On June 4, 1951, a bunch of little boys in Norton, Virginia, did an extraordinary thing. They played baseball.
They made history, too, although none of them knew it at the time. Norton, the small city in the heart of Southwest Virginia coal country, became the first place in the South to play integrated Little League baseball when teams that featured white and Black players on the rosters took the field 71 years ago this week.
Four years after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s “color barrier” in becoming the first African-American big-league baseball player when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Norton, which had long been a mostly white city cradled in the coal-filled Appalachian Mountains, quietly broke its own color barrier.
The city’s citizens and ballplayers further dignified themselves later that summer when they stood up to a team from Charlottesville that refused to play against Norton’s integrated all-star squad for the state championship. The Norton folks held firm and the game was played. More about that later.
The story of Norton’s groundbreaking integration, which happened only a few years before Virginia would launch its notorious “Massive Resistance” to public school desegregation, had been overlooked for decades until a fellow named Lann Malesky, who had played for the team sponsored by the local Lions Club in ‘51, wrote about that historic summer in an article for Virginia Cavalcade magazine in 1999.
“Today, when I view that summer in the context of the rigid racial segregation of the time and the turmoil that followed in the 1950s and 1960s, I marvel,” Malesky wrote.
On Saturday June 11 at 2 p.m., a historical marker will be dedicated in Norton to honor the men and boys who made Little League — and racial — history.
The boys who played then are now men mostly in their 80s, with just a handful remaining who perhaps only within recent years have come to understand what a momentous feat they accomplished simply by playing a game they loved.
“This marker honors the passion and the vision of the people who decided to let any kid who wanted to play baseball play baseball,” said Robert Raines, 82, a former long-time Norton mayor who was a member of the Kiwanis ball team in 1951.
Norton was an unlikely place to find itself at the vanguard of the American civil rights movement in 1951, even though the town had many Black residents and even though Black and white men worked side by side in the region’s coal mines. All Virginia schools were segregated, however, and many Black Norton residents lived on the south side of the city, blocks away from white neighborhoods. The local theater, the Koltown, made Black movie-goers sit in the balcony.
But the coal mines could be a great equalizer, where not only did Black and whites work together, but so did immigrants who came to the mountains where jobs were plentiful. The old Dante High School, located in the coal town that straddles the Russell and Dickenson county lines (and is pronounced like “daint”), fielded an integrated football team in 1939.
Southwest Virginia, union-friendly and welcoming to folks who wanted jobs, was a bastion of progressivism, said Frank Kilgore, a Wise County lawyer and longtime advocate for the region.
“You dig deep enough, you’ll find that the coalfields started the roots of the progressive movement,” Kilgore said. “Higher wages, public assistance for roads, schools and water … it was all here.”
Into that post-war era of hope and prosperity in the Virginia coalfields stepped Charles Litton, a 27-year-old local optometrist and World War II Navy veteran. The story has been told many times by people who knew Dr. Litton that he was inspired to start Little League baseball in Norton after reading an article about the organization in The Saturday Evening Post. Little League had been around since 1939, founded in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to allow boys to play in organized baseball. To this day, the Little League World Series played in Williamsport is a popular summer sports TV spectacle.
Litton started Norton’s Little League with the help of other local men that included Gene Mullins, Jack Hatcher, Ralph Bradley and Reid Simmons. Like Litton, most of the men were young military veterans. Each of those four coached one of the teams.
With sponsorship from the local Lions, Kiwanis, Boosters and Junior Woman’s clubs, the league had financial backing for uniforms and equipment. An ad ran in The Coalfield Progress, Norton’s newspaper, inviting players to come to tryouts at the local softball field on May 21, 1951.
When two Black boys named Johnny Blair and Harold “Mitch” Mitchell showed up for tryouts among more than 90 white boys, the league fathers told the boys to go home — not because they were being banned from playing, but because they were ordered to bring at least two more Black boys with them so that each of the four teams would have at least one Black player.
According to Malesky’s Cavalcade article, “[t]wo local politicians, sensitive to the traditional ways in Virginia, advised Litton and his youthful cohorts to exclude the black players and warned them that the state would not let them get away with integrating the teams.”
The organizers could have drawn the league boundaries in a way that would have excluded the Black neighborhoods and kept the league as white as a new baseball. Litton, however, balked at such an option. The Norton Little League would allow any boy who wanted to play ball — Black or white — to be on a team.
Robert Strong, Blair, Mitchell and another Black youth whose name has been lost to history, joined a season-opening parade through downtown and took the field on June 4, 1951.
“As a result, the Norton Little League was integrated at its inception,” Malesky wrote, adding that there was “tacit acceptance of the integration of our Little League.”
“They never told anyone that they couldn’t play because of the color of their skin,” said Raines, a teammate of Blair’s on the Kiwanis club.
The only real league controversy arose when some boys on the Junior Woman’s Club team recoiled at wearing jerseys bearing the name “Junior Woman.” The women of the club made it clear that they had paid for those jerseys, and that the boys would either wear them or have no team at all. The Junior Woman’s Club team relented and played ball.
