Dr. Creighton Hale, the CEO of Little League Baseball, says the
1955 Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars of Charleston, S.C., remain
"the most significant amateur team in baseball history." Yet as
Hale invited his own congress to celebrate the 40th anniversary
of "our darkest yet finest hour" last March in Reno, few in the
audience of 1,200 knew what he was referring to.
The bittersweet story of a most remarkable season is scarcely
known outside of a downtown Charleston neighborhood. Surely you
have never heard of the players--John Bailey, Leroy Major, Buck
Godfrey, Maurice Singleton, Allen Jackson, John Rivers, Vermort
Brown and Norman Robinson, among others--a bunch of 12-year-olds
drafted into a baseball civil war. But in the space of three
months, the Cannon Street All-Stars changed youth baseball in
In 1955--the year Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a
white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and the year after
the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that
racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional--South
Carolina had its first Little League for black boys: four teams
organized by the Cannon Street YMCA. That year fathers and sons
sat up late at night listening to Brooklyn Dodger games on the
radio. "All the fathers must have gone to some kind of
convention," Bailey says, "because they were all telling us we
could be the next Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella or Don
Parents paid for the uniforms, local businesses provided used
gloves, bats and balls, and at the end of the season an all-star
team was selected from the four teams. "We were handsome little
boys, and so well behaved," says Singleton, whose father, Ben,
was manager of the Cannon Street All-Stars.
"Leroy Major--I tell you, he could hit a baseball," says Brown.
Major, a big righthander, threw inside fastballs and cackled
when batters backed away in fear. He was the best pitcher in the
league and could have played any other position as well.
Like most kids in the league, Godfrey, who would go on to hit
.511 as a senior at Delaware State, had been playing in pickup
games when he learned of the league at the YMCA, one mile and a
color barrier from the decorated verandas of Charleston's
historic district. Word of the new league spread across town to
other Little League diamonds, and midway through the 18-game
season it wasn't unusual to see white men checking out the
action at hardscrabble Harmon Field. Jackson was in the on-deck
circle one day when his father motioned for him to look down the
leftfield line. "Do you know who those people are?" his father
asked. "They're scouting you guys."
Even state Little League director Danny Jones studied the Cannon
Street teams. He wasn't naive; he had seen adult blacks play
baseball in the Navy during World War II. So he wasn't surprised
to see Jackson switch-hit with power like no other 12-year-old
in the Carolina Low Country. But as Jones leaned against a fence
post on a June evening, he was stunned to hear Singleton say
that the Cannon Street Little League intended to send an
all-star team to the city tournament.
A steely-eyed native Charlestonian of Irish descent, Jones was
beloved in his hometown. As a teenager he had swum around the
Charleston peninsula in record time. As a North Charleston parks
and recreation superintendent who took over a ramshackle office
and a weedy field in 1945, he would, over the space of 20 years,
develop a 22-diamond baseball and softball complex, 10
playgrounds, four community centers and a swimming pool. Jones
is best remembered, however, for leading a boycott: There would
be no Charleston city Little League tournament in 1955, he said,
because blacks and whites simply weren't supposed to mix.
Cannon Street parents tried to explain the situation to the
boys, even as they grappled for answers themselves. A lanky
optimist with an infectious smile, Ben Singleton told his
all-stars after a July practice about the scrapped city
tournament. The good news, he said, was that the team would have
an extra week to prepare for the state tournament in Greenville
But Jones's boycott spread to the state tournament and then
across the South, just as secession fever had spread from
Charleston after 1860. All 61 of the white Little League teams
withdrew from the South Carolina state tournament to protest the
entry of the Cannon Street All-Stars.
Jones requested segregated Little League tournaments, but
national Little League president Peter McGovern refused. "[The
Cannon Street players] became innocent victims of alien
influences that have deprived them of beneficial associations
and opportunity to meet and know other boys in Little League
Baseball," he wrote Jones from Little League headquarters in
The state tournament was canceled, and the Cannon Street
All-Stars were champions by default. The Charleston News and
Courier weighed in on Aug. 2 with an editorial titled "Agitation
The case of the South Carolina Little League could well be cited
by sociologists as a textbook example of why racial relations in
the South are becoming increasingly difficult.... Some Negro
adults, knowing that the colored children weren't wanted in the
all-white state league, nevertheless decided to force the
colored team into the league. As a result, the entire state
league has been disbanded and the colored team has been left in
an embarrassing position--at any rate, we think of it as
embarrassing. The colored team now holds the state Little League
championship through the default--the snub-of 61 other teams....
