On a late August afternoon in 1955, the Orlando Kiwanis beat the Pensacola Jaycees, 5–0, to win the Florida Little League championship.
Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story, an 87-minute documentary that premieres Tuesday on Netflix, explains beautifully why the final score was the least important part of that game.
The lede, as we call it in the newspaper biz, is that never before in Florida, or the South, had a black team played against a white team in that sort of championship game.
The Pensacola team had all black players. The Orlando team had all white players. Of course. In the South not so many years ago, you wouldn’t have found a black kid on a white team any more than you would have found that black kid drinking from a white water fountain.
Since 1955 came eight years after Jackie Robinson had integrated Major League baseball, you might think there would have been some relaxation in that divide down at the grass roots of baseball.
Not exactly. When the Pensacola team won its local championship, none of the white teams in that district would play on the same field with a black team. They all forfeited instead, which sent Pensacola to the state championship game.
Since 61 white Florida teams had declared they would not play against a black team, it wasn’t all clear there would be a state championship game. When the Orlando team decided to play, the Orlando coach resigned with a barrage of harsh remarks about black folks and the evil of race-mixing.
A Long Time Coming spends its first few innings tracking this whole runup to the game, and the backdrop against which it was played.
The seven surviving Orlando players remember the 1950s as idyllic, a magic interlude when everyone had all they needed, no one was afraid, kids could ride their bikes through town until 10 o’clock at night and life was golden.
The six surviving Pensacola players remember the 1950s a little differently. They remember the restaurants where they couldn’t eat a sandwich. They remember they could not be on the streets after 6 p.m.
They remember reading about Emmett Till, 14, who was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. One member of the Pensacola team recalls how, at the age of 10 or 12, he had a knife pulled on him by a white man who mistakenly thought the boy had committed a similar offense in Pensacola.
Looking back at the game, the Pensacola players feel frustrated they didn’t play well. They make no excuses, so it’s interesting that the Orlando players offer an explanation for them.
“They seemed nervous,” says Stewart Hall, the Orlando first baseman, and with close to a thousand mostly white spectators watching in a town the Pensacola players had never seen, it’s not that hard to imagine why.
Through today’s eyes, the Pensacola players say winning would have better proven that they belonged on the same field as every other baseball player. The corollary view comes from a report on the game by Sam Lacy, the black sportswriter who spent much of his professional life lobbying for a level playing field.
Pensacola didn’t win, Lacy wrote. What mattered is they played.
That’s the optimistic view, and director Jon Strong packs A Long Time Coming with news clips that suggest America has slowly and painfully moved forward on race relations. Several Major League players, including Hank Aaron and Gary Sheffield, say baseball was a critical battering ram in the assault on America’s racial barriers.
After meticulously framing the 1955 game — from which, not surprisingly, video and photos are almost non-existent — A Long Time Coming moves into two additional distinct sections.
In the first, players from both teams talk about their racial experiences and thoughts, from their youth up through two years ago when the documentary was filmed.
That section is instructive and not always heartening. Several of the Orlando players say the South of the 1950s was not anti-black, it was just two separate worlds. Hall says he doesn’t remember even having met a black person until he was out of college and in the military.
Today, other Orlando players say, they don’t understand the racial divide, and they fear it’s so deep it may never be bridged.
One of the Pensacola players, Admiral “Spider” Leroy, joined a lunch counter sit-in three years after the Orlando game. He remembers local white men crushing lit cigarettes on his arms, one of many moments that made him a civil rights militant.
No player on either team professes generic dislike of other races. Several players on both teams admit they aren’t sure they understand the other. “You look in their eyes,” says one Pensacola player, “and you always wonder what they’re thinking.”
Hall, who says he has thought a lot about the concept of racism in conjunction with his Christian faith, puts it like this: “The problem is not understanding the other side . .. . When that happens, we have a tendency to fill in the blanks and when you do that, usually you’re wrong.”
Still, A Long Time Coming doesn’t end on that uneasy note. In the last 20 minutes, the seven Orlando players pile into their cars and take a road trip to Pensacola, where they meet the six Pensacola players.
It’s the first time these guys have seen the others since 1955. The reunion is striking and touching. Surprising and not surprising at the same time.
As a microcosmic snapshot of the racial issues with which America has struggled its whole life, A Long Time Coming pitches a lot of questions and throws out a few possible answers.
It also gives a deserved tip of the cap to baseball, and in the end scores well enough that we can forgive one little irony that nonetheless should be noted.
To set the mood for 1955, we hear the song “Tweedle Dee” — the white cover version by Georgia Gibbs, which kept the much better original version by LaVern Baker out of the top 10.