The Little League Team That Never Got The Chance To Play
3:08 PM EDT on August 18, 2022
The summer of 1954 was a big one for 11-year-old John Rivers. As a young baseball player, he had only played a “flying saucer” version of the game—whacking at big red rubber balls, cut in half and flattened out, with a broomstick. Batters weren’t even hitting a round object, which meant the sandlot game required superior hand-eye coordination at the plate and in the field. When word went out that the Cannon Street YMCA was starting an official Williamsport-stamped Little League, Rivers was ready, or at least thought he was.
The league was founded by Robert Morrison, a local businessman who also served as president of a YMCA branch originally founded in 1866, specifically for black people to use. The Little League would be the first and only one for black kids in Charleston, or anywhere else in South Carolina for that matter. It would consist of four teams; 100 kids, none of whom had gloves, showed up for the tryout that would determine the sixty roster spots. Rivers snagged one of the 15 spots on the Pan Hellenic Council team.
For Rivers, who will turn 80 during the 2022 Little League World Series, the chance to play real baseball with real (if used) equipment on a somewhat real (if patchy, rocky clay-and-crabgrass) field was a dream coming true. “The uniform!” Rivers told Defector from his home in Manta, Ecuador where he and Robenia, his wife of 60 years, live today. The couple moved in February 2017 in a long-planned relocation turbocharged by the inauguration of President Trump. “Oh my goodness, I wanted to sleep in it. The gray flannel was a badge of honor.” Rivers went on:
I would lay it all out the night before, the matching belt, cap and high socks. The only thing missing was cleats. I had high-top sneakers, but it didn’t matter because the trim was Royal Blue, just like the Brooklyn Dodgers… Putting the uniform on was exhilarating, but in that first season, I was on the bench and didn’t play much. I soon realized it was too clean for heading back to the ‘hood. I started rubbing dirt on my socks and pants, so [for] anyone who asked, I could say, “I had a pretty good game today.”
By decree, first-year Little Leagues were ineligible for district tournaments, so players were chosen for an all-star team to take on the first-place Pan Hellenic Council squad. Throughout the season, Rivers’s skills improved—as he constantly let the coaches know—and so he got some late-season playing time. It was still a shock when his coach announced he was starting in left field in the title game, the first one ever played under the lights.
“I made sure my Mom came to that one. It was a big crowd because it was a historic game but when I took the field I was terrified, like I got what I wished for and now it was Judgment Day,” Rivers said. “Fortunately, I only had one ball hit to me, a grounder I fielded and threw back to second. I passed the test.”
The following season Rivers started at shortstop, becoming one of the team’s best players. He was selected for the Cannon Street All-Star team that would play in the sanctioned Little League tournament that would start out in the Charleston district and end in Williamsport, Pa. One of his teammates from the Fielding Funeral Home squad was Leroy Major, a fireballing pitcher regarded as the best in the league, and a defensive ace in center when he wasn’t on the mound. “The coaches made me go home and get my birth certificate because I was too tall, almost the same height I am today,” Major, who turns 80 in October, said with a laugh. He’s 6-foot-3. “I only threw one pitch, a fastball, but it was effective because by the time my foot came off the mound I was halfway to the plate.”
Fielding Funeral Home was tops in the league in 1955, and contributed the most all-stars to the roster. Major said he and his two outfield teammates were a brick wall and nothing got past them, an amusing description given that the actual home run fence was a 4-foot-high red-picket Sears and Roebuck variety that the players’ dads would unfold, put up, and take down again, every game day. As for hitting, Major admitted he never should have followed The Man.
“I copied Stan Musial’s stance, but I didn’t have his batting knowledge,” he said. “So instead of standing up straight and hitting line drives, I would squat down and swing up on the ball, so it always went to the right side for an out. I certainly wasn’t The Man, but I will say I learned that baseball, all sports, are as much brains as brawn. I would see dads in the stands telling their sons where to stand knowing where I was going to hit it. It’s a lesson I carried throughout my own coaching career.”
