Little League calls them "the most significant amateur team in baseball history." The Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier calls them "perhaps the most important team in youth sports history." On July 14, 2012, the city of Charleston unveiled an historical marker honoring them for their accomplishments on and off the field. ABC News says that their story is "not about man's inhumanity to man, but man's inhumanity to children." The Boston Globe calls their story "one of baseball's cruelest moments."
They were the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars, a team of 11-12-year-olds who went to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. in 1955 after winning the Charleston city championship, the South Carolina state championship in Greenville, and the southern regional championship in Rome, Georgia. They did not lose a single game.
The Cannon Street All-Stars were also the only team that ever went to Williamsport but, once there, was forbidden to play for the World Series title. They sat in the stands and watched because they had won the earlier city, state and regional titles by forfeits. Every other team - more than 75 in all - refused to take the field against them.
A few years ago, All-Star William (Buck) Godfrey, who by then was one of the most successful high school football coaches in Georgia history, wrote a book whose title told the story. The All-Stars were "The Team Nobody Would Play."
No Barriers of Race, Creed or Color
Nobody ever suggested that the Cannon Street All-Stars played dirty. Nobody suggested that they skirted Little League rules. The issue was skin color.
The All-Stars were all-black, and every other Little League team in the city, state and regional tournaments was all-white. Southern "Jim Crow" laws had enshrined state-enforced racial segregation for decades, and tensions remained high in 1955. Barely a year had passed since the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, which held that segregated public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Southern politicians pledged "massive resistance" to the Court's decision, and segregation law and customs remained in full force.
"We weren't making a political statement," All-Stars third baseman Carl Johnson remembered 50 years later. "We didn't know what a political statement was. We just wanted to play ball." White adults, however, had other ideas. During the controversy, a letter published in the Greenville News cited the raw nerve exposed by racial politics.
"[T]he various powers that be in our State Government who are fighting to maintain segregation in our public schools," said the white writer, "very strongly feel that the participation in the tournament by any White team against a Negro team will strongly aid and support those forces within our state who are advocating mixed schools and racial integration. This open competition of Negro versus White can and will be used by the integration forces as evidence in the school cases," which everyone knew would return to the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts for clarification.
"Kids Bring Populations Together"
Little League's national office rejected its South Carolina affiliate's demand for an all-white state tournament that would have benched the Cannon Street squad. The affiliate's president had scouted the All-Stars and knew that they were a strong squad with excellent prospects to win it all. He did not want to take any chances.
Instead, Little League's national office enforced its written non-discrimination policy, which had preceded Jackie Robinson's 1947 entry into the major leagues (and which all Little League affiliates signed at the beginning of the season). Little League's national office told the South Carolina affiliate that bigotry had no place in youth baseball: "For the boys of these teams there are no barriers of race, creed or color. . . . For the boys, baseball is a game to be played with bat, ball and glove."
Charging that the national office was using "a Negro Little League team . . . as an opening wedge to abolish segregation in recreational facilities in South Carolina," the South Carolina affiliate boycotted. When every other Charleston team and all 61 other South Carolina teams forfeited their games, Little League's national office declared the Cannon Street All-Stars the state champions. When all seven other southern state champions also forfeited rather than play the All-Stars for the regional title, Little League's national office recognized the All-Stars as the regional champion, too. The next step was Williamsport for the World Series.
South Carolina's affiliate left the national Little League entirely and hastily set up an all-white tournament for the state's other 61 teams later that summer. Within a few months, other southern state affiliates joined South Carolina to create a separate all-white organization that began play the following season and became known as Dixie Youth Baseball. Pulling no punches, the new organization's bylaws openly embodied the racial prejudice described in the Greenville News letter: "[M]ixed teams and competition between the races would create regrettable conditions and destroy the harmony and tranquility which now exists."
The boycott-and-forfeit strategy deprived a few thousand white and black youngsters of an opportunity to play for the Little League World Series title, even though black and white South Carolina youngsters often played baseball together informally on local sandlots, at least until police reportedly broke up the games. Decades later, the Cannon Street All-Stars learned that most of white youngsters wanted to play for the chance to go to Williamsport but were forbidden by their parents and the other adults who ran the all-white teams.
