This post is dedicated to Margot Theis Raven, who passed away on August 16, 2014. Mrs. Raven was a devoted mother and wife and an accomplished artist and national award winning author of ten published children’s books including Let Them Play, a fun, well written and wonderfully illustrated recounting of the story of the Cannon Street All Stars. I offer my deepest condolences to her family and friends.
Last Sunday, the clock struck midnight in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, youth baseball’s mecca and a temporary home for thousands of devotees to Little League Baseball, Incorporated, a secular athletic fellowship whose concepts of competition, respect, and fair play, like those of a slightly more sacred religion, are taught from a mound and observed by people of varying hues around the globe. For the most devout supporters of Little League, the 67th annual Little League World Series (LLWS) was akin to revival; the 2014 summer showcase was the most-watched ever on ESPN networks (ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 combined) with an average audience of 1,724,000 viewers, an increase of 71 percent from the previous year. The boom in interest was due, in large part, to the tournament’s participants who served as living examples of baseball’s rich cultural tapestry; there were good teams and not-so-good; well-traveled semi-amateurs and less experienced neighborhood stars; a charismatic, flame throwing heroine; and a group of talented yet enigmatic world champions from the Pacific. The beaus of the ball, so to speak, were the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars, an all-black team from Chicago’s Southside whose improbable run ended with a United States championship prior to their defeat in the World Series title game. Theirs was the feel good story in a summer with few of them, a soul-stirring Hollywood tableau destined for the Disney vaults.
Seated comfortably in the bleachers amongst the bevy of excited spectators were John Rivers, John Bailey, Vermont Brown, Carl Johnson, and Leroy Major—members of the 1955 Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. All-Stars, an African American youth baseball team from Charleston, South Carolina who, until this week, were the “most significant amateur team in baseball history.” Nattily attired in matching polos, khakis, and baseball caps, the men loudly cheered every hit, catch and strikeout of their slightly younger historical counterparts. It was a highly emotional, joyous moment. For one team member in particular, the dungeon of his darkest childhood memory shook and his chains fell free. “I felt kind of exonerated,” John Bailey told a reporter after the game. “To see the boys from Jackie Robinson represent and do the things we could not do in 1955, I finally felt closure.”
There have been few such moments of exaltation for the All Stars, key figures in a racial controversy that forever changed youth baseball in the American South. Nearly 15 months after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional, officials with Charleston’s “Negro” Y.M.C.A. (later known as Cannon Street) entered the team into the “whites only” Charleston Little League tournament. They faced opposition from white city recreation officials, who eventually canceled the event. Winners by default, the All-Stars prepared to compete in the South Carolina state tournament. In a show of “massive resistance,” white Little League officials, coaches, and parents gradually organized a mass boycott. The Cannon Street team was ultimately denied the opportunity to compete in the LLWS but was invited to attend the final game as guests of then Little League president Peter J. McGovern. The following year, teams in seven southern states seceded from Little League and formed “Little Boys’ Baseball, Incorporated,” a segregated youth baseball organization that later became known as Dixie Youth Baseball. This “Civil War” within youth baseball, sparked by the Cannon Street effort, remains a pivotal yet often overlooked moment in the African American freedom struggle in South Carolina and the nation.
Prior to the summer of 1955, there was little discussion of the presence of a color line in Little League Baseball. The organization was founded in 1939, the result of a grassroots campaign led by Williamsport lumberyard clerk Carl E. Stotz, to provide local boys with a league of their own and a wholesome recreational alternative to juvenile delinquency. Stotz aimed to create a locally controlled, racially integrated, and merit-based system of organized baseball that could easily be duplicated elsewhere. Adults held great power in each individual league, as they structured the rules and rituals that shaped the boys’ athletic and social growth. Organizers and local volunteers sought to mold young boys into “real Americans” and strong men firmly implanted with “the ideals of good sportsmanship, honesty, loyalty, courage, and reverence.” Little League’s definition of “American” was also grounded in concepts of tolerance and equality. Its bi-laws asserted that the program’s main goal was to create a sense of community, where no individual is excluded by reason of race or religion. The inclusion of racial minorities was seen as a way for boys to learn that “their teammate is a pretty good fellow, no matter on which side of the railroad tracks he happens to live.”