As much fun as the regular season had been, the chance to play for the Cannon Street All-Stars was mind-blowing to the 15 young honorees. It meant the chance to play on actual fields in Charleston—and, if they kept winning, in Greenville, and then Georgia, and then the Little League World Series. It was clear that this was serious; the players remembered seeing white men hanging around Harmon Field, which had been built atop a former housing project landfill, to scout players. Even Danny Jones, head of South Carolina’s Little League Baseball, made an appearance one June evening and learned, much to his chagrin, that the Cannon Street Y League planned to send their all-stars to the city tournament. The team that thought itself the best in the segregated city wanted its shot.
As it turned out, the Cannon Street All-Stars would make it to Williamsport. It was a fantastic voyage for a group of young ballplayers, most of whom had never traveled really anywhere. Incredibly for the times, the near all-white crowd at the Little League World Series would erupt in cheers for the all-black team, the first to grace the Original Little League Field. What the experience didn’t entail, sadly, were any baseball games. Thanks to Jim Crow bigotry, cowardice, and the “polite” racism of white liberals, the Cannon Street All-Stars wouldn’t play a single game in the Little League World Series. Denying black kids across the state—and more or less throughout the Deep South—the opportunity to play organized baseball for more than decade would cast a long shadow on the game for generations, and lead to the end of Little League proper in the South.
“It’s a common myth that following Jackie, there was a flood of black talent into Major League Baseball. It was more of a steady crawl of inclusion,” said Ray Doswell, vice president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “In 1955, the last true season of the Negro Leagues, American-born black players made up 5.2 percent of MLB, down from 5.6 percent the previous season.” Coincidentally, in 2022, the number is 7.2 percent, down from 7.6 percent last year.
The Cannon Street All-Stars’ experience in Williamsport was so humiliating and painful that the players were happy to let it go dormant for 40 years. “What started out as a 1,500-mile road trip to baseball heaven became a nightmare we didn’t want to talk about, so we buried it, consciously and subconsciously,” Rivers said. “I went to Hampton [University] with a former teammate, John Bailey, and a couple times we kicked around the idea of getting the guys together for a reunion because no matter the outcome, it was a special time in our lives. But it was just idle conversation, and that was the last I spoke of it until I was contacted by a Charlestonian named Gus Holt, in 1995. It was too traumatic.”
The team’s story is the centerpiece of Chris Lamb's authoritative and exhaustively researched new book, Stolen Dreams: The Cannon Street All-Stars and Little League Baseball’s Civil War. “I think every town in America has a story of racism nobody wants to recognize and teach, so they’re purposely forgotten,” said Lamb, chair of the journalism and public relations department at IUPUI. “Cannon Street and all the other overlooked stories aren’t Tulsa, Rosewood, or Emmett Till, but they are worth telling because white supremacy isn’t just about the horrific violence.”
Lamb has written a number of scholarly books at the intersection of sports, race and history, including two on Jackie Robinson, one on his religious faith and another on his first spring training. For a number of years, Lamb taught journalism at the College of Charleston, becoming immersed in the central role the city played in the nation’s 400-year struggle for equality. He refers to Charleston—home to the largest slave port in the United States, and the city with the most enslaved Africans passing through it—as “ground zero for American racism.” When Lamb set out to write Stolen Dreams, he had two primary goals: To get out of the academic framework and deliver “something people might actually want to read,” and to tell the racial history of Charleston, the South, and the country through the lens of the Cannon Street All-Stars.
