- “Let Them Play!”The Cannon Street All-Stars and the 1955 Little League World Series
Keynote Speech to the Twentieth Annual nine Spring Training Conference, March 16, 2013
When Wendell Smith was seventeen years old, he pitched his Detroit American Legion team to a 1–0 victory in the championship game. Baseball scouts were at the game. They signed Smith’s catcher but ignored him. When Smith asked why he wasn’t signed, he was told it was because of his skin color. Smith said he used this as motivation to attack the color line while working as a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier.
When Sam Lacy was growing up in Washington dc, he went to a lot of Senators games with his father. His father would cheer the team on—until one of the pitchers, Nick Altrock, spit in his face. Lacy’s father never went to another game, but Lacy did. As a teenager, he worked at Griffith Park, seeing the major leaguers play some days and the Negro leaguers other days. He saw black players who were clearly good enough to play in the major leagues. Lacy later attacked the color line as a sportswriter for the Washington Afro-American, Chicago Defender, and Baltimore Afro-American
We write a lot about the color line in baseball and how it created a parallel world of black baseball, where ballplayers played in the shadows of white America, never realizing their potential, never knowing how well they could have done in the major leagues.
We don’t write as much about the teenagers and children in the campaign for racial equality in baseball—when they came face to face with the inexorable reality that, for some reason beyond their comprehension, they would never be good enough—even though they could see for themselves they were good enough.
Baseball tells us a lot about the Civil Rights Movement. The campaign for racial equality in baseball tells us a lot about the campaign for racial equality in American society. They are part and parcel of one another. One cannot [End Page 1] really know the story of the Civil Rights Movement without knowing about the integration of baseball. One cannot understand the integration of baseball without knowing what was happening in American society.
We know something about the involvement of children in the Civil Rights Movement—from Brown v. Board of Education.
We know about Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old Chicago boy, who on a visit to Mississippi, had the temerity to speak to—or maybe whistle at—a white woman and was then taken from his uncle’s barn, beaten, one of his eyes was cut out, and then shot through the head and his body weighted down by a 70-pound cotton gin and barbed wire before being dumped into the Tal-lahatchie River.
We know about the nine students who in 1957 integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, who needed the protection of US Army’s 101 Airborne. And the hundreds of children, some as young as eight years old, who marched in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 to demonstrate against segregation. The Birmingham police arrested them. Police Chief “Bull” Connor ordered fire hoses turned on them and unleashed dogs to attack them.
During the summer of 1955—between the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the murder of Emmett Till—the Cannon Street all-stars tried to integrate the annual Little League baseball tournament in Charleston, South Carolina. They had hoped to play in the Little League World Series in Wil-liamsport, Pennsylvania.
They did not get to play in Williamsport—not because of their ability, but because of the color of their skin. Even though they didn’t play, they became what Little League ceo Creighton Hale called “the most significant amateur team in baseball history.”
The Cannon Street all-stars played a few miles away from Charleston Harbor, where the Civil War began in April 1861. They lived and played in Charleston, which is adjacent to Clarendon County, where school segregation was challenged in Briggs v. Elliott in 1949, a case that would later be included with Brown v...