"We were just kids out there playing. We just did what the parents and coaches told us to do," said one of the white players shortly after several accepted the All-Stars' invitation to celebrate memories of the 1955 season together in 2003.
"Kids are beautiful. Kids bring populations together. It's adults who keep dividing the world," says Leroy Major, the All-Stars' pitcher and a former Marine who spent a career mentoring children before he retired as a school teacher a few years ago.
"Let Them Play"
Realizing that the Cannon Street All-Stars were blameless for the mass boycotts and forfeits, Little League officials invited them to Williamsport as guests, housed them in the same Lycoming College dormitory as the other eight teams, and urged them to meet the other players and experience integration unknown to them in South Carolina.
Traveling all night, the All-Stars and their coaches and adult chaperones made the 750-mile trip to Williamsport in an old blue school bus that broke down a few times and caught fire a few miles from its destination before being repaired. This was their first trip outside South Carolina, and most of the boys still expected to play for the World Series title. Sheltering their children for as long as possible, parents and coaches had not told them that Little League had already decided to apply its rule prohibiting teams from playing for the World Series title after advancing by forfeits.
Little League officials permitted the Cannon Street All-Stars to warm up on the field, but denied them the opportunity to play even an exhibition game. The boys had never set foot on a field so beautiful. In Charleston, they played at Harmon Field, an inner city clay patch that was located on a landfill overrun by crabgrass and littered with rocks. The lush manicured fields reserved for local white Little League teams remained off-limits. As in so many other areas of daily life defined by Jim Crow, "separate but equal" rarely meant equal.
As the All-Stars left the field after showing the crowd during the warmup that they would have been serious contenders, Williamsport's 5,000 cheering fans had other ideas. When the public address announcer introduced the team, a chant beginning in one corner of the stadium grew so loud that All-Star Maurice Singleton recalls feeling the stadium shake. "Let them play! Let them play! Let them play!" Much of the cheering came from delegations whose teams the All-Stars might have defeated if they had been given a fair chance, and the fans knew it.
After Little League officials turned a deaf ear, the 12-year-olds signed autographs when they returned to the stands to watch other teams vie for the World Series title. According to Margot Theis Raven's 2005 children's book about the All-Stars, the youngsters came home to Charleston as "the team that had won a crowd's heart."
"The Country's Always Getting Better"
The story of the Cannon Street All-Stars may seem startling to today's boys and girls who have grown up accustomed to playing alongside teammates and opponents of different races, creeds and colors. At one level, it may seem fortunate that today's youths seem startled by overt bigotry that seems so alien to their own upbringing. But the All-Stars' story nonetheless remains instructive because, as historian David McCullough says, "history is who we are and why we are the way we are." Sometimes the march toward greater tolerance depends on uncomfortable recollections of an intolerant past. From his position as a prominent Atlanta architect, the All-Stars' shortstop John Rivers expresses this optimism well: "The country's always getting better."
We need look no further for evidence of national betterment than the pages of the Post and Courier, then as now Charleston's daily newspaper. Amid the furor unleashed by mass boycotts and forfeits, a 1955 editorial entitled "Agitation and Hate" praised segregation and condemned the All-Stars and their families for creating "a textbook example of why racial relations in the South are becoming increasingly difficult. ... The Northern do-gooders who have needled the Southern race agitators into action may have to answer for the consequences." In a state where the Ku Klux Klan remained active, the last seven words could not be taken lightly.
At the dawn of the 21st century, however, the Post and Courier praised the Cannon Street All-Stars as a team of "classy, forgiving men" whose sterling example taught everyone a "lesson of courage and inspiration." The paper ran an editorial with the headline, "Hail Our Cannon Street Champs," and wrote about "the appalling unfairness of what happened to the Cannon Street All-Stars."
Dixie Youth Baseball still has hundreds of leagues with about 400,000 players in 11 southern states, but it has enrolled both white and black players since 1967. In 2006, the Cannon Street All-Stars were inducted into the Charleston Baseball Hall of Fame so that everyone in the city would remember the past and anticipate a better future.
In 2005, Little League invited the All-Stars back to Williamsport with their families as honored guests to throw out the first pitch at that year's World Series. In the opening ceremonies, the players finally received their 1955 South Carolina State championship banner.