Lamb accomplishes both. He starts with slavery and works his way through the Lost Cause, Jim Crow segregation, the civil rights movement, the “Emmanuel Nine,” the dismantling of Confederate idolatry—there’s a great tidbit about one of Lamb’s newspaper buddies guzzling beer in a humid parking garage while watching the John C. Calhoun statue get dismantled—and the Cannon Street All-Stars finally getting the recognition they deserve. Lamb gives the lion’s share of the credit for the existence of Stolen Dreams to Gus Holt, a local shipyard worker who was stunned when his son Lawrence showed off the jersey he received after making a 1993 Charleston Little League all-star team. The Confederate flag was sewn proudly onto its sleeve. The shock of seeing the Stars and Bars on his black son’s arm would inspire Holt to piece together the story of the men who never got to wear their own All-Star unis in competition. It would also become his calling as he dealt with his own unspeakable tragedy.
Civil rights history lessons tend to get told station-to-station, preferably with a central figure upon which to hang the narrative hat. It’s why Jackie Robinson remains a staple of middle-school book reports, but the small stories of progress and struggle by everyday citizens and organizations must also be told and retold, even if that story lacks a triumphant outcome beyond kids of different races playing pepper. It should be more well-known, for instance, that Little League has on balance been more racially progressive than just about any other American institution since it began in 1939. For boys, anyway: Girls weren’t officially allowed until 1974, following a court order striking down the 1950 “Tubby [Johnson] Rule.” It was named for the Little Lulu alias that 13-year-old Kay Johnston adopted and submitted to her upstate New York Little League after cutting her braids, making the team, and spending a year playing first base.
Founded in Williamsport by Carl Stotz and brothers George and Bert Bebble, the initial Little League consisted of three teams and included a non-discrimination policy from the jump. The original 1947 eight-team National Little League Tournament (precursor to the LLWS) was won by a local squad, the Maynard Midgets, 16-7 over a Lock Haven team with two black players, Lou “Scrap Iron” Baity and Walt Dunston. Following that season, three of the next five LLWS champs were integrated teams from New Jersey and Connecticut. There were even integrated teams from the South here and there; in 1951, an all-star team from the small Appalachian town of Norton, Va. didn’t blink when Charlotesville officials refused to let them play within the city limits. Instead, Norton welcomed the Charlottesville team with a parade in which the visitors were driven in convertibles to the field, where some 1,500 fans watched their rural coalfield nine crush their city-slicker opposition, 12-3.
The 1955 Little League campaign, coming as it did on the heels of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, made for both a fascinating watershed season and a microcosm of the civil rights movement. On August 16, the all-white Orlando Kiwanis beat the all-black Pensacola Jaycees; it was the first time such a game had been played in the Jim Crow South. It’s a story well told in the 2018 documentary Long Time Coming: A 1955 Baseball Story, and a seminal game that only happened because the Kiwanis kids voted to play ball after their manager quit rather than be a part of it.
The saga of New Jersey’s Delaware Township All-Star team, which lost back-to-back LLWS title games, is perhaps more instructive where Cannon Street’s case is concerned. The first-year 1955 finalists featured three black players: Wilbur Robinson, Bobby Cook, and Billy Hunter, who would become the long-tenured and later-embattled executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. As Robinson tells it, they were all country boys, playing ball in an idyllic farm town that would soon be subsumed by the suburban sprawl of Cherry Hill.
“We lived in the black neighborhood of Batesville, which was separate from the white areas, but we never really had racial issues and sports were always mixed,” said Robinson, 78, from his home in Somerdale, N.J. “Obviously, some people had negative opinions about us but it was never demonstrated to me as a kid. It felt like everyone around the All-Stars, including Coach Elmer Bauer, appreciated what we did as a team. … That’s why our trip below the Mason-Dixon line was so eye-opening.”
After winning the state tournament, Delaware Township headed for five days of regionals in Front Royal, Va., a small Shenandoah Valley hamlet. Upon arrival, they were informed that black players weren’t allowed in the team motel; local families put them up. Robinson loved his digs, he said, because his host family, the Thompsons, owned a little restaurant, the Cozy Cove. “Oh, we did some eatin’,” he recalled.
