Column: A seminal game that hardly anyone knows about
ATLANTA (AP) — It was a seminal moment in the civil rights movement.
In hindsight, one of the most significant games in American history.
Yet most people have never heard the baseball story.
Not even Hank Aaron, who is all too familiar with this nation’s resistance to racial equality.
“I didn’t know anything about this game,” the Hammer conceded.
Well, it’s about time that everyone learns what happened in Orlando, Florida on Aug. 9, 1955.
For the first time, an integrated Little League Baseball game — a group of white kids playing a team of African-American youngsters —was held in the Jim Crow South.
“We knew it was different. But when it came right down to it, we were just competing against that other team,” said Willie Preyer, who played center field for the all-black Pensacola Jaycees. “It hadn’t dawned on us, the significance of it. We just wanted to play baseball. We wanted to go down there and win. We wanted to show our talents.”
The 12-year-olds certainly didn’t see themselves as civil rights pioneers, even in a country that was barely a year removed from the epic “Brown vs. Board of Education” decision from the Supreme Court, a country that would be rocked less than three weeks later by the brutal murder of black teenager Emmett Till for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.
“We just played the game,” said Stewart Hall, first baseman for the all-white Orlando Kiwanis team. “When it was over, there was no more discussion about it. We just went on to our next game. It was almost routine.”
Of course, there was nothing routine about the moment.
That same summer, a group of black Little Leaguers captured the South Carolina state championship by default, simply because no white team would agree to play them. It looked like the same thing would happen to the Pensacola Jaycees, who advanced to their state tournament only because every white team in the Florida Panhandle decided to forfeit.
But when they got to Orlando, the Jaycees finally found a willing opponent.
And, fortunately for us, the new documentary “Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story” has brought this amazing snippet in the American experience back to life .
The movie debuted in April at the Florida Film Festival. It will be shown again Saturday night at the Carter Center in Atlanta, followed by a Q&A featuring Aaron, Hall and another member of the Jaycees team, Admiral “Spider” LeRoy. The creators are trying to line up a distributor to release their film to a wider audience.
In a nation torn apart by racial, ethnic and political divisions, the timing couldn’t be better.
Those 12-year-old boys — now in the later innings of life — could be the perfect messengers of hope and reconciliation.
“It’s not about what kind of ballgame it was,” the 75-year-old Hall said. (For the record, Orlando prevailed 5-0). “It’s a marvelous message of what happens when people come together, sit down and start talking with some civility. Then you can work through your problems, your issues. When a bunch of guys from Orlando and a bunch of guys from Pensacola got a chance to meet up again, we just became brothers. That’s what I hope everyone sees.”
Indeed, at the end of the 87-minute film, the producers arranged a reunion in Pensacola between 13 surviving members of the teams. They met at the center of a youth baseball field, approaching each other from opposite dugouts, the first time they had seen each other in more than six decades.
In a matter of minutes, all those years melted away.
“I had butterflies. We were all nervous about what we were going to say,” Hall said. “But what you saw, the first time seeing each other, not a thing in the film was scripted. Everything happened naturally. It was electric. It was emotional. It only took a few moments before we were all hugging and laughing and crying.”
The documentary provides a circuitous route to that touching moment — focusing first on the game itself, then racing through a quick recap of key moments in the civil rights movement, finally flashing forward to where these now-elderly men ended up and, more tellingly, how they would come to think about the world after all those years.
Baseball greats such as Aaron, Cal Ripken Jr., Gary Sheffield and Davey Johnson, along with civil rights pioneer Andrew Young, are brought in to add some context to what this game — and baseball itself — meant in the struggle for equality.
“You could say that God kind of had his hands on me, directing me on the right path,” Aaron said in an interview this week with The Associated Press. “I don’t know any other way I would have gotten out of Mobile, Alabama except for baseball.”
You see white men who look back on their childhood as idyllic.
You see black men who remember nothing but ugliness and barriers.
You see men from both teams fretting about the nasty turn America has taken in recent years.
But sadly, that landmark game in Orlando didn’t lead to a dramatic breakdown in racial barriers.
Preyer went on the play high school and semipro ball but never another baseball game with whites until he joined the Air Force. Little League’s demands for integration in youth baseball prompted many Southern leagues to secede from the national governing body to form their own organization, Dixie Youth Baseball, which is still thriving to this day though the laws of the land forced its integration. Growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia during the 1970s, I played Dixie Youth Baseball simply because it was the only league in town. I didn’t learn of its ugly racial heritage until I was older.
Hall and his former teammates still wonder why their parents allowed them to play against the Pensacola Jaycees, when so many of their Southern contemporaries took a more hostile path, when their own coach quit rather than agree to play a black team.
“To this day, I have no idea why,” Hall said. “I guess we were just very fortunate. We’d had a lot of success with our team to that point. I guess our parents saw that and said, ‘My gosh, why stop their dreams right now? Let’s just let ’em play.'”
We need to remember those small but epic steps forward.
We could use a lot more of them.