The Northern do-gooders who have needled the Southern race
agitators into action may have to answer for the consequences.
The All-Stars continued to practice at Harmon Field. With Major
on the mound and Jackson batting cleanup, they were set to
conquer Rome, Ga., site of a regional tournament for eight state
champions, the winner of which would go to the Little League
World Series at Williamsport. But in the first week of August,
organizers in Rome announced that they would not let the Cannon
Street team in the tournament because it had advanced by
forfeit. McGovern "regretfully" accepted their decision.
Meanwhile, Jones had resigned as state director and virtually
overnight formed a new organization, Little Boys Baseball, Inc.,
with its own playoffs, the State Little Boys Baseball
Tournament, which was set for Aug. 8-11, the dates originally
reserved for the state Little League tournament. The Charleston
newspapers published Little Boys tournament pairings and photos
of Little Boys award winners. "It was Charleston and the Civil
War all over again," Hale says. "This was the first shot at Fort
From North Carolina, Raleigh News & Observer sports columnist
Dick Herbert wrote a letter to the Charleston News and Courier's
Warren Koon, which Koon included in a column. "What a difference
a few miles make," Herbert noted. "While teams were withdrawing
from the South Carolina Little League playoffs because a Negro
team from Charleston was entered, a Negro team was playing in
the Raleigh Little League championships without dispute or
Unmoved, Jones would take his Little Boys League into a
house-to-house battle with Little League for the hearts, souls
and donations of Southern white parents, signing up 537 teams in
122 leagues for the 1956 season. By 1962, when Little League
would force Little Boys to change its name to Dixie Youth
Baseball, there would be 390 such leagues in eight Southern
Jones was bellicose in his Little League resignation letter, in
which he blasted McGovern for using "a Negro Little League team
... as an opening wedge to abolish segregation in recreational
facilities in South Carolina." And there was no subtlety in the
extraordinary "preamble" of Dixie Youth Baseball's Official Rule
Guide: "The Organizers hereof are of the opinion it is for the
best interest of all concerned that this program be on a
racially segregated basis; they believe that mixed teams and
competition between the races would create regrettable
conditions and destroy the harmony and tranquility which now
In Williamsport, on the Susquehanna River, which runs south from
Cooperstown, N.Y., McGovern and the Little League officers were
sympathetic to the anguish that Ben Singleton hid from his
players. They decided to invite the Cannon Street All-Stars to
be spectators at the Little League World Series. "It was the
first time we had been confronted with such overt racism," says
Hale, who that year left his job as an associate professor of
physiology at Springfield (Mass.) College to join Little League
as director of research. "We wanted to make a statement."
Many of the kids on the Cannon Street team had never been north
of North Charleston. "This was the greatest adventure of our
lives," Rivers says. "Just the idea of getting on a bus with
your friends for a long trip was more exciting than Christmas."
Nine adults accompanied the 14 players on the 745-mile trip to
Williamsport. Trouble arose just north of Harrisburg, Pa., on a
mild grade a few miles from the promised land. The bus sputtered
and wheezed and then stopped. Singleton and Lee Bennett, a
33-year-old assistant coach, made a quick repair. But the driver
forgot to release the emergency brake. Soon the bus was ablaze.
The driver ran for a phone, and South Williamsport firemen came
to the rescue. "We wanted to come in with a bang," Bennett says,
"and we did."
Little League Baseball was born in Williamsport in 1939, and the
town began hosting the Little League World Series in 1947, the
year Jackie Robinson won baseball's first Rookie of the Year
award. There had been black players in each Little League World
Series, but never an all-black team. When the Cannon Street
All-Stars visited Carl Stotz Field in street clothes while the
North Shore team from San Diego was taking batting practice, the
Californians were distracted. "Who's your home run hitter?" one
of them asked.
"Here he is," Jackson said, raising his hand. Just then a
baseball got loose in the leftfield corner. Jackson picked it up
and fired a dart to the catcher.
"Everyone on the field just stopped," Maurice Singleton says.
"People in the stands wouldn't stop staring at Allen. Players on
the other teams seemed almost afraid of us."
In the stands children asked Cannon Street players for
autographs. "People kept bringing us food," Major recalls. "They
said 'Don't worry, it's paid for.'" Before one of the games
Cannon Street's All-Stars were introduced by the public address
announcer, and as the boys stood to acknowledge the cheers, they
heard a chant: "Let them play! Let them play!"