The Jim Crow laws became even more apparent at the town movie theater. “We went to see Ben-Hur and I guess Billy and Bobby knew what was going on, but I walked into the lobby with my arm around my buddy, laughing it up with our red-headed catcher Tom Trotman,” said Robinson, who was the team’s power-hitting shortstop. “The usher came running over to us and told me I couldn’t be in there and we couldn’t be hugging and stuff. I got escorted to the balcony where black patrons sat. We called it the Crow’s Nest because there was chicken wire up there. That was when I realized exactly where I was.”
The Delaware Township All-Stars would roll through the regionals, winning nine games—many more than the norm in other Little League tournaments—under the increasingly long shadow of racist barbarity. Prior to the end of the regional tourney, Delaware Township received shoot-to-kill death threats. Bauer polled the team, and everyone, black players included, voted to get after it on the diamond. They did, and the threats proved idle.
The game-day ugliness wasn't violent, but it was constant. A 2005 Camden Courier-Post lookback noted that umpires made clearly ridiculous calls against Delaware Township while the players heard the N-word from the stands, but the boys prevailed behind back-to-back no-hitters. In the finals against another Garden State squad, from the North Jersey town of Carlstadt, Hunter did the pitching and the hitting, bringing a sprinting Robinson in from second with a headfirst 1-0 walk-off slide. Robinson was so dazed when the ump called him safe that he immediately ran off the field and straight onto the bus. It was a wild ending to an inning defined by Coach Bauer’s decision—one recounted by author Gary Faucett in his book A Team to Remember—to have his players scream “Jackie Robinson!” in unison as Hunter dug in with two strikes at the plate. In Faucett’s telling, it stunned the prejudiced crowd silent long enough for Hunter to drill the tourney-winning gapper into left-center.
Three months before he died at age 88, Cy Young threw out the first pitch before the 1955 Little League World Series Final between Delaware Township and nearby rival Morrisville, Pa. Tied at three, the game went into extra innings; Morrisville’s Rich Cominski hit a game-winning walk-off home run off Tommy Trotman, who had been called in to pitch solely because official rules stated the starter could throw no more than six. Upon giving it up, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Trotman fell to the ground "wailing, 'I lost it.'" His teammates picked him up and dusted him off, but it still gnawed at Trotman years later, Robinson remembered. Teammate Bobby Cook eventually stepped in.
“This was after we were all out of college and working. They were both local educators and kept in touch, so Bobby knew Tommy was still brokenhearted,” Robinson told Defector. “Bobby dedicated a poem to Tommy letting him know we were a team and he didn’t lose the game for us. I read it, it was deep. I know it gave Tommy relief. He quit carrying that burden.”
This moment of adult tenderness between former middle-school teammates—the opportunity not just to have an incredible experience through baseball, but to grow from it—was the kind of moment denied to the Cannon Street All-Stars in 1955. Having those experiences taken away hurt so much, the players said, that the team quickly drifted apart. It would take decades before they got together for any kind of unifying tell-tall-tales-over-cold-ones sit-down to address that loss. They didn’t deserve any of that suffering, for obvious reasons, but none greater than that all of it was completely out of their control. White adults were in charge, and they chose bigotry over baseball.
As the regular season came to end, Danny Jones petitioned Little League president Peter McGovern (who took over in 1955 after Stotz was excommunicated) to hold a segregated tournament. Jones was popular in town for building all manner of white-only sports facilities and fields, and wasn’t about to jeopardize his standing. Initially, he didn’t have a problem with Robert Morrison starring a black league in the city they shared, because the idea of integrated diamonds in Charleston probably never crossed his mind. The national Little League organizing body in Pennsylvania cedes a lot of local community control, but affiliates have always been required to sign off on nondiscrimination, which Jones would’ve done. But in Charleston, the idea of Cannon Street All-Stars on the same fields as local white squads was an integrated step too far.
