Dr. Chris Lamb, chair of the Department of Journalism and Public Relations, released a book today called Stolen Dreams: The 1955 Cannon Street All-Stars and Little League Baseball’s Civil War (University of Nebraska Press). Dr. Lamb told us more about his book:
Why is this story worth telling?
“It’s about 11- and 12-year-old black kids who live in Jim Crow Charleston in 1955. They’re playing on the all-star team in the first Black Little League in South Carolina. Their coaches tell them they will keep playing as long as they keep winning — all the way to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. But this doesn’t happen. Their dreams are stolen and their souls are forever scarred.”
“When the team registered for a Little League tournament in Charleston, South Carolina, in July 1955, it put the team and the forces of integration on a collision course with segregation, bigotry, and the Southern way of life. This is in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education. White teams refused to take the field with the Cannon Street All-Stars. The Cannon Street team wins the tournament by forfeit and goes to the state tournament.
Little League Baseball prohibits racial discrimination in its rules and tells the white teams in the tournament they have to play the Black team. The white teams all pull out of the tournament and start their own segregated baseball organization, Dixie League Baseball. It puts the Confederate flag on its rule books and its uniforms. Sixty-some years later, Dixie League Baseball now has a couple hundred thousand kids playing in it. It was created out of the tears of black kids and the racial bigotry of the 1950s.
The Cannon Street team wins the state tournament by forfeit and goes to the regionals in Rome, Georgia. If they win there, they go to the Little League World Series in Williamsport.”
How did they do?
“They didn’t play a game. The tournament organizers declared them ineligible because Little League rules said all teams had to advance by playing and winning on the field, and not by winning by forfeit. Little League Baseball affirmed the decision. And the Cannon Street team’s season ends there.”
Was this a big story?
“Yes, for the time. Newspapers said little about racism and racial discrimination in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. But this was different because this wasn’t about Brown v. Board of Education and highfalutin stuff like that. This was about white adults keeping Black kids from playing in the All-American game of baseball. And the bad press got the attention of Little League Baseball.”
“Peter McGovern, the president of Little League Baseball, invited the team to Williamsport to be the organization’s guests for the finals of the Little League World Series.”
Did the team go?
“Yes. Even though they didn’t play.
Robert Morrison, the president of the Cannon Street YMCA, was a race man and he knew that going to Williamsport was a slap in the face to the kids, but he also knew that it would keep the story going and publicize what a lousy thing this was. The team was introduced and the crowd stands up and starts cheering for the boys, yelling, ‘Let them play! Let them play!’ The guys on the team, who are now in their late 70s, say they still remember those cheers. ‘I can hear them to this day,’ one of them says. And then they go back to their seats and watch the game and wonder why they’re not on the field and why white kids are living out their dreams. What’s it like to watch other people live out your dreams? There’s a photo of the team – it’s the cover of the book – and the players and coaches and chaperons – are just staring into the camera. No one is smiling.”
Does this story have a happy ending?
“There’s no happy ending. The team gets on the bus and goes back to Charleston. Emmett Till is murdered in Mississippi during the team’s trip back to Charleston. The segregated Dixie League replaced Little League Baseball in the South. And the boys slink back into the racism of the Jim Crow South and become invisible in the white society.”
What happens to the team and their story?
“The boys grow up and don’t talk about the story … and when they do, they become upset, talking about what might have happened if they had had a chance to play.”
How did you learn about the story?
“I learned about it from Gus Holt, who became the team’s historian. He was a racial activist whose son played Dixie League Baseball in the 1990s. Dixie League became integrated in the 1960s. Holt’s son, Lawrence, makes the all-star team and puts on his uniform, and it has a Confederate flag on it. Holt becomes apoplectic. Holt confronts racism in the city’s rec league and then learns about the Cannon Street All-Stars. He organizes a reunion for the Cannon Street team. He learns about the racist history of the Dixie Leagues and brings back Little League Baseball to Charleston. He wants to take the team to Williamsport so they can find some redemption. Just when it looks like Holt’s pulled off the impossible, or at least the improbable, he learns his son has an incurable brain tumor and it ends up taking Lawrence Holt’s life. Gus died a year ago.”
Questions? E-mail author and department chair Chris Lamb at email@example.com.