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April 6, 2018

There have been so many great, talented and versatile athletes in the history of Southern Miss athletics that it would take me forever to tell you about all of them. But one of the all-time best was without question the legendary Hugh Laurin Pepper who sadly passed away back in early February at the age of 88.

Pepper, who is a member of our exclusive Legends Club, was an athlete that had "all the tools" and among the many things that he achieved during his career at Southern Miss was to establish himself as one of the school's greatest running backs while playing for Coach Thad (Pie) Vann during the 1952 and 1953 football seasons. But few people remember he is regarded as one of the best pitchers in the history of Golden Eagle baseball and had a career that saw him spend four years with the Major League's Pittsburgh Pirates following his time in Hattiesburg.

After two seasons at Holmes Community College he arrived at Southern Miss in 1952 and generated one of the finest football seasons in school history. Teaming with fullback Bucky McElroy, Pepper in 11 regular season games that year he rushed 144 times for 1,191 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 8.2 yards per carry average that year is still the best in school history.

Pepper led the team in rushing again during the 1953 season rushing for 677 yards on 83 carries (8.29 yards per carry) and again scored 10 touchdowns on the ground. He caught four passes for 96 yards (24.0 yards per catch), returned three kickoffs for 61 yards (a 20.3 average), had 10 punt returns for a 15.8 yard average and intercepted two passes, while leading the team in scoring again with 72 points.

Pepper is among the all-time leading rushers in Southern Miss history with 1,868 yards and his rushing average of 8.2 yards per carry is still the school's best. Only a small number of players have ever rushed for more touchdowns in their careers than his 20. He returned six kickoffs in his career for an incredible 43.2 average and two touchdowns.

Eight times in his 20-game career he rushed for 100 yards or more in a game, including a career-high 158 yards on October 3, 1953 against Tampa.

Following his career at Southern Miss he was selected in the 6th round of the NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he turned that opportunity down for a career in baseball.

Pepper lettered in baseball in 1953 and 1954 and his pitching record during his two-year career was 16 wins and only one defeat, a loss at Loyola of New Orleans in 1953. He had a perfect 10-0 record in 1954, which was every game the team won that season.

Among those 16 victories during the right-hander's two-year career was the school's first ever no-hitter on March 25, 1954 against Northern Illinois at what was then known as Greater Hattiesburg Park in downtown Hattiesburg a game in which he also led the offensive attack that afternoon by driving in three runs with a sacrifice fly, a triple and the team's first home run of the season. He faced just 23 batters that day in a game shortened by rain, walking two Northern Illinois batters (the only two to reach base that day) while striking out 10.

Mixing up a combination of a better than average fastball and a curveball that according to some in attendance that day, had a "better snap" to it than it had the previous season, the Huskies only came close once to getting a base hit. But shortstop Jim "Peanuts" Davenport, who would later become an all-star with the New York and San Francisco Giants, went deep behind second base to grab a ground ball that appeared to be heading for center field and get a force at second of one of the two batters that had drawn a walk.

Southern wasted little time in scoring that day when in the bottom of the first inning two straight walks and an infield single by first baseman Hub Waters loaded the bases, when right-fielder Micky Harrington hit a sacrifice fly to drive in the first run of the game and then outfielder Brooks Tisdale cleared the bases with a double that he lined down the left field line making it 4-0.

Pepper then opened the second inning with a towering home run over the left field wall and then a walk to Doug Barfield, a single by third-baseman Nick Revon, a double by Davenport and a long fly by Waters followed to bring in two more runs and Southern led 7-0. Northern Illinois starter Ed Delaporte surrendered two more runs in the third to make it 9-0 as Pepper brought one in with a sacrifice fly and Al Endt, who had doubled, scored on Revon's second of three singles.

In the sixth a double by Davenport, a single by Waters and another long fly ball by Harrington produced two runs, making it 11-0. In the seventh as the rain began to fall Endt led off with a single and scored when Pepper tripled over the right-fielder's head. Barfield drew his third walk and Pepper then scored the final run of the day on a long fly ball by Revon and then Davenport walked as the heavy rain came forcing the game to be called. Pepper and Tisdale each had three runs batted in that day, while Harrington, Waters and Revon each drove in two. Davenport had one RBI that afternoon.

A short time following the 1954 Southern Miss baseball season Pepper signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 14, 1954.

Beginning in 1947 and ending in 1965, Major League Baseball instituted what became known as the "Bonus Rule." The "Bonus Rule" was an initiative by Major League Baseball to restore some semblance of competitive balance and counter-act teams like the St. Louis Cardinals, Brooklyn Dodgers, and New York Yankees who were stockpiling and burying players in their vast minor league systems. Under the rule, any team was allowed to sign a prospect--many of whom were just out of high school--to a bonus of $4,000 or more under the stipulation that they spend two years on a major league roster. Failure to follow the guidelines exposed the player to waivers, allowing him to be claimed by another team. Bonuses generally far exceeded the $4,000 minimum.

So because of that "Bonus Rule," Pepper was assigned to the Pirates major league roster on a team in which the stars were pitchers Bob Friend and Vernon Law and hitters like Bob Skinner and Frank Thomas. Manager Fred Haney would give Pepper his major league debut on July 4 at Forbes Field in the first game of the doubleheader against the New York Giants. Pepper came out of the Pirate bullpen that afternoon and pitch the final four innings of the game allowing just three hits, two runs and walking two batters in a game won by the Giants 9-2. In a career in the big leagues that spanned four seasons, Pepper went on to appear in 44 games for the Pirates that including 17-starting assignments and 109.2 innings pitched.

Following his fourth year with the Pirates, he would stay with the organization and pitch in the minor leagues for another six years that included stints in the AAA Pacific Coast League with Salt Lake City, Hawaii and Hollywood and in the AAA International League with Columbus and Rochester, before retiring.

After his pro baseball career he went on to become the head football coach at Ocean Springs (Mississippi) High School and coach the team from 1963 to 198 and again from 1984 to 1991 recording 191 victories in his coaching career. As a coach he was able to teach several generations of Mississippi High School athletes and teach them the right way to play the game and send many of his former athletes on to play at the college level, where they enjoyed successful careers.

He was inducted into the Southern Miss M-Club Alumni Association Alumni Association Sports Hall of Fame in 1966 and inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1977. In 2000 he also was named one of the 33 members of the Southern Miss Football Team of the Century.

He was one of the greatest athletes in the history of Southern Miss and will always be remembered for his great contributions by all Golden Eagle fans.

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