"There is no way to right the wrong perpetrated on the boys of the Cannon Street YMCA Little League team, just as there is no way to right the wrongs perpetrated throughout history because of their skin color," acknowledged Little League CEO Stephen D. Keener. The crowd representing teams from around the world -- including one from Harlem -- responded with a long standing ovation.
"Staying Positive Is What Kept Us So Strong"
Novelist Ellen Glasgow said that, "What happens is not as important as how you react to what happens." The trailblazing Cannon Street All-Stars are now gray and approaching 70, and they have lived successful lives pursuing a variety of careers and professions, raising families, and doting over their grandchildren.
The All-Stars' personal dignity sets a powerful example. Leroy Major says that "the bitterness is gone. . . . ‘If you hold that bitterness in, it's going to eat you up.' You can't hate. You have to let it go. I want to teach love." When he talks to school groups, All-Star Maurice Singleton tells children "to focus on the positive things. Kids today need to listen, heed and stay in school. They need to learn. They need to stay positive, like we did. Staying positive is what kept us so strong."
The Level Playing Field
The Post and Courier calls the Cannon Street All-Stars "The Most Significant Team You've Never Heard Of." Unlike many other men and women whose lives changed during the Civil Rights Movement, nobody died or suffered assault or serious injury when the players faced closed doors in 1955 for the color of their skin. The story of their exclusion nonetheless warrants a place in the annals of the march toward racial equality. With a nod to everything they accomplished on the field and later in life, columnist George F. Will says the All-Stars "were never beaten."
On ABC's "Nightline" news program a few years ago, Dave Marash got it right: "Little League loves to say all its games are played on a level playing field. Well, if that's true today it's because of a bulldozer named the Cannon Street Y All-Stars that leveled the playing field in Charleston." The bulldozer was operated by children who had not yet turned 13.
As this month's "Youth Sports Heroes," each All-Star deserves mention here. The players are John Bailey, Charles Bradley, Vermont Brown, William Godfrey, Vernon C. Grey, Allen Jackson, Carl Johnson, John Mack, Leroy Major, David Middleton, Arthur Peoples, John Rivers, Norman Robinson, and Maurice Singleton. The alternates are Leroy Carter and George Gregory. The coaches and founders are Lee J. Bennett, Walter Burke, Rufus Dilligard, A.O. Graham, Robert Morrison, R.H. Penn and Benjamin Singleton. The honorary team member is Augustus Holt.
"Classy men," indeed.
Sources: George F. Will, The Little League All Stars Who Were Never Beaten, Washington Post, Jan. 11, 2012; Cannon St. Stars' Shared Victory, Post and Courier, Aug. 26, 2005, p. 10A (editorial); Bart Wright, They Were Just a Bunch of Kids Who Wanted to Play Baseball, Greenville News, Aug. 17, 2005, at 16C; National Public Radio, Talk of the Nation, John Bailey Discusses the Cannon Street Little League Team, Aug. 17, 2005; Tony Bartelme, 50 Years Later, All Stars Reflect on Missed Chance, Post and Courier, Aug. 14, 2005, p. 1B; ABC News, Field of Dreams - Former Little League Team Celebrated, World News Tonight Saturday, Aug. 13, 2005; ABC News Nightline, America in Black and White, Aug. 11, 2005; Seanna Adcox, School Brings History of Segregation to Life, Apr. 27, 2004, at 1D; Stan Grossfeld, Black Team Barred in '55 a Big Hit in Little League '02, Aug. 20, 2002, E1; Hail Our Cannon Street Champs, Post and Courier, Aug. 17, 2002, at 14A (editorial); Gene Sapakoff, Cannon Street All-Stars Get to Smile, Post and Courier, Aug. 6, 2000, at 1; Gene Sapakoff, '55 Cannon Street All-Stars to be Honored, Post and Courier, Aug. 5, 2000, at 1; Gene Sapakoff, The Most Significant Team You've Never Heard Of, Post and Courier, Oct. 25, 1995, at 1; Margot Theis Raven, Let Them Play (2005) at p. 25; Gene Sapakoff, 1955 Cannon Street All-Star Team Honored With Historical Marker, Post and Courier, July 13, 2012; Gene Sapakoff, Little League's Civil War, Sports Illustrated, Oct. 30, 1995.
Posted August 1, 2012