The year was the first season for a Little League baseball organization in Norton.
It also was the first time the Norton All Stars won the Virginia Little League state championship.
With the state title came all the trimmings, a parade through downtown and a banquet at the nicest hotel in the city.
The 1951 season was also historic for another reason.
The Norton Little League organization was the first integrated Little League program in Virginia and is believed by many local historians to be the first integrated Little League program in the southern U.S., as well as one of the first integrated programs in the country.
“We know that it was the first integrated program in the state,” said retired Norton Mayor Robert Raines, who played in the 1951 league. “And it was definitely one of the first, if not the first in the South.”
Just 12 years before the 1951 season in Norton, Little League Baseball was started.
Dr. Charles Litton, an optometrist in Norton, read about the organization in The Saturday Evening Post, according to an article written in a 2002 edition of Appalachian Heritage magazine by Bobby Jenkins.
Litton decided to organize a chapter in Norton.
Under the leadership of Litton and team managers Ralph Bradley, Jack Hatcher, Gene Mullins and Reid Simmons, the league had four teams.
Litton gathered the sponsors for the teams that paid for player uniforms and the equipment.
The only question left was who would be allowed or not allowed to play on the team.
The Little League charter allowed the league to exclude African American players, Jenkins wrote. But if the players were not allowed to play, they would not have had enough players to form their own team.
In an unprecedented move of the time, Litton and the four managers agreed to admit African Americans to the league.
“The decision was unusual, considering the times,” Jenkins wrote. “Jackie Robinson had broken Major League Baseball’s color barrier four years before, and he was still facing abuse from Brooklyn fans and players alike.
“Throughout the North, segregation — while not codified into law — was a fact of life. In the South, it was law.”
Four African Americans, one on each of the teams, played in the league, alongside their white teammates.
JUST A GAME
Raines said he was not sure if any adults were upset about the integrated teams in Norton. If there were, he was not aware of it.
As a youngster who never had an opportunity to play organized baseball before, Raines said the color of the skin of his teammates was the last thing he and his teammates thought about.
“I don’t think any of us ever thought about it,” Raines said. “We just were happy to be out there playing baseball. We were just glad to get uniforms and real baseballs and bats that weren’t broken.”
Dr. Bill Kanto also played in the league in 1951.
Kanto was later named to the league’s all-star team as an alternate and traveled with the squad to Fairmont, W. Va., to play in the regional playoffs after Norton won the state title.
“I can’t remember that there were any issues,” Kanto remarked. “We just played baseball, and everyone was part of the team.”
The thing that Kanto still recalls 69 years later is that while Little League in Norton was integrated, the world outside the baseball diamond was not.
“It was just another summer in Norton, Va., and we just played baseball,” he said. “And after the season, we just went back to our segregated schools.”
Lynn Malesky, who played in the 1951 league and was on the all-star state championship team, wrote about the segregation in Virginia Cavalcade, a Virginia magazine devoted to the state’s history, in a 1999 article entitled The Kids of Summer.
“During the few months that I lived in Norton before the first Little League season, I had limited contact with African Americans. I saw one or two on the street or in the five and dime or at the Koltown, Norton’s one movie theater where they sat in the balcony. The schools were completely segregated. I did not know any Black children as friends or even by name,” Malesky said in his article.
That changed for Malesky, however, when Robert Strong, an African American was placed on his team.
“Like most of us, he played several positions, and he became a leading pitcher in Little League during the next two years. We boys, Black and white, played together and cheered our teammates, whatever their color,” Malesky said in his article. “But at the end of the game, we still went our separate and segregated ways. I went to the Koltown or played kick the can with the white kids living near me on Eleventh Street, but we did not invite any of our African American teammates to join us in these activities.”
THE TITLE GAME
At the conclusion of the regular season, the Norton All-Stars were selected and included two African American players, Harold Mitchell and Johnny Blair.
Since there were no other programs in the western part of the state, Norton was declared the Western Region champs.
Charlottesville won the East Region and was scheduled to host the team from Norton in the state championship game.
Instead, Charlottesville refused to allow Norton to play on its field because its facility was a “whites-only” facility.
Norton could have won the state title by default and a Charlottesville forfeit. But in a show of good will and sportsmanship, Norton invited Charlottesville to come to Southwest Virginia and play the state title game on the field at Norton.
Charlottesville accepted the invitation.
Norton won the game 12-3 to win its first Little League state championship banner.
The team traveled to West Virginia and lost its regional playoff game to Fairmont. But the group of boys just wanting to play baseball put Norton on the map with its integration policy.
STILL GOING STRONG
For 68 straight years, the Norton Little League program continued to have an integrated league, making it the longest integrated Little League charter in the state and one of the longest in the history of the organization.
The league did not have a spring season this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but plans are to continue its tradition in the spring of 2021.