In 1955 two groups of 12-year-old boys made history when they ignored segregation and adult prejudice to play the first integrated Little League baseball game in the South. Now a new documentary, “Long Time Coming: a 1955 Baseball Story,” looks back at the groundbreaking game and reunites the opposing players for the first time in 63 years.
The film, which opens nationwide on October 23, tells the stories of the all-black Pensacola Jaycees who just wanted to get out to bat and the all-white Orlando Kiwanis who defied convention to play them.
Jackie Robinson had broken the Major League color bar when he signed up for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 but in the South it was a very different story. No white team in the Florida Panhandle would play the Jaycees, meaning they became regional champions by default and faced the Kiwanis in the state tournament.
“We had been winning big and we wanted to play Pensacola, even though many of our parents had been raised in the Deep South and were, because of the era, prejudiced,” recalls Orlando captain Stewart Hall, now 75. “Our manager quit but one of the dads stepped up to coach and our parents told us to make our own minds up. We just said, ‘Let’s play the game.’ It’s funny, 60 years on our memories are all a little hazy about the finer details but I remember the stadium being packed, the stands were all filled. Normally at Little League you don’t get a lot of people showing up.”
One of the most poignant parts of the film shows the men discussing the differences in their childhoods; as Hall says, the lessons learned are still relevant today. While the Orlando boys enjoyed tremendous freedom, the Pensacola players were under strict curfews and could not even use the same restrooms, water fountains or seating areas as whites.
Jaycees’ captain Will Preyer, also 75 and still living in Pensacola, continued playing baseball in the Air Force and coached Little League for 19 years when his three sons were growing up. Recalling the Jim Crow laws, the retired corrections officer says: “It was hard back then, prejudice was a thing that happened all the time. We were just young kids and all we wanted was to play baseball. We never expected the Orlando game to happen and when it did it was so exciting.”
“Most of us had never had never been out of Pensacola and we didn’t know what to expect. I remember my dad was so proud, although my mother was concerned and warned me to behave myself.”
Father-of-two Hall, who coached Little League for nine years and helped documentary makers track down the surviving players, took his four grandchildren to the Orlando premiere of “Long Time Coming” and hopes they too will learn the lessons of past prejudice. “It was only after I had seen the film six times that I realized we lived in one neighborhood and there was another side of town I had not thought about, where the black community lived,” the retired hotel executive says. “The younger ones had a hard time understanding it but they will later on,” says Hall, who admits to crying every time he sees the 90-minute documentary.
The film, made by first time documentary director Jon Strong, includes interviews with baseball legends Gary Sheffield, Hank Aaron and Cal Ripken Jr, as well as civil rights activist Andrew Young…but one of the most heartwarming moments was totally unscripted when a group of young children spotted the elderly Pensacola players in a ballpark being filmed.
“I was absolutely flabbergasted as the kids came up and started asking questions, they were intelligent kids and they wanted to know about our history,” says Preyer. “We are old men and they were children but they called us guys and this new generation wanted to know about us.”
A special one-night-only screening in New York City featuring some of the original team players will take place on Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. at the SVA Theatre. For tickets to the event, visit Eventbrite at: https://seniorplanet.org//bit.ly/2PYiVK7. For more information about the film, visit www.longtimecoming.film.