Growing up in Alabama, Hank Aaron didn’t play Little League baseball.
And in 1955 he was just beginning his professional career, playing his second season with the Milwaukee Braves.
So it makes sense that in the days long before the internet and social media, one of the greatest baseball players of all time was unaware of one of the most important games ever played in the history of the sport.
The contest was a Little League game that occurred on Aug. 9, 1955 in Orlando, Florida. An all-black team, the Pensacola Jaycees, faced off against the Orlando Kiwanis, an all-white team. It marked the first time in the Jim Crow South that an integrated Little League baseball game took place.
“My reaction was that, it couldn’t have happened. And yet, you think about it and you say, ‘It did happen.’ It did happen, and it happened for real,” Aaron said Saturday at the Carter Center in Atlanta. “... I guess I was so involved with my own career, but I’ve come to learn about that game and love it, for what it stands for.”
But Aaron isn’t alone in not being aware of this historic game. Even the players involved didn’t know its significance at the time.
To them, it was just another opportunity to play ball.
“We had no idea we were making history. I didn’t have a clue until 61 years later,” said Stewart Hall, the first baseman for the Kiwanis. “I didn’t know we were the first white team to play a black team. We just kind of went on with our lives.”
After being overlooked for 63 years, the story of this extraordinary meeting is finally being told. Aaron and Hall are among those featured in a documentary about the game, “Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story.”
Eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, the sport’s youth leagues were still not yet fully integrated. The film chronicles the story of Florida's 1955 Little League State Championship, the lead-up to it and the aftermath, and how two groups of 12-year-old boys saw each other simply as competitors, not hated enemies.
Still, the game didn’t get played without some intemperate behavior. The Jaycees made their way to the championship game thanks to forfeits, because most of the all-white teams refused to play them. When the Jaycees were finally set to play the Kiwanis, parents of the Orlando players let their kids vote on whether or not to play the game.
“We figured something was up, because our coach resigned. That created some havoc,” Hall said. “It came down to the boys deciding to play the game. But, none of us really remember anything being said about it being the first time a white team had played black team. It was all about playing ball and winning the game.”
The 87-minute documentary debuted earlier this year at the Florida Film Festival. On Saturday, it was shown at the Carter Center with Aaron, Hall and others participating in a Q&A afterward. The film will be screened at film festivals around the country, but filmmakers are hoping to strike a deal with a bigger distribution company, like Netflix or Amazon, to show it to a wider audience.
John Strong is the film’s director and Ted Haddock is the producer. Serving as executive producer for the film was Mike Tollin. Among many other film credits, Tollin directed the 2003 movie “Radio,” produced the 1999 movie “Varsity Blues” and created the 2009 ESPN 30 for 30 “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” He also produced, wrote and directed a 1995 documentary about Aaron called “Chasing the Dream.”
Although Aaron only recently learned of the game that was essentially a hyperlocal Jackie Robinson-type sports achievement, he agreed to be part of the movie because of its significance in the fight for racial equality.
“I think about all of the things that (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and all of the civil rights leaders did in my days coming up,” Aaron said. “Baseball and this movie have about as much trickling down as anybody.”
Credit: Mitchell Northam, AJC
Credit: Mitchell Northam, AJC
Aaron said that he didn’t play with white players until he signed with the Braves and joined their Class C minor league affiliate in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
“This game teaches that, given the opportunity, we all can play together. We all can be together. We all can do anything we want together, given the opportunity,” he said.
In addition to Aaron, the film also features commentary from “Ironman” Cal Ripken Jr., nine-time all-star Gary Sheffield and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, to add context on what the game meant for baseball and the country.
Many of the players involved in the game are interviewed too. Admiral “Spider” Leroy played for the Jaycees before going on to become a college basketball player at Tennessee State University. Leroy later became a teacher and then a magazine publisher.
Through the lens of a 12-year-old, Leroy says that he and most of his teammates viewed the landmark game as an opportunity to take a little trip to Orlando. Reflecting on the game Saturday at the Carter Center, he said the Jaycees’ coaches didn’t tell the younger players about the controversy surrounding it.
“The beautiful thing about it is, this is not rehearsed. It’s not scripted. It’s just magic,” Leroy said. “We’re not going to let this get away. We’re going to continue this journey because we can see the difference that ‘Long Time Coming’ is making and we know we’re at the forefront of it.”
Given the country’s current cultural climate, it’s better that the story is being told today than say, 40 years ago, Hall said.
“ There’s a great message in it for America. What I see it doing is causing people in the audience to begin to talk to one another about our racial problems in the United States, and that’s made it all worth it.”
So, who won the game?
You’ll have to see the movie to find out. Consider Hammerin’ Hank’s review.
“It’s a very good movie,” Aaron said. “It’s important for people to see it because of what it stands for and what it means to the whole country. It means that, no matter who we are, we can get along.”