By Mark F. Gray, Special to the AFRO
For 61 years, Will Preyer and Stewart Hall didn’t fully comprehend their separate but equal places in baseball history when they played in their state Little League Championship in 1955. Eight years after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, the game remained segregated at the youth level, especially in the Deep South. However, things changed in1955 at the Florida State Little League Championship, which is now the subject of a documentary recently screened at the Library of Congress.
“A Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story” chronicles the story of how the all-White Orlando Kiwanis and all-Black Pensacola Jaycees met in a championship game defined by more than its box score. It was the first time that racial divisions were put aside on a baseball diamond for kids to socially interact and compete while breaking the stereotypes associated with Jim Crow.
“I think this story is important because we didn’t realize the significance of the game when we played it,” Hall told the AFRO. “A chance to reunite with the guys gave us the chance to learn about how they were feeling and to talk with them about what was it was like growing up Black in Pensacola.”
The documentary addresses the different worlds the players were entering the game from. Hall and the rest of his Orlando teammates had “perfect” lives with no legally sanctioned barriers keeping them from enjoying it. Pensacola players were living in a world of denied access and curfews that kept them in a social holding cell where they dared not be caught outside the neighborhood after hours. They advanced to the championship round via forfeit because White teams in the Florida panhandle wouldn’t face teams with Black players.
However, a love for baseball was the common theme in each dugout. The feelings of those times and the passion for the game of both teams is captured brilliantly by director John Strong. Strong blends stories of a shared romanticism that both groups felt for the game against a backdrop of how those times were shaping the way kids were growing up in two separate Americas.
“It took a lot of digging,” said producer Ted Haddock. “The more we really pressed into it we discovered this was a very significant game and a story that really needed to be told”.
Hall says in the movie how the AFRO, and legendary sports editor Sam Lacy, made him appreciate the role he played in history. Lacy wrote the story that was published with a headline “Florida Little League Has Mixed Playoff” on August 20, 1955 which opened the door to start the project. It wasn’t until Hall read the AFRO’s chronicle of the events that he realized the magnitude of the ground that was broken on that day.
“A chance to reunite with the team from Pensacola gave us a chance to fill in a lot of the blanks,” said Hall. “It has been an emotional experience being around those men. After 61 years to be able to finally talk openly with them is a red letter moment in my life.”
Several baseball legends also share their perspectives on the importance of this game throughout the story. Former Orioles Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken and manager Davey Johnson are joined by longtime home run king Hank Aaron.
Orlando won the game 5-0 but that is just a footnote according to Rev. Freddie Augustine who played for Pensacola. “Times were tough then and racial tension was always high. But leading up to and during the game there was no problem. I just wished we had played a better game,” Augustine said.