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1955 Little League Team from Charleston, S.C., to be Featured on ESPN

The Cannon Street YMCA Little League All Stars stayed with the rest of the teams in the dorms of Lycoming College in Williamsport.

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (Feb. 2, 2005) – A half-century ago, a group of Little Leaguers in South Carolina was at the center of a controversy that reverberates today.

The team and its experiences will be featured this month on ESPN on the SportsCenter and Cold Pizza segments. It also will be featured on ESPN’s “Images in Black and White” program. Consult your local listings for the exact times.

In the summer of 1955, fourteen boys from the Cannon Street YMCA Little League in Charleston, S.C., were looking forward to entering the Little League Tournament, along with tens of thousands of other boys in all 48 U.S. states and several other countries. Like all Little League players their age, they knew the tournament ended for a lucky few with a trip to the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

At the time, there were 62 chartered Little League programs in South Carolina. All but one of those leagues – the Cannon Street YMCA Little League – was composed entirely of white people. Until then, no South Carolina teams with African-American players had entered the post-season tournament.

Every one of the 61 white leagues refused to play the Cannon Street YMCA team. Little League Baseball Headquarters responded immediately, informing the white leagues that racism would not be tolerated, and that they would have to play, or forfeit.

The Cannon Street YMCA Little League All Stars watch a game from the stands at Original Field.

“We were only 12 at the time, so we just didn’t understand it,” John Rivers, one of the team members, said. “It was all the adults who were making it happen.”

The white leagues’ contention: Little League officials in Pennsylvania should not be able to meddle in the internal affairs of local Little League programs in South Carolina.

Little League Baseball Headquarters refused to budge: If the white leagues refused to play a duly franchised league, regardless of race, they would not be permitted to participate in the tournament. The white leagues staged their own, whites-only, tournament. Not only that, the leagues formed their own program: Dixie Baseball for Boys (now known as Dixie Youth).

The mass exodus left only one “legal” team in South Carolina – the Cannon Street YMCA team which played its home games, ironically, only a few miles from Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the U.S. Civil War were fired nearly 90 years earlier. But Little League Tournament Rules said all teams advancing to another level must have played and won the previous tournament’s title.

Therefore, while the Cannon Street YMCA Little League had played a full regular season of Little League ball, and chose an all star team to represent it, it was prevented by Little League policy from entering the playoffs. However, Little League invited the team to Williamsport for the World Series. The Cannon Street team, guests of Little League, experienced all the things any other Little League World Series team would, including bunking in Lycoming College dorms – except they did not play a game.

The Cannon Street YMCA Little League All Stars, as they appeared on July 20, 2002, at Charleston Riverdogs game. The team is accompanied by local Little Leaguers wearing replica uniforms like those worn by the Cannon Street YMCA Little League in 1955.

Little League ended up losing hundreds of franchises over the controversy as white leagues in the South left the program en masse. Many of those programs never re-chartered with Little League. Yet for Little League, the incident remains one of the organization’s shining moments.

To commemorate the event, the surviving members of the 1955 Cannon Street YMCA Little League all star team were honored during opening ceremonies of the 2002 Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport. The team was presented with a banner proclaiming them the 1955 State Champions of South Carolina…47 years after the fact.

“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 on people because of their skin color,” said Stephen D. Keener, president and chief executive officer of Little League Baseball and Softball. “Little League is honored that the Cannon Street team was here as our special guests.”

The team 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. Alternates are Leroy Carter and George Gregory. Coaches and founders are Lee J. Bennett, Walter Burke, Rufus Dilligard, A.O. Graham, Robert Morrison, R.H. Penn, and Benjamin Singleton. Honorary team member, and one of the driving forces behind the move to help honor them, is Charleston American Little League president Augustus Holt.