A vote taken among the state’s white teams was 40-15 in favor of boycotting the tournament, but all finally joined in on it. Jones petitioned Little League to let South Carolina play a whites-only tournament. McGovern stood by official Little League policy, firing back, "For the boys of these teams there are no barriers of race, creed or color. ... For the boys, baseball is a game to be played with bat, ball and glove."
This of course made McGovern Confederate Public Enemy No. 1. When the Cannon Street All-Stars joined the city tournament, the Charleston News and Courier ran an editorial headlined "Agitation And Hate."
“Some Negro adults, knowing that the colored children weren't wanted in the all-white state league, nevertheless decided to force the colored team into the league,” the editorial read. “The case of the South Carolina Little League could well be cited by sociologists as a textbook example of why racial relations in the South are becoming increasingly difficult. ... The Northern do-gooders who have needled the Southern race agitators into action may have to answer for the consequences.”
The players, who were in junior high, didn’t exactly know what was going on. Some even lived near white families; Rivers said a kid in the neighborhood would watch them play sandlot through a chain link fence and “you could tell by the look on his face how badly he wanted to join.” In Charleston at that time, though, black and white people very rarely crossed paths. “Except on shopping day,” Rivers noted. “White store owners didn’t separate themselves from our money.”
The Cannon Street All-Stars just continued practicing, as if a game against a white team was in the offing. Today, Major finds it pretty funny. “Coaches would have us out there running drills and then we’d get in a circle and they would say, ‘We’re playing this white team, do you think you can beat them?' And we’d all say yes,” Major recalled. “Then the next practice we’d get in a circle and they’d say, ‘We’re not playing that white team, we’re going to play this other white team, do you think you can beat them?’ Yes! … And then we just never did.”
The Cannon Street All-Stars won the local and state tournaments, all by forfeit. Among the many people who didn’t want to play them was the director of the regional Little League tournament in Rome, Ga., who declared Cannon Street ineligible because they had advanced by forfeit and not on the field as organization rules stated. “With extreme reluctance and heartfelt regard,” McGovern caved to the rulebook, saying a team advancing to the LLWS without playing would “create unbalance and inequity.”
And with that, the Cannon Street All-Stars' season and postseason were over. No games, no competition, no chance to show off their baseball stuff, and no opportunity to beat a white team at their own game. The Courier Post aptly described their Palmetto State title as “a victory with no future.” The Cannon Street disqualification set off a firestorm by sports columnists in America’s black newspapers, but the decision even angered reactionary New York Daily News sportswriter Dick Young. He called for McGovern’s firing and asked Jackie Robinson for thoughts on the matter. “How stupid can they be?” Robinson replied. “I had to laugh when I read the story.”
Lamb noted that McGovern’s decision might not have been purely about bureaucratic cowardice. “Holt insisted McGovern received threats that if the team showed up in Rome, there would be blood on his hands if something happened to the boys,” Lamb said. “The Klan was big in North Georgia. Gus was emphatic that some of their Charleston sons would’ve come home in pine boxes. There are things we will never fully know that impacted McGovern’s decision-making process.”
Beyond the safety issues, the conventional wisdom is McGovern was afraid of losing Little League in the South if Cannon Street won the regionals. His conscience bothered him, though, so he extended an offer to the team to visit Williamsport from Aug. 23-26. The boys would get the same perks as the other teams, including rooms in a Lycoming College dorm and free hot dogs and popcorn in the bleachers—everything about being in the Little League World Series, except the opportunity to play baseball.
Still, when the team, coaches, and local officials like Robert Morrison (who saw an opportunity for another federal integration lawsuit) boarded that old school bus with their lunches packed, there was magic in the air. The only boy not to make the trip was slugger Buck Godfrey, whose father understandably did not see the point of taking the overnight driving risk when they weren’t even going to play. The rest of the team wasn’t concerned. They were jacked to the moon.
