All-Black Cannon Street’s journey to the Little League World Series
Their fears were real. The bus would pass near Conway, SC, 100 miles north, where 1,500 Klansmen and their families had attended a speech by EL Edwards, the Ku Klux Klan’s imperial magician, four days earlier.
The Cannon Street team wasn’t going to travel all that distance on a broken down bus on hostile roads to play in the World Series. The team knew they would not be allowed to compete. Yet it became what Creighton Hale, the former general manager of Little League Baseball, called “the most important amateur baseball team in history.”
Before white supremacists stood outside newly integrated schools to keep black kids out, they stood at the edge of Little League baseball diamonds to keep black boys from playing baseball with kids. white boys.
And as some of the best young baseball players in the country take to the field on Sunday for the 75th Little League World Series final in Williamsport, the Cannon Street team’s legacy lives on in a league whose players of Charleston have helped break down the biggest barriers.
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“It’s a tragedy to take away the dreams of young people,” said John Rivers, the team’s shortstop who has become a successful architect. “I knew it then. I know it now and I made sure no one took my dreams away from me.
The Black-run Cannon Street YMCA was founded in downtown Charleston in 1950 as a meeting place where its president, Robert Morrison, and other activists could talk about civil rights and other racial issues without being scrutinized by whites. The Y became a meeting place where the boys could play baseball or basketball and a place where they found mentors to help them negotiate the uncertain world of racial prejudice.
In 1955, Morrison got into the fight for civil rights when he entered the Cannon Street All-League team for a Little League tournament in Charleston.
Jackie Robinson had joined Major League Baseball eight years earlier, but white parents in Charleston weren’t ready to let their sons play baseball with black boys. The Cannon Street team won the tournament by forfeit when the white teams all pulled out in protest, amid widespread Southern resistance to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education who overthrew segregation in public schools.
The Cannon Street team qualified for the state tournament.
Little League Baseball, citing the organization’s prohibitions against racial discrimination, ordered white teams to play the Cannon Street team. The teams’ adult managers responded by breaking away from the organization and creating a segregated youth baseball league. Hundreds of other Southern teams followed. The boys wore Confederate flags on their uniforms. The organization, Dixie Youth Baseball, still exists, although it has been incorporated for decades.
The Cannon Street team again won the tournament by forfeit and qualified for the regional tournament. If he won there, he would qualify for the World Series. But Little League Baseball President Peter McGovern declared the team ineligible for the regional tournament. because, according to the rules of the organization, the teams had to win on the field – and not by forfeit – to advance.
The 11- and 12-year-old stars ended their season without ever playing a game or finding out how good they were.
McGovern, who admitted regretting his decision, invited the team to be the organization’s guests at the World Series.
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Decades later, Rivers bristled at McGovern’s response. “The trade-off was, let them come but don’t let them play,” Rivers said. “You know, try walking the fence. All right, that would satisfy everyone. Well, it’s not.
At the time, however, Rivers and his teammates were excited to go to Williamsport. “The very thought of getting on a bus with your friends for a long trip was more exciting than Christmas,” he said.
Many of the boys had never left Charleston. Some had never left their parents for a single night.
Morrison had raised funds for national and regional tournaments that went unspent after the tournaments were canceled. He contributed some of his own money and raised donations to fund the team’s trip to Williamsport.
Morrison had a bigger program than baseball. He created the Cannon Street League and entered his all-star team into a tournament to challenge segregation and advance the cause of racial equality. White newspaper columnists and columnists condemned South Carolina teams for refusing to let their boys play against a black team. Dick Young of the New York Daily News called on McGovern to resign for failing to uphold his organization’s ban on racial discrimination.
Morrison acknowledged he might keep the story in the papers if he made it to Williamsport.
Little League Baseball officials welcomed the Cannon Street team and invited them to stay in the same dorm as the other teams and have breakfast with them.
The Cannon Street players were introduced by the PA announcer and, according to the players, received a short practice before the championship game between teams from Delaware Township, NJ, and Morrisville, Pennsylvania. As the Cannon Street players left the field, they heard spectators cheering loudly:
“Let them play! Let them play!
Rivers said, “I can hear it now.”
The team members took their places for the championship game and the grief of not being able to play overwhelmed the players. Their disappointment is clear in a photo taken of them as they watched the game. Almost none of the boys smiled.
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They saw the integrated New Jersey team and wondered why they weren’t allowed to play like the black kids on that team. They thought they were better than the players they were watching. They were convinced that they would have won if they had had the chance.
As their bus was heading back to Charleston, Emmett Till, who was not much older than the Cannon Street Players, was kidnapped from his uncle’s home in Mississippi after he allegedly whistled a white woman, then tortured and murdered. A few months later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.
Over the next few decades players rarely talked about what happened at Williamsport. But for the past 25 years, they’ve told people why their story should be remembered.
In 1995, Sports Illustrated published an article about the team. Seven years later, Little League Baseball brought the players back to Williamsport, where they received a banner for winning the South Carolina State Tournament. They were introduced and received a standing ovation.
Leroy Major, the team’s top pitcher, turned teacher in Charleston, received a letter from a boy in Pennsylvania thanking him for his contribution to the civil rights movement and saying he should be remembered as Parks and others.
“Tears came to my eyes,” Major said.