Day 9 of 2022 baseball books: The Cannon Street Little League team of 1955, in “our darkest yet finest hour”

“Stolen Dreams: The 1955 Cannon Street All-Stars
And Little League Baseball’s Civil War”

The author:
Chris Lamb

The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press
400 pages
$34.95
Released April 1, 2022

The links:
The publishers website
At Bookshop.org
At Indiebound.org
At Powells.com
At Vromans.com
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At PagesABookstore.com
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com

The review in 90 feet or less

Little League memories can make us feel less young and more reflective today.

== One of the things discovered in my parents’ attic among the hundreds of family mementos in boxes, bags and trunks was this jacket, for making the 1973 Aviation Little League All-Star team. It’s like finding a pair of Hang Ten board shorts of an OP T-shirt. Let’s see … ummmm. Nope, it doesn’t fit. But it fits in a box in my garage now. Not sure which Hall of Fame to donate it to from here.

It jogs wonderful memories of playing games against All-Star teams in the Southern California area of District 37 – over at Sportsman’s Park in Inglewood near the Forum, up by the oil wells in Ladera Heights, trips to Westchester and Compton. At the time, either all or almost all of those rosters were full of African-American kids, coaches and parents. Our entire league may have had only a couple non-white players. Winning districts meant advancing to area regional and state regional and eventually … broadening our perspective of where we lived, and who our neighbors were.

== Remember Mo’ne Davis? She wrote her memoir in 2015 called “Remember My Name: My Story from First Pitch to Game Changer” (HarperCollins, for kids 8-12 years). As a 13-year-old eighth-grader from South Philadelphia in the summer of ’14, she was the first girl to win a game pitching in the Little League World Series. She pitched a shutout along the way to the journey to Williamsport, Pa. On the cover of Sports Illustrated. Her jersey is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Mark Hyman, assistant professor of sports management at George Washington University, told the New York Times: “She’s the most talked-about baseball player on earth right now.”

Wanna feel real old? This summer, she’ll turn 21. She’s in her second year, sitting out a season during the pandemic, playing middle infield on the historically black college Hampton University softball team, having played soccer, basketball and softball in high school.

Time lines may move on different trajectories for different memories, but they have one thing in common: A relentless among of inertia going forward, tripping up how much we want to reflect back on it.

Putting those two things in the context of this important new book that preserves the history of the 1955 Cannon Street All Stars of Charlottesville, South Carolina by Chris Lamb reveals a couple more points.

My own Little League window was less than 20 years after what those kids had to experience. I was born just about five years after that unacceptable moment in time, and grew up in an area of South L.A. near Normandie and 95th Street. White Flight after the Watts Riots was a reality.

The Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars didn’t technically qualify to make it to the Little League World Series at Williamsport – they kept advancing by forfeit through their regional playoffs because all-white teams refused to play with them. They were about to go to Rome, Georgia for the next round that, had they won, would have qualified them for Williamsport. But that was derailed by officials, who instead gave them an invitation to come and watch and be introduced anyway to the crowd. Which began a chant, “Let them play.” Which also reminds us of another Little League moment — one of the “Bad News Bears” movies when they’re kicked off the field at the Astrodome and the crowd wouldn’t allow it.

Think not just how Davis eight years ago dominated the national spotlight playing for the Taney Dragons of Philadelphia with a roster otherwise full of boys were also a mix of races and ethnicity. That year, the all-black Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago won the U.S. championship. They had a huge celebration in Chicago’s Millennium Park that August.

But eventually it had its title taken away and vacate wins in the international tournament months later when an investigation revealed to falsified boundaries to field ineligible players. George Castle covers the team story his 2016 book “Jackie Robinson West: The Triumph and Tragedy of America’s Favorite Little League Team,” but also has the story about the challenges and stereotypes about an inner-city Little League squad. Fraud charges against two coaches were dismissed in 2021 by Little League International but their championship wasn’t reinstated.

In today’s Little League world, all these things connect dots, points in history that reflect changing times.

In 1858, Taney Street came to being in Philadelphia. Some citizens are actively seeking the city to make a change.

In 2020, the Taney Youth Baseball Association changed its name to the Philadelphia Dragons Sports Association. Taney Street, where the organization resides, is widely believed to be named after Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney. He authored the major opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott Case that all blacks — slaves as well as free — were not and could never become citizens of the United States. The court also declared the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, thus permitting slavery in all of the country’s territories.

On page 116 of Lamb’s book about the Cannon Street team: “Whites in Charleston may have seen African Americans on the streets during the daytime hours or in the back of a bus or mowing the lawn or clipping the hedges of a white person’s home, but they were, as (writer and scholar) Ralph Ellison said, largely invisible. Ellison’s 1953 novel, ‘Invisible Man,’ told whites something they probably didn’t know and it told Blacks something most of them knew too well: Blacks were largely invisible to whites – unless whites saw them doing something they didn’t like.”

White baseball teams – read in: parents, administrators, district organizers – didn’t like how a black team got this far into a Little League tournament when it seemed to expand beyond the segregated boundaries that were created for it near the Cannon Street YMCA.

