes autographed items by Sandy Koufax, Stan Musial, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Craig Biggio.


Information from: Texarkana Gazette, https://www.texarkanagazette.com

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