In 1947, to spur national interest, Little League’s Board of Directors organized the first LLWS. Newspapers from across the country covered the event, printing the results and shining a spotlight on the exploits of its young athletes. The resulting boom in popularity led to the organization’s expansion well beyond Pennsylvania’s borders. Southerners embraced Little League Baseball despite its integrationist position. Teams from the region experienced immediate success; in 1948, teams from Virginia and Florida reached the LLWS. The next year, in its first season with Little League franchises, South Carolina sent a team to battle for the title. Over the next six years, sixty more all-white leagues were formed in the Palmetto State. As in other parts of the region, municipal recreational organizations, many run by segregationist officials, handled administrative duties. These public officials, coupled with state statutes prohibiting the integration of parks, prohibited interracial competition despite the aims of the national Little League organization. White parents, coaches, and media said little about the arrangement; segregated play was just a normal part of southern life.
In South Carolina, segregated Little League play was also a symptom of systemic recreational inequality. In Charleston, where most black adults earned subsistence wages as domestic workers and unskilled laborers, there were little surplus funds available to provide recreational activities for youth. In 1947, the interracial Charleston Welfare Council reported that of the 1,618 housing units administered by the city’s Housing Authority, eighty percent were considered “substandard,” or plagued by improper maintenance and a lack of community activities for residents. Among the city’s six public housing projects, none provided recreation services. Children usually played on “negligible equipment” in small, cramped play areas. “The Negro child or adolescent,” the council declared, “is offered considerably less opportunity for recreation and group participation than is true in the white community.” White Charlestonians did little to rectify the situation.
Left to fend for themselves, Black Charlestonians banded together to provide their children with fun and constructive playtime activities. The Charleston “Negro” Y.M.C.A., also known as the “Cannon Street branch,” was one site that provided black children with opportunities for physical, mental, and spiritual development. Founded in 1886, the Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. initially operated as a social club for the city’s fair-skinned African American elite. By the end of the First World War, the branch shed its elitism and experienced a brief renaissance. In 1920, branch leaders successfully led a drive to purchase two lots at 61 and 63 Cannon Street. Character building courses, Bible study, billiards contests and other civic and social gatherings were held in the small house located on one of the lots. Children played basketball, tennis, held foot races, and even practiced drill on the other. Despite their innovative use of the limited space, the branch struggled to meet the needs of its constituents. “It is almost pathetic to see from 25 to 75 boys at afternoons and evenings crowding into the rooms on Cannon Street eager to do something, eager to be helped,” a volunteer wrote, “We strain ourselves in a vain effort to accommodate them.” In 1929, South Carolina’s depression deepened, forcing the Cannon Street branch to briefly close its doors.
Nearly a decade later, the Cannon Street Branch experienced a renaissance as African Americans recognized the need for unity and collective action to uplift the community and stretch the boundaries of Jim Crow. Many of the Y.M.C.A movement’s leaders were among Charleston’s black professional elite, men and women eager to build and maintain strong, black, and progressive institutions to better the lives of local citizens. Perhaps the most important of these individuals was Robert Francis Morrison, a prominent black entrepreneur, member of the N.A.A.C.P., and ardent believer in the character building power of organized athletics. After negotiating with the city’s white Y.M.C.A. leadership to reacquire their lost property, Morrison
and his supporters resumed the Cannon Street Y.M.C.A.’s earlier activities and made plans to raise funds for a permanent site. The fundraising drive was truly a community effort. Children canvassed the city for donations, churches sold ice cream floats, and frequent meetings were held with white philanthropists to secure additional funds. In November 1947, the Cannon Street Branch reached its goal. Construction began on a new building which was to include “an entrance lobby, snack bar, general offices, two club rooms, dressing rooms and showers” along with a combination gymnasium and auditorium. “I believe we are on the threshold of a new era in the lives of the people of this community,” exclaimed Rev. Emmett Lampkin at the building’s dedication ceremony, “…if we are to live in harmony and dignity, we will have to live it so. This building alone cannot accomplish this.”
Morrison agreed with this assessment. After being named president of the Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. in 1953, the activist began an intensive letter writing campaign to the News and Courier, criticizing blacks’ exclusion from local beaches and Edisto State Park despite their financial contributions as taxpayers. The Y.M.C.A. also hosted new recreational programs to provide black youth with activities comparable to their white counterparts. Swim classes were held in a pool at segregated Harmon Field, emulating those provided by the white Y.M.C.A. which held similar classes for over 75,000 children at two municipal pools.