Again context: Brown v. Board of Education is in the news. In August, ’55, the Emmett Till lynching in Mississippi. Four months later, Rosa Parks is a household name, and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts are on.

Yet the Cannon Street All-Star team pushback is coming eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the major league baseball color barrier. Proving again how slow change would come, especially in an area like South Carolina, the birthplace of slave trading. The Charleston, S.C. News and Courier, for example, “rarely published news about Blacks because most of the subscribers were white” and Blacks were referred to as “negros” in copy and headlines. William Brower, an African-American journalist whom Lamb interviews, says the newspaper had to be careful using “negro” as well because if it mistakenly used the phrase in reference to a white person, it was considered libelous, “and we cannot afford to make an error” like that.

Lamb writes on page 119:

“Buck Godfrey, John Bailey, Leroy Major, John Rivers and the other boys who would become the Cannon Street All-Stars grew up among the first generation of Blacks in America aftr the integration of baseball. The promise of baseball was that any boy could grow up to play in the Major Leagues. For the first time, these words meant something. ‘We would dream of playing in the big leagues,’ said Godfrey, ‘but for the moment there was the happiness and sancity of our neighborhoods. It was there we learned the game.’ … “All the fathers must have gone to some kind of convention,’ John Bailey says, ‘because they were all telling us we could become the next Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella or Don Newcombe’.”

And how did that turn out? This book explains it all, and perhaps finds a little bit of redemption when it is all sorted out.

How it goes in the scorebook

A big-league reminder about how the game reflects and can magnify a cultural wound.

The (Charleston, South Carolina) Post and Courier columnist Gene Sapakoff writes about the story: “Chris Lamb could have stuck strictly with the baseball part of the heartbreaking, barrier-breaking path of the 1955 Cannon Street YMCA Little League All-Stars team and come up with a wonderfully important book. He went well beyond. Lamb includes grand context of what was happening in South Carolina, the South and American courts during the tumultuous early 1950s. That makes ‘Stolen Dreams’ a slick double-play: academically worthy of any Palmetto State history syllabus.”

In 1995, on the team’s 40th anniversary, Sapakoff introduced many to the story on a national level when Sports Illustrated published it under headlined “Little League’s Civil War in ’55: A Black All-Star Team Was Sidelined by a Racial Boycott in South Carolina.” He also wrote a piece in October, 2020: “Cannon Street All-Stars’ racial opportunity message 65 years later.”

One of the few authors best positioned to do this book is Lamb, whose 12 previous projects include the 2021 “Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball,” the 2017 “Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography,” the 2016 “From Jack Johnson to LeBron James: Sports, Media, and the Color Line,” the 2004 “Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training.” Lamb also did an essay for “42 Today: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy,” about the differences between how white and black media covered Robinson and baseball’s integration in general. We reviewed that book.

Lamb explains in the acknowledgements how, when he was teaching journalism at the College of Charleston, he was introduced 10 years ago to Gus Holt, who was adamant about preserving this story and complied boxes of research on it. Two years later, he wrote about it for the then-Huffington Post, and it was noted he was writing a book on the subject.

“This is the story of the 1955 Cannon Street All-Stars. But it is also really Gus’s story, even though the didn’t live to see the publication of the book. Gus brought the story back to life and willed it into something that transcended the saga of 11- and 12-year olds … (it was) part of a much larger story of how racial bigotry poisoned the people of Charleston and so many others since the arrival of the first slave ship. … Gus knew more about the Cannon Street story than anyone else – even though he didn’t play for the team. … He ran into racism when he coached a team in a league run by the City of Charleston Recreation Department … investigated the history of the department and learned about the Cannon Street All-Stars and began unearthing the story, buried under 40 years of neglect.”

And now we know.

You can look it up: More to ponder

== A 2005 children’s book, “Let Them Play” (Sleeping Bear Press) by Margot Theis Raven and illustrated by Chris Ellison gives a broader account as an entry point to start an educational pursuit on the story. In 2006, there was also “Champions on the Bench” (Dial Books) by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins.

== The Little League official website posts a less-than-two-minute video “story” about the Cannon Street team, mostly to show a photo of how in 2002 they were welcomed back to Williamsport and “officially crowned” the 1955 South Carolina State Champion. The video “earned” something called the 2020 International Sports Heritage Association (ISHA) Award.

== Little League announced last week it was bringing back its Urban Initiative Jamborees after a two-year hiatus. Last weekend they were in National City, Calif., near San Diego. Established in 1999 to provide opportunities for communities in underserved communities to reap the benefits of having local Little League programs in their neighborhoods, the Little League Urban Initiative has helped tens of thousands of children and volunteers in cities throughout the United States. These Jamborees are unique events to bring players from local programs that benefit from the support of the Urban Initiative together for a weekend of comradery and competition.

== A 2010 short film “The Cannon Street Boys” exists.

== An excerpt of the book as posted on Andscape.com (the ESPN site formerly known as Undefeated)

== Lamb does a piece last month for TheNation.com.

== The Charleston Justice Journey includes this designation:

== Lamb talks to Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Shelf about Jackie Robinson in March, 2021:

2 thoughts on “Day 9 of 2022 baseball books: The Cannon Street Little League team of 1955, in “our darkest yet finest hour””

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