Leroy Major still gets a kick out of the trip today. “I had maybe been to Jacksonville once and to Atlantic Beach with the church, and that was it. So to me, everything was an exciting new first,” he said. “We were at breakfast. I’d never been in a sit-down restaurant, and instead of grits, it came with potatoes, and I thought, Potatoes ... for breakfast? I got my first pair of pajamas for Williamsport, saw my first real beautiful baseball stadium, and when they split us up to eat with the white kids? Never did that before. It was my first integrated experience. Of course, we just jumped right into baseball talk. 'Who’s your best hitter? Pitcher?' That kind of thing. It was all so thrilling to me.”
The kids brought gloves, but not uniforms or any other equipment; they might have known they weren’t going to play. But they were still kids, and in this case kids who were convinced they could whoop any team in the Little League World Series, and they wanted a chance to prove it on that immaculate bluegrass with the pristine dirt and the perfect chalk lines, the likes of which none of them had set foot on before. Even if it wasn’t an official game. “McGovern could’ve been a pioneer. We would have given anything to play an exhibition or scrimmage against any of the teams in Williamsport,” said Rivers. “It’s something we could have taken back home with us, something profound. I’ll never understand McGovern’s logic on that front in any way, shape or form.”
The Cannon Street All-Stars were allowed on the diamond to take some infield grounders and some outfield fungoes in between the consolation and championship. As Delaware Township and Morrisville warmed up on the sideline, fans saw Cannon Street’s athleticism. Especially when an errant ball was thrown from the outfield and one-hopped the catcher. A roar went up.
And then something happened that has happened many times in sports movies, but which any discerning viewer would have bet money against ever happening in real life. Someone shouted, “Let them play,” others joined in, and then the crowd was chanting, “Let them play!” The Cannon Street All-Stars were bathed in wild applause as they walked off the field, and the fans continued stomping and chanting. Rivers remembers the bleachers shaking. It remains a favorite memory, but the wonderment was fleeting. The championship game started, and it sunk in that it didn’t matter that the Cannon Street All-Stars were ready to play that day. Rivers knew the only way his souvenir LLWS hat and T-shirt would ever get covered in dirt was if he rubbed it on himself.
“I didn’t get to spend time with the guys on that South Carolina team, but we certainly saw them on the field and knew all about their situation,” said Robinson. “I wondered why if those Southern white teams wanted to show their supposed superiority, they didn’t go out and prove it on the field.”
The ride home was funereal. The boys didn’t talk much about what they’d gone through. Many years later, Godfrey would write a book about the team in which he said all his friends were different after Williamsport. Their un-triumphant return to Charleston was akin to “a wake,” he wrote, “with the accompanying emptiness one feels in the pit of the stomach after viewing the remains of someone close.”
Whatever interest there was in the Cannon Street All-Stars as a news story had vanished by the time they got home. Not because the “Let them play!” scene wasn’t a curiosity, but because, as the Cannon All-Stars made their way home on the dark Southern roads, a boy around their age was dragged out of his bed in Mississippi, brutally beaten to death, and left in the Tallahatchie River. His name was Emmett Till.
The Cannon Street kids would never take any kind of field together as a team; most would never play organized baseball again. A few played Pony League on the other side of town, their only segregated option. Burke High School didn’t have a baseball team until they were gone. Only one player, the one who stayed back in Charleston rather than making the trip to Williamsport, played college ball. William "Buck" Godfrey batted .511 his junior year at Delaware State University and went on to become one of the most successful high school football coaches in Georgia history, winning 273 games, a state title, and 13 regional championships at Southwest DeKalb High in Decatur, Ga., where the stadium bears his name.
“Buck is the guy who came out of the Cannon Street experience the least damaged,” said Lamb, adding that not every player he reached out to, even with the help of Holt and Rivers, wanted to share their experience all these years later.
