When Tennessee takes on Japan today for the championship of the 66th Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., it will be the biggest event of the lives of most of the boys in the game. But chances are it will be awhile before most realize just how big a deal it really is.
Williamsport is special.
Just ask Hilton Head Island's James Walczy. He knows firsthand.
Walczy was the diminutive leadoff hitter for the Hamtramck, Mich., team that won nine straight local, state and regional games to represent the Midwest in the 1955 Little League World Series.
"It wasn't on TV like it is now, but the crowds were big," Walczy said. "That hill out there was just filled with people."
Walczy said the parks in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois on Hamtramck's road to the LLWS were no different than the one he played in at home, with nothing in the outfield, not even a fence to keep the ball in play.
But Williamsport was different.
"There was bunting all over the place, and we got dignitaries and speeches and a parade and new uniforms," Walczy said. "It was just overwhelming for a 12-year-old kid. I didn't really soak it in. I'm sure these kids are the same. They don't really know what's going on until they get out of there, maybe until they're in their teens or older."
Walczy, who played second base during the regular season before being moved to left field for all-stars, was especially enamored with the new uniforms. The coaches took them downtown to the sporting goods store where the players lined up from smallest to largest -- he got No. 2 -- and handed out sparkling white new uniforms. Wool, of course.
According to Walczy, the uniforms aren't the only thing different today.
Today's Little Leaguers are bigger, faster and have a little more attitude. As for the tournament, there was no losers' bracket, no double-elimination. It was lose-and-you're-done, Walczy said.
"We didn't have to use everybody, like they do now, so you could play all nine guys for all six innings if you wanted to," he said. "There were no limits on pitches. Pitchers could throw as much as they wanted, and they wouldn't pitch the next day."
The players at the 1955 series had the opportunity to mingle with a legend. All they were told was that a former major leaguer was going to stop by the cafeteria to visit the teams.
"Everybody was excited," Walczy said. "We get there, and he gets wheeled in and nobody knows who he is. But all the coaches are excited. They said, 'Here's Cy Young.' We still didn't know who Cy Young was. The award wasn't even named after him, yet. He was an old man in a wheelchair."
Walczy said he and the other players had their pictures taken with Young, and he autographed a 3-by-5 card for each of them.
"I don't think either made it home from Williamsport," he said.
Hamtramck's winning streak didn't make it home either.
Walczy said he remembers when he first realized they might lose.
"When we saw that big left-hander," he said. "That's when I knew."
The team from Winchester, Mass., Hamtramck's first-round opponent, had a left-handed fireballer who approached 6 feet. Walczy was brushed back on the first pitch of his first at-bat, and his .379 batting average seemed like a misprint, as he went 0 for 3 with three strikeouts.
Walczy jokes that the reason his uniform is still pristine after all of these years is it's hard to get it dirty walking to and from the dugout.
"Until we got to the World Series and saw the caliber of the other teams," Walczy said. "... when you see those teams and you see your biggest guy is the size of their mid-sized guy, you figure you're in for something."
Hamtramck lost, 8-5.
Even after losing in the series, Walczy still held onto his boyhood dream. For a while anyway.
"I still had my heart set on playing second base for the Tigers," he said. "But when I saw what a real curveball looked like, I had to readjust my career plans and study a little bit harder in school."
As for the caliber of the other teams, there's one team to this day that Walczy thinks about.
The season Hamtramck made the World Series is the same season all 61 of South Carolina's all-white Little League teams refused to play the all-black Cannon Street YMCA team from Charleston. Little League told them racism wasn't tolerated and ordered them to play. Instead, the white leagues abandoned their Little League charters and formed what is now known as Dixie Youth Baseball.
The Cannon Street team was allowed to represent South Carolina in Williamsport but was not allowed to play, having not won the previous tournament as required by Little League rules.
Walczy didn't fully realize what he had been witness to until reading about it several years ago.
"I was like, 'Oh yeah, I remember those guys; I wondered why they didn't play.' You saw them sitting in the stands and taking part in everything and in the cafeteria and in the dorms and you didn't question it or anything, thinking, 'Maybe they lost already. I don't know why they're not playing.' "
Walczy had two black teammates on his regular-season team in Michigan -- Charlie Boston and John Alexander.
"At 12 years old, it didn't matter to us," Walczy said. "They were your friends. You played ball together. Maybe I didn't know it then when I was 12, but researching that team, it made me feel like I was really a part of something, a part of history, because Little League Baseball stood up to the South.
"The right thing to do was to let them come up. They didn't play because they hadn't earned the right to play, they didn't beat anybody. But the right thing to do was to let them come up and be a part of it."