While brainstorming with his staff about additional program ideas, Y.M.C.A. Boys Worker Allen Tibbs proposed the organization of a youth baseball league. Morrison loved the idea. In 1953, he filed for an official charter with Little League Baseball, Incorporated. He likely understood that aligning the Cannon Street league with the national Little League body created the possibility for an all-black team to legally compete on the same field as whites. For its first two seasons, however, the Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. Little League operated on an all-black basis while providing black children with an opportunity to play organized baseball.
Keeping with tradition, the Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. Little League was a community effort that bridged class divisions among blacks in the city. The league was comprised of four teams sponsored by prominent black businesses, civic organizations and leading families in Charleston’s elite black community. To ease the financial burden on working class parents, sponsors purchased uniforms for each child. Mothers, including John Bailey’s mother, Flossie, held teas and sold refreshments to raise additional funds for balls, bats, and gloves.
Games were held at segregated Harmon Field, a makeshift playground established in 1927 with support from white philanthropists. Though the park was dedicated to the “recreation of all,” South Carolina law mandated the racial segregation of public parks thus keeping Harmon segregated until 1966. The field, a sun-spit patch of earth pockmarked with chunks of grass and gravel, was also plagued with drainage issues. The Charleston City Council, responsible for “properly policing” and “caring for” the field, made little attempt to maintain the area. Prior to each game, players and coaches doubled as groundskeepers. Displaying tremendous self-sufficiency, they mowed the grass, laid down chalk outlines, and pooled funds to purchase a red outfield fence which they carefully placed according to national Little League guidelines. The play on the field was equally intense. William “Buck” Godfrey, the All Stars’ centerfielder remembered that the field “was dotted with sweating little boys giving everything they had. A player felt the need to be ‘perfect’.”
News of the young athletes’ skill peaked whites’ curiosity. Danny Jones, South Carolina’s Director of Little League Baseball, was among those that visited Harmon Field. A native of Charleston, Jones was a beloved figure in white recreational circles. A lifelong sportsman, Jones served as a batboy for the Charleston Pals minor league club and later earned All-State honors in basketball. After attending the College of Charleston, Jones entered the military, where he developed a passion for organized recreation. Upon his return from the war, Jones was named superintendent of the Cooper River Parks and Playgrounds Commission. His tireless work ethic and affable personality helped it become a sports empire. By 1960, the group presided over 22 baseball and softball diamonds, 10 playgrounds, four community centers, and a swimming pool. Jones’ success made him the public face for white recreation in Charleston. With that mantle came the responsibility to ensure continued progress while maintaining Southern traditions of racial segregation.
After the first half of the season ended, Morrison and the league’s coaches—Walter Burke, Lee Bennett, Archie Graham, Rufus Dilligard and Ben Singleton gathered in his small office at the Y.M.C.A. to choose an “All-Star” team. The fifteen players chosen would represent the Cannon Street Little League in sanctioned postseason play beginning in July. “We voted on the boys’ ability, attitude, versatility, and team loyalty,” Dilligard remembered, “When we finished, I thought that we had the best of the best.” The league’s top team, Fielding’s, had six representatives: John Bailey, Vermont Brown, Leroy Major, David Middleton, Arthur Peoples, and John Mack. The second place P.A.L. team sent five: Allen Jackson, Norman Robinson, Maurice Singleton, Carl Johnson, and Leroy Carter. Charles Bradley, John Rivers, and George Gregory represented Pan-Hellenic. Harleston’s Vernon Gray and William “Buck” Godfrey rounded out the powerful roster. With a confidence bordering on cockiness, one member explained that they were “in a league by themselves.” Morrison hoped they would get a chance to prove it. In late June 1955, he entered the team into the Charleston Little League tournament.
Jones was aware of the national Little League’s stance on integrated play and understood Morrison’s desire to provide their boys with an opportunity to compete against whites. Before signing the Little League charter, Morrison had Jones “come down to discuss the situation. He [Jones] told us that North Carolina had a full Colored team and a mixed team.” At the meeting, the Y.M.C.A President informed Jones that he wanted black boys in Charleston to have the same privilege to play baseball as whites and reminded Jones of Little League’s stance on integrated play. Two years later, despite this understanding, Jones took the lead in defending Charleston’s city tournament from a violation of Southern traditions. The city tournament was soon cancelled.