The Cannon Street Y League would only make it one more season. It folded just as a new youth baseball organization took hold across the south, one that prohibited black kids from suiting up in Charleston and beyond, for more than decade. This was due in part to Peter McGovern’s ill-fated attempt to placate racists. “McGovern was a decent guy,” Lamb said, “but I suspect he was terrified he would lose hundreds, maybe more than a thousand teams, in the Deep South. So he went with a middle ground to try and please everybody. It backfired.” The Confederate states bolted from Little League Baseball and formed Dixie Youth Baseball, which had 500 teams for the 1956 season; Danny Jones was its first commissioner. Dixie Youth Baseball didn’t integrate until 1967. It’s still thriving today; it was the league that sewed the Confederate flag onto Gus Holt’s son’s uniform sleeve.
Holt started looking into why his son had to show off a racist totem as part of his success. He began asking around, talking to local baseball folk, and digging into newspaper archives and other Charleston resources. It didn’t take long for him to come across the Cannon Street All-Stars. He reached out to John Rivers. Finally, the story found daylight.
In 1995, Charleston Post and Courier sportswriter Gene Sapakoff wrote a Sports Illustrated feature that jump-started a new era for the Cannon Street All-Stars. Thanks to Holt’s relentless promotional efforts, the team got some shine. The Charleston Riverdogs honor them every year, and there is a historical marker for them at Harmon Field. Senator Tim Scott read their accomplishments into the Congressional Record, there was talk of a movie at one point—that probably didn’t get greenlit because a “slow clap to nowhere” isn’t exactly the Disney formula—and earlier this summer, Lamb, Rivers, Major, and a couple other teammates got together to commemorate Stolen Dreams at the Charleston Public Library.
For Major, sharing the Cannon Street tale with schoolkids has meant the most. He was one of only two teammates who stayed home in Charleston as adults—he and wife Johnnie are celebrating their 65th year together—and taught math and science to middle schoolers and coached basketball at the high school near where he grew up. It’s the same one he walked past every day on his way to school; kids his color weren’t allowed inside. Major insists that back in 1955, he never thought they would play in Williamsport, so he wasn’t crushed by it. But he also admits he never gave it much thought until he was speaking to an elementary school class and a little girl asked what it was like to have that childhood dream snuffed out by the cruelty of adults. “Hit me like a rock,” he said. “I cried like a baby that night.”
The most extraordinary Cannon Street All-Stars gatherings have been in Williamsport. In 2002, a large group of players, including Godfrey, were in attendance to receive the 1955 South Carolina State Championship banner. In 2005, to celebrate the team’s golden anniversary, Gus Holt saw his truest and most bittersweet hope come to fruition. For all he’d done to resurrect the Cannon Street All-Stars, he was asked to throw out the first pitch at the opening game of the LLWS on the Original Field. He did so for his beloved son, whose racist jersey inspired him to bring this story to light and changed the trajectory of so many lives. That son, Lawrence, died of brain cancer at the age of 18, in 1999. Gus Holt died at the age of 73 in April 2020, after a long illness.
At least half of the Cannon Street All-Stars have died, but as the remaining men enter their 80s, they do so as a part of the sport’s history. For Rivers, the echoes of the past still ring out in the present. In 2014, he was part of a smaller group that watched flame-throwing star Mo’ne Davis light up the Little League World Series and saw Chicago's all-black Jackie Robinson West team race to the LLWS championship before losing to the Seoul, South Korea squad.
“We were honored on the field before the game, and it was deeply inspiring,” Rivers said. “Looking out at a team made up entirely of African Americans, it felt like we were playing through them. Like we finally made it. That game brought me close to complete closure about what happened to us.”
All thanks to the simple act of letting them play.
A founding member of the Billings, Montana-to-Brooklyn sportswriting pipeline, Patrick Sauer has written for may large digital publications you’ve heard of and even more smaller ones that no longer exist. He’s on Twitter at @pjsauer.
Stay in touch
Sign up for our free newsletter