The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An all-Black Little League team made history without playing a game

7 min

Fourteen Little League baseball players and 10 adults got on an old, battered bus at the Cannon Street YMCA in downtown Charleston, S.C., on the evening of Aug. 24, 1955, to drive more than 700 miles to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series. The riders were all Black, so they started their 24-hour journey at nightfall, worried they might draw suspicion rolling through the Jim Crow South.

Their fears were real. The bus would pass near Conway, S.C., 100 miles to the north, where 1,500 Klansmen and their families had attended a speech by E.L. Edwards, the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, four days earlier.

The Cannon Street team wasn’t going all this distance in a broken-down bus on unfriendly roads to play in the World Series. The team knew it would not be allowed to compete. Yet it became what Creighton Hale, the former chief executive of Little League Baseball, called “the most significant amateur baseball team in history.”

Before white supremacists stood outside newly integrated schools to prevent Black children from attending, they stood at the edge of Little League baseball fields to prevent Black boys from playing baseball with White boys.

And as some of the country’s top young baseball players take the field Sunday for the finals of the 75th Little League World Series in Williamsport, the legacy of the Cannon Street team lives on in a league whose biggest barriers the Charleston players helped break down.

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“It’s a tragedy to take dreams away from youngsters,” said John Rivers, the team’s shortstop, who became a successful architect. “I knew it then. I know it now, and I’ve seen to it that no one takes dreams away from me again.”

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 scrutiny from White people. The Y became a hangout for boys to play baseball or basketball and a place where they found mentors to help them negotiate the uncertain world of racial prejudice.

In 1955, Morrison waded into the civil rights struggle when he registered the Cannon Street league’s all-star team for a Little League tournament in Charleston.

Jackie Robinson had integrated Major League Baseball eight years earlier, but the White parents of 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 withdrew in protest, amid widespread Southern resistance to the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education that struck down segregation in public schools.

The Cannon Street team advanced to the state tournament.

Little League Baseball, citing the organization’s prohibitions against racial discrimination, ordered the White teams to play the Cannon Street squad. The adult managers of the teams responded by seceding from the organization and creating a segregated youth baseball league. Hundreds of other teams in the South followed. The boys wore Confederate flags on their uniforms. The organization, Dixie Youth Baseball, still exists, though it has been integrated for decades.

The Cannon Street team again won the tournament by forfeit and advanced to the regional tournament. If it won there, it would qualify for the World Series. But Little League Baseball President Peter McGovern declared the team ineligible for the regional tournament because, according to organization rules, teams had to win on the field — not by forfeit — to advance.

The 11- and 12-year-old all-stars ended their season without ever playing a game or finding out how good they were.

McGovern, who admitted regret over 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 compromise was, let them come but don’t let them play,” Rivers said. “You know, try to walk the fence. All right, that would satisfy everybody. Well, it didn’t.”

At the time, however, Rivers and his teammates were thrilled about going to Williamsport. “Just the idea 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 been away from their parents for a night.

Morrison had raised money for the state and regional tournaments that went unspent after the tournaments were canceled. He contributed some of his own money and collected donations to fund the team’s trip to Williamsport.

Morrison had a bigger agenda than baseball. He created the Cannon Street league and registered its all-star team for a tournament to confront segregation and advance the cause of racial equality. White newspaper columnists and editorial writers condemned the South Carolina teams for refusing to let their boys play a Black team. Dick Young of the New York Daily News called for McGovern to resign for not adhering to his organization’s ban on racial discrimination.

Morrison recognized he could keep the story in the newspapers if he went to Williamsport.

Little League Baseball officials welcomed the Cannon Street team and invited it to stay in the same dormitory as the other teams and eat breakfast with them.

The Cannon Street players were introduced by the public address announcer and, according to the players, given a short practice before the championship game between teams from Delaware Township, N.J., and Morrisville, Pa. As the Cannon Street players walked off the field, they heard spectators cheering loudly:

“Let them play! Let them play!”

Rivers said, “I can hear it now.”

Team members took their seats for the championship game, and the heartbreak of not being able to play washed over the players. Their disappointment is clear in a photo taken of them as they watched the game. Hardly any of the boys are smiling.

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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 watched. They were convinced they would have won, given the opportunity.

While their bus drove back to Charleston, Emmett Till, who was not much older than the Cannon Street players, was kidnapped from his uncle’s house in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at 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 several decades, the players rarely talked about what happened in Williamsport. But in the past 25 years, they’ve told people why their story needs to be remembered.

In 1995, Sports Illustrated ran a story 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 given a standing ovation.

Leroy Major, the team’s best pitcher, who became a teacher in Charleston, received a letter from a boy in Pennsylvania who thanked him for his contributions to the civil rights movement and said he should be remembered the way Parks and others are.

“Tears came to my eyes,” Major said.