After the cancellation of the city tournament, the national Little League granted the Cannon Street team permission to compete in the South Carolina State tournament to be held at Donaldson Air Force Base in Greenville. On July 6, Danny Jones and representatives of the state’s 55 white leagues met to discuss the situation. They drafted a resolution requesting permission from the national Little League to form a “whites only” tournament. “Since the State of South Carolina in its schools, parks, and all places of amusement is operating under the segregation plan,” they argued, “it is impractical for a Negro league to participate in the state Little League tournament this season.” Little League was now politicized; the resolution passed by a 40-15 margin. Almost overnight, the majority of South Carolina’s Little League teams seceded from the national organization.
Three weeks later, Danny Jones resigned from his post as South Carolina’s Director of Little League baseball. In his
resignation letter to Peter J. McGovern, the president of Little League Baseball, Jones remarked that any effort to permit them to play was “an opening wedge to abolish segregation in recreational facilities in South Carolina.” Referring to Morrison’s use of children to protest segregation as a “dastardly act,” Jones reiterated that he would not remain director of a politicized tournament. In a letter published in the News and Courier, Morrison blasted Jones. He pointed out that Jones worked for six years for Little League’s national office and had likely developed an excellent understanding of its rules regarding race. Citing an earlier article where Jones acknowledged an earlier competition between a white team from Columbia and a mixed team from North Carolina, Morrison boldly accused Jones of “undermining the laws and customs of the South.” The Y.M.C.A. president argued that Jones shunned Southern tradition the moment he became connected with a national organization that encouraged integration and fair play. By the end of July, due to Jones’ charismatic leadership and the coercion of the 15 defectors by supporters of “massive resistance”, all 55 teams had pulled out of the state tournament leaving the Cannon Street All-Stars champions by default. A week later, Jones and his supporters founded Little Boys Baseball, Incorporated, a segregated doppelganger of the Williamsport based organization. At the start of play the next season, the league boasted nearly 200 leagues in five southern states. Despite his claims to the contrary, Jones’ league was explicitly politicized. Even worse, the boycott dashed the dreams of white southern youth who would be denied a chance to reach Williamsport as participants in the new league.
The All-Stars became the unofficial representatives of South Carolina due to the white boycott. The next step for all state champions was the regional competition. The tournament was to be held in Rome, Georgia, with teams from eight Southern states. Rome officials repeatedly reiterated that Cannon Street team would be eligible to play in the competition if they won the state tournament. They also stated that if the team won by forfeit, it would not be allowed to play for a chance to go to Williamsport. When the time came to make a final decision, Rome officials declared “there actually is no 1955 Little League champion in South Carolina.” “With extreme reluctance and heartfelt regard,” McGovern announced that there would be no
representative from South Carolina in the field. In a letter to Morrison, the embarrassed president referred to the All-Stars as “innocent victims of alien influences that have deprived them of beneficial associations and opportunity to meet and know other boys in Little League Baseball.” Little League executives invited the Cannon Street team to Williamsport as guests to view the World Series that they were denied the privilege to participate in. While in attendance, the All Stars were granted a practice session prior to the championship game. Their enthusiasm and skill inspired chants of “Let Them Play!” from the awestruck crowd. Alas, it was not to be.
Roughly fifty-nine years to the day the Cannon Street team left Williamsport in tears, a thin veil of mist covered the entire Little League Baseball Complex, a vast, glimmering baseball kingdom comprised of two stadiums, three practice fields, a housing facility, and a host of entertainment venues located in the heart of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. On this dreary, sullen late August morning, the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars paid one last visit to Howard J. Lamade Stadium, the scene of their greatest victory and most difficult defeat. For coach Darold Butler, a former draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays and the architect of youth baseball’s resurrection in inner-city Chicago, it was an opportune moment to teach his team one more lesson. Arriving at the nearly deserted complex, the team was greeted by John Rivers, a man all too familiar with bittersweet childhood moments. The gregarious, grey-bearded Rivers shook hands with each of the team’s coaches and players and presented the team with a gift, a signed copy of Let Them Play. After a brief discussion, the United States champions and a representative of “The Team Nobody Would Play” posed for a photo. Apparently, the baseball gods had just enough summertime magic left to bring together these two teams, parallel strands of the universe’s moral arc, in a time where justice was finally served.