In recent years, several online articles and even a documentary film that was available on Netflix have stated that the first integrated Little League game was played in Orlando, Florida, in 1955, four years after the Norton league was formed. The historical marker commemorated on Saturday will publicly right this error in downtown Norton, but the mistake persists in Florida, where a monument was unveiled just three months ago erroneously purporting that the first interracial game was played there.
The people of Norton want the world to know they were ahead of the curve.
Bill Kanto, a longtime physician in Norton, also played with Blair in that summer of 1951, and he admitted that kids were perhaps a bit more “oblivious to a lot of things” when it came to integration, civil rights and politics.
“Jim Crow-ism was not as rampant [in the coalfields] as it was in the rest of the South,” Kanto said. “I’m not saying we lived in a little glass bubble, because schools were still segregated. But there was less animosity [in Norton], we loved baseball and the times they were a-changing.”
He recalled a road trip when Hatcher, the Kiwanis coach, took the team to play a game in Harlan, Kentucky. After the game, which was played without incident, Hatcher stopped at a drugstore for lunch. The coach sent in one of his players to find out if the drugstore would serve all the players, including Blair, the fine Black outfielder.
“The owner said, ‘Yes, it’s OK,’” Kanto said. “He knew about Norton, because he said he used to go to bordellos there.”
Times were not changing in other parts of the commonwealth, however. At midseason that summer, the Norton coaches selected an all-star team to represent Norton in a state Little League tournament. Because Norton had the only sanctioned Little League in all of western Virginia, the team set out to represent the region against squads from the eastern part of the state.
Coaches Simmons and Bradley selected the 14-player all-star team, which included two Black players, Blair and Mitchell. Some parents objected about the picks of the Black players over white boys, Malesky wrote, but Litton ignored the complaints and kept the team together. Then, more objections arose from across the state.
Charlottesville was the site of the state championship, but that city’s league officials refused to let Norton’s integrated team play in its segregated facilities. The national league office backed the Norton club and said they must be allowed to play. So, Norton officials made an offer: if Charlottesville wouldn’t let our team play there, then the Charlottesville squad was welcome to play here.
Charlottesville was crowned Eastern division champ after winning a playoff that included teams from Danville, Front Royal and Timberville. The eastern champ would travel to the coalfields to play Norton, the only Little League representative in the west.
Norton, its team spurned by Charlottesville, welcomed its guests with a city-wide parade led by the high school band. Players rolled down the street in convertibles to the softball field, where 1,500 fans “packed the stands … and yelled and screamed themselves hoarse,” Malesky wrote, quoting The Coalfield Progress’s coverage of the game.
The Norton team blew the game open in the fifth inning on the way to a 12-3 victory in the one-game state championship playoff. Virginia, where legal segregation ruled the day, would be represented by an integrated Little League team when the national tournament began.
The team played the West Virginia champs in a regional match-up, with the Norton squad flying on a DC-3 to Fairmont, West Virginia. The Norton boys were overmatched, losing 9-0 as the West Virginia pitcher hurled a no-hitter. Seventy-one years later, though, winning or losing that game matters little.
“For one magic moment, that little town was the champ of the whole state of Virginia,” Malesky wrote.
Few players remain from that 1951 history-making league. None of the Black players are alive. Litton and the other coaches are gone.
“I was talking to Johnny Blair’s sister, telling her I was so sad none of the Black players were still with us,” Raines said. “And she said, ‘Black folks don’t live as long as white folks.’”
Malesky showered Litton and the other coaches with credit for staying the course and letting Black players on the field with whites. Raines and Kanto believe that the men’s war experiences shaped them into leaders who wanted to take their fight for freedom from the battlefield to the ballfield.
“These were five real young men living in a post-World War II environment,” Kanto said. “Like I said, things were changing.”
The push for the historic marker began after an editorial in The Roanoke Times appeared last year, written by then-editorial page editor and current Cardinal News editor Dwayne Yancey, urging that the Norton Little League receive a public honor. Two men who had played on the team, Charlie Henderson and P.D. Miller, both physicians, joined with Raines, Kanto, Norton mayor Joe Fawbush and others to get the marker erected. The historical marker was paid for by individual donations that were funneled through the city, which also provided the spot for the monument. A campaign to erect the marker raised more than $2,000 according to Raines.
One final footnote about Norton and Little League. In the years when other Southern leagues began allowing Blacks to play with and against whites, resistance to youth baseball integration took root when 61 teams in South Carolina left Little League in 1955 to form their own organization. That league grew and a decade later became known as Dixie Youth Baseball, a segregated league that spread across the South like kudzu, with a Confederate battle flag as its logo. Dixie Youth was forced to integrate in the 1960s and it dropped the Confederate logo in 1994. The league has long tried to shake its racist beginnings to become more inclusive, and the league still thrives in many Southern states, including Virginia, where Dixie Youth is played from Appomattox to the New River Valley, from Roanoke County to Prince George.
Not in Norton, though. Little League is still the name of the game. Today, the city marks when it all began, seventy-one years ago, when Black and white boys played baseball together.
“We’re not a perfect Nirvana,” Kanto said. “But we had our bright, shining moment.”