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 the South.
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 Newcombe."
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 in August.
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.