It was the endorsement the team had been aching to hear. What
began as unorganized yelling expanded to a roar."Let them play!
Let them play!"
"I remember it as if it were this morning," Rivers says. Given
bats and gloves that day, says Maurice Singleton, "we could have
beaten the New York Yankees. They had Mickey Mantle. But we had
Leroy Major and Allen Jackson."
The Cannon Street grownups had planned to persuade the Little
League Board to allow their team to play--if not for the
national title, then in at least one game. In one final appeal,
Cannon Street YMCA director Robert Morrison met privately with
McGovern, arguing that the children should have been given the
chance at least to attempt to get to Williamsport. But McGovern
was not persuaded.
Ben Singleton, his usual grin gone, fought back tears as he
broke the news on the bus ride back to the Lycoming College
dormitories. "We were devastated," Bailey says. "Why not let us
play because of the injustice of others? The knockout punch is
that we will never know how far we could have gone."
"I'll tell you why those people shouted 'Let them play!'"
Vermort Brown says. "They were mad. They thought we were going
to play too." Players phoned home crying.
"We've been to 91 countries, and the only crisis we've had
remotely comparing to the South Carolina one was in 1993, when
King Hussein said Jordan's team would refuse to play Israel if
they met in the playoffs," Hale says. But Hussein was easier to
negotiate with than Danny Jones. The Jordanian and Israeli boys
played in '94 and exchanged caps afterward.
Jones died of cancer in 1966 at age 56. Flowers and tributes
poured in from throughout the South. Dixie Youth amended its
charter in 1967, deleting the reference to segregation. This
season Dixie Baseball had 363,615 players. Its graduates include
black major leaguers (past and present) Tom Gordon, Bo Jackson,
Otis Nixon, Gary Redus and Reggie Sanders. The Danny Jones
Sportsmanship Award is given annually, ironically enough to the
Dixie Youth World Series team that "demonstrates the character
and traits for which the program was organized."
The Cannon Street players are turning 52 this year. "There's no
sex or violence or murders, but [ours] is a great story," says
Bailey, a building contractor in Washington, D.C. "The thing is,
we could have been much better known as the first
African-American team to win a Little League title."
Rivers and Robinson are architects based in Jacksonville and
Atlanta, respectively. They have worked on a few projects
together. "It's a tragedy to take dreams away from youngsters,"
Rivers says. "I knew it then, I know it now, and I've seen to it
that no one takes dreams away from me again."
Jackson is an officer at the Edgecombe Correctional Facility in
New York City. Brown works on the assembly line at Charleston's
Lockheed-Martin plant. Major is a middle school math teacher.
Maurice Singleton, on disability, does volunteer work delivering
meals to needy senior citizens. Ben Singleton, 82, still works
as a custodian at the College of Charleston. "Ben Singleton is
like a god to me," says Bailey. "He was smart enough to be rich
had he gone into his own business, but he spent his time on
kids. One of my greatest thrills was to come back to Charleston
this year and shake that man's hand."
Godfrey lives in Decatur, Ga., where he is the head football
coach at Southwest DeKalb High, a powerhouse that set a state
record when 26 players on the 1994 team were offered college
scholarships. "Sometimes this is hard to talk about," he says of
the summer of '55. "But you let it get to you and you do strange
things in your mind, evil things. You have to let it go."
Hale stands by Little League's decision to keep the Cannon
Street All-Stars in street clothes in Williamsport. "The rules
provide that a team must play to advance in tournaments," he
says. "Certainly they were not there to penalize one team from
Charleston. Ultimately, I thought we did them a favor--a
well-deserved one. Ken Burns stresses in his baseball
documentary that Jackie Robinson's admission to the National
League was the most important event in professional baseball
history. Well, this was our most important event."
In the neighborhood where the Cannon Street All-Stars grew up,
the city is building a state-of-the-art ballpark to be used by
The Citadel and the minor league Charleston RiverDogs. The park,
similar in design to the one in Williamsport, would be a
wonderful place for a tribute to the Team No One Would
Play-perhaps a plaque with the names of the players and coaches,
there alongside the Ashley River, which flows into the
Charleston harbor and past Fort Sumter.
Gene Sapakoff, who is writing a Civil War novel, covers sports
for the Charleston Post and Courier.