Pensacola Blue Wahoos honor 1955 Little League teams’ historic feat

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Pensacola Blue Wahoos honor a powerful baseball moment 63 years ago with two youth teams with a fitting tribute
Bill Vilona, bvilona@pnj.com

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Jerry Cowart traveled more than 750 miles from West Virginia to reconnect with his history.

He was a pitcher-infielder on the 1955 Orlando Kiwanis 11/12-year-old Little League team, which agreed to play the Pensacola Jaycees in a game which shook youth baseball in the southeast.

The Jaycees were all African-Americans. Orlando’s team was all white. Their Florida Little League state semifinal game on August 10, 1955, at Orlando’s Lake Lorna Doone Park broke the game’s color barrier.

That game, that moment, and those players, which spawned the movie “Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story,” were honored Saturday by the Pensacola Blue Wahoos prior during their game at Blue Wahoos Stadium.

“I would have never missed this,” said Cowart, who engaged in embrace with fellow 70-year-old men who played for the Jaycees. “It’s very special. I know back then, we wanted to play that game. We didn’t care. We just wanted to play baseball. 

“We didn’t think one bit of the implications,” said Cowart, whose team won the game 5-0 to advance to play Miami for the 1955 state title, which Miami won 1-0. “I know (Jaycees) were scared. And we were uptight too. But it was fun. We had a good time.”

 

That’s what happened Saturday, too. PGA Tour star and Pensacola resident Bubba Watson, who co-owns the Blue Wahoos, returned from his busy schedule to hand out commemorative plaques to all players and show his support.

That was a joyous surprise to the members of both teams and their families. Blue Wahoos players and Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp players applauded from both dugouts during the ceremony.

The cheers became louder during the second inning when a sellout crowd (5,038) had filled the seats. 

“I almost wish I could have been a part of it back in that era,” said Blue Wahoos manager Jody Davis, who grew up in Gainesville, Georgia, and went on to become a Major League All-Star catcher with the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves.

“But I wasn’t born until ’56, so it was just a little bit ahead of my time, but this game of baseball has kinda smoothed over a lot of rough times.

“That bunch from Orlando did the right thing, we all know that. It is historic. I was glad to be part of it and see those guys out here. I hope they had a good time.”

More: Pensacola Little League team’s historic game is subject of new documentary

More: Vilona: Blue Wahoos help showcase 1955 moment that changed youth baseball

The Blue Wahoos, who wore replica home jerseys of the Pensacola Jaycees, had a big night themselves, beating Jacksonville 5-2 to snap a three-game losing streak. 

But like so many other nights at Blue Wahoos Stadium, the game was only part of something grander.

There were so many poignant moments Saturday. The players from yesteryear were standing on the concourse, signing autographs, posing with fans for pictures, or just taking in the whole experience.

At one point, Escambia County commissioner Lumon May approached four of the Orlando team members and hugged each one.  It was his emotional way of saying “thank you” for what they accomplished.

“It was baseball that brought it all together and baseball is doing it again here (Saturday),” said Ted Haddock, the film’s producer.

More: Pensacola youth baseball documentary featured in MLB All-Star Game festivities

The game was eight years after Jackie Robinson, who was born in Cairo, Georgia, made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier.

It was also one year after Mobile’s Hank Aaron broke into the big leagues with the Milwaukee Braves. Four years earlier, Willie Mays, who grew up near Birmingham, made his MLB debut with the New York Giants.

It was the same year Puerto Rico’s Roberto Clemente made his debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates and broke a barrier to become the first Latino superstar in the sport. 

So, while baseball already had its share of star players from all races, it was the rest of America that wasn’t so diverse in its viewpoint.

“One of our own coaches quit before we played that game, because he didn’t want to go against a black team,” Cowart said.

The Pensacola Jaycees reached the state Little League semifinals, because teams from Fort Walton Beach and Panama City both forfeited playoff games after refusing to play against black players.

“We really didn’t know, because we had baseball fields to play on,”  said Willie Robinson, a shortstop on the Jaycees and nephew of former Booker T. Washington principal Sherman Robinson. “There were baseball fields everywhere in Pensacola back then.”

“But people outside of us didn’t know we could play so well. We weren’t the best ballplayers, necessarily, in the south, but other teams didn’t get the same opportunity.”

The team traveled in three cars to get to Orlando. Only one gas station company in Florida — Phillips 66 — permitted African-American travelers to use their restrooms and drink from their water fountains.

“There were some very rough towns back then … racist places,” said Rev. Freddie Augustine, a second baseman on the team. “We couldn’t just stop anywhere.”

But they made it happen. And 63 years later, so did the Blue Wahoos. 

When Blue Wahoos co-owner Quint Studer attended the film’s first viewing in Pensacola earlier this year, the audience learned that Orlando had honored its team. People began asking aloud what was Pensacola going to do for the Jaycees.

“All of a sudden, everybody just got silent,” Studer said. “I said we are going to do a whole weekend. I had known about the movie, but I didn’t really appreciate the whole story and get it until I went and saw documentary.”

Blue Wahoos Stadium provided a fitting venue. It was only blocks away from where the Pensacola Jaycees played at their field that once existed on the corner of Government Street and Intendencia. 

“This all goes back to our covenant about bringing the community together,” Studer said. “But it is also to let people know we have a ways to go. We’ve always wanted to make this ballpark like a neighborhood.. an integrated neighborhood.”

The players from both teams met for the first time two years ago in Pensacola to film the documentary. It was their first meeting since 1955. It was at a ballpark near A.K. Suter Elementary School — a field that was off-limits to the Jaycees in 1955.

Neighborhood kids saw the film crews and the production. The youth players asked the former players, all now in their 70s, about what was going on.

When they found out, the kids began asking for autographs and bonded with the men in a way that touched their hearts.

“I thank the Lord for what happened,” Robinson said. “My only disappointment is that (the local African-American community) never recognized us back then. That is my disappointment.

“But I am overwhelmed now because they are finally getting to know what we did. It’s just they can’t really feel the full impact.”

There will be a free film presentation Sunday at 4 p.m. at Blue Wahoos Stadium. The movie is 87 minutes long. The Blue Wahoos will be on the road, beginning a critical five game series against the Biloxi Shuckers.

 Bill Vilona can be reached at bvilona@pnj.com and 850-435-8532

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