CHARLESTON -- They are nearing 70 now, the 11 men who were 12-year-old boys in 1955 and who are remembered for the baseball games they could not play. They were -- actually, with their matching blue blazers and striped ties, they still are -- members of the Cannon Street All Stars.
The Cannon Street YMCA is near the Ashley River, which flows toward the harbor and Fort Sumter. The unpleasantness that started there in 1861 had left pertinent questions unsettled 94 years later when the All Stars, all African-Americans, decided to enter this city's Little League tournament. Charleston canceled the tournament because blacks and whites simply did not play together. Actually, they did, all the time, in informal settings, on vacant lots. "Kids do not mess up the world, adults do," says Leroy Major, 69, the All Stars' pitcher and a retired schoolteacher.
Never mind, said the All Stars' coach, who entered them in the state tournament in Greenville. That was too much for the 61 white teams, who withdrew. Well, then, said the coach, we will head for Rome, Ga., and the regional tournament where the winners of eight Southern state tournaments would compete to see which would go to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Those running things at Rome said the Cannon Street team could not compete because it had advanced by forfeit. But the national Little League organization decided it wasn't the Cannon Street All Stars' fault that no one would play them, so it invited them to Williamsport as honored guests. For many of them, it was their first venture away from Charleston, exciting and a bit worrisome, because the route north passed through areas where the Ku Klux Klan was restive.
When the All Stars settled into the stands at Williamsport, the crowd began to chant, "Let them play!" Vermont Brown, 68, an Army veteran and former Lockheed Martin employee, who still is about the size of a Little Leaguer, remembers that when he and his teammates saw the teams warming up on the field, "We knew we would have kicked their butts." They probably would have, given the pitching of Major. He is a former Marine who is about twice Brown's size. A mountain of Christian serenity, he works with his church, practicing what the summer of 1955 taught him: "Move on."
The spring chicken among the Cannon Street All Stars organization is Augustus Holt, 65. He was too young to play with them but is now the team historian. He became interested in the events of 1955 when his son played Dixie Youth Baseball, whose uniforms had the Confederate battle flag on their sleeves.
Dixie Youth Baseball, which has removed the flag, came into existence when Little League organizations in eight Southern states seceded from the national Little League after 1955. Its Official Rule Guide stated: "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 exists." Dixie Youth Baseball, which in 1967 removed that from its charter, has produced major leaguers Bo Jackson, Tom Gordon, Reggie Sanders and Otis Nixon, all African-Americans.
The year the Cannon Street All Stars won without playing was the year after Brown v. Board of Education, and the summer before the December when, 370 miles from here, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus. As the boys were on the night bus trip back from Pennsylvania, a 14-year-old Chicago boy, Emmett Till, visiting his relatives in Mississippi, was seized from his bed and murdered.
"We haven't seen the best of it yet," says John Rivers, 69, the All Stars' shortstop who later studied architecture at Hampton Institute and Columbia University and today has offices in Atlanta and Columbus, Ga. "The country's always getting better." It speaks well of these spry gentlemen of nearly three score and ten that, without a trace of bitterness, they are determined to keep telling their story for the benefit of old people who only dimly remember it, and for the edification of young people who cannot imagine it. It speaks well of the nation that, without gentle reminders by people like the men in the blue blazers, it has difficulty remembering the way things were.