WILLIAMSPORT, PENNSYLVANIA - If you have been watching sports recently, you may know that the Little League World Series has crowned a new series champion. But what you probably don't know is there has only been one team from Mississippi ever to make it to the tournament, and that team was from Hattiesburg in 1977.
Every August since 1947, the Little League World Series has brought together the best youth baseball teams from around the world to compete for the title of world champion. Kids who grow up playing America's pastime, dream about playing the game they love on the world's biggest stage in front of millions on ESPN.
In 1977, when the kids from Hub City Little League won the South region, there were only eight teams—four from the United States and four from the rest of the world. And going where no Mississippi team had gone before did not come without challenges. As an all-African American team, resources were scarce, and they did not have much support.
Former coach Reverend Kenneth E. Fairley remembers just how tough it was.
"Unlike other youth programs, there was very little support. The parents loved the kids but could not afford to buy equipment. When we went to state in Biloxi and then the regional in St. Petersburg, Florida, we had to borrow gloves from the other team," Fairley said.
Upon arriving in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the team became immersed in a whole new world of excitement and competition. Before that summer, most of the kids had not had the opportunity to leave the state of Mississippi—much less a chance to be on national television.
Andrew Mott, the team's catcher, remembers the experience well.
"The facilities were awesome. They were first-class. I mean you see people from all different nations. Williamsport is a place that kids dream of going to," said Mott.
Taiwan came in as the favorites due to their recent dominance winning five of the last eight world championships. The hype of the Taiwanese team rubbed off on the kids from the Hub City when the two teams were taking batting practice on back-to-back fields.
"The players from Taiwan were blasting home runs onto the Mississippi practice field," recalled Mott.
Hattiesburg coaches Kenneth Fairley and Robert 'Boot' Walker then stepped in to earn some respect for the team.
"They [the coaches] stopped us from hitting and changed the rotation, so the best power hitters, Charlie, Rob, and I, could start crushing home runs back at them," added Mott.
Before they knew it, ABC and Sports Illustrated started following the Hub City team around proclaiming that they could rival the Taiwanese favorites. Sports Illustrated described the Mississippi kids as an all-black team that was the loosest, friendliest and most relaxed of the bunch that played well enough on the field to win.
The Hub City Little League definitely played well enough to win. After a tough 3-1 loss to the then-undefeated California team, the Mississippi little leaguers went on to win the Consolation Championship with a 10-2 win over Spain and a 9-2 win over Ohio.
According to Coach Fairley, his team would have gone all the way if they had been able to keep the severe gnats in check with bug spray in the first game.
Nonetheless, the team represented the city of Hattiesburg and the state of Mississippi with great honor and dignity that year and deserved a fitting celebration.
However, it is no secret that this team was not the least bit celebrated. There is a reason almost no one in the team's beloved city has ever heard of them. The team did not receive coverage from the local media. There is a reason that kids who now play on those same fields at Vernon Dahmer Park have no idea there was once a team from there that played in the Little League World Series. And that reason is the color of their skin.
Andrew Mott remembers the city's treatment like a bad dream.
"We had a sign up at [Vernon] Dahmer Park that had pictures of the team with the banners. Not long after that, everything was gone. They just took it down. It's like a ghost now. It's like it never happened."
Now, in the aftermath of the 73rd Little League World Series this year, we can and should still celebrate the feat of that Hattiesburg little leaguers team in the 31st tournament back in 1977. They were trailblazers, and they have earned that and so much more.
Center fielder Craig Walker puts the team's legacy in perspective.
"Trophies are reminders of our victories. That team in itself serves as a trophy that when minds and hearts join together, nothing is impossible. We didn't have much, but we had each other. If kids today believed in themselves (like we did) and never let others bring them down, they could go back [to Williamsport] and do it again."
Until another group of eleven and twelve-year-olds from the Magnolia State returns to the Mecca of youth baseball, we have no choice but to look back to 1977 and marvel at the champions from the Hub City.
NOTE: Harris' concern is that almost no one has heard of this team or their feat. Not only did this team do something unprecedented at the time, it has not been done since. They were, however, featured in a Sports Illustrated article shortly afterwards for winning the consolation bracket and for being a championship contender.
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SPECIAL NOTE: Charlie Hayes, a member of the Hattiesburg team, went on to play MLB from 1988-2001. He was the only player to play professionally from that World Series.