Three Little League stories.

cannon2

The 1955 Cannon Street All Stars, Charleston, South Carolina.

Excerpted from Baseball Dreams Deferred: The Story of the Cannon Street YMCA All Stars.

Seated comfortably in the bleachers amongst the bevy of excited spectators were John Rivers, John Bailey, Vermont Brown, Carl Johnson, and Leroy Major—members of the 1955 Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. All-Stars, an African American youth baseball team from Charleston, South Carolina who, until this week, were the “most significant amateur team in baseball history.” Nattily attired in matching polos, khakis, and baseball caps, the men loudly cheered every hit, catch and strikeout of their slightly younger historical counterparts. It was a highly emotional, joyous moment. For one team member in particular, the dungeon of his darkest childhood memory shook and his chains fell free. “I felt kind of exonerated,” John Bailey told a reporter after the game. “To see the boys from Jackie Robinson represent and do the things we could not do in 1955, I finally felt closure.”

There have been few such moments of exaltation for the All Stars, key figures in a racial controversy that forever changed youth baseball in the American South.  Nearly 15 months after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional, officials with Charleston’s “Negro” Y.M.C.A. (later known as Cannon Street) entered the team into the “whites only” Charleston Little League tournament. They faced opposition from white city recreation officials, who eventually canceled the event.  Winners by default, the All-Stars prepared to compete in the South Carolina state tournament.

In a show of “massive resistance,” white Little League officials, coaches, and parents gradually organized a mass boycott.  The Cannon Street team was ultimately denied the opportunity to compete in the LLWS but was invited to attend the final game as guests of then Little League president Peter J. McGovern.  The following year, teams in seven southern states seceded from Little League and formed “Little Boys’ Baseball, Incorporated,” a segregated youth baseball organization that later became known as Dixie Youth Baseball.  This “Civil War” within youth baseball, sparked by the Cannon Street effort, remains a pivotal yet often overlooked moment in the African American freedom struggle in South Carolina and the nation.

From George Schmidt. George publishes SubstanceNews.

Thanks for noting that the purpose of the game is to have fun, and that good coaches make sure that everyone gets into every game. Regardless of skill level or whatever it might be called. Every year for the past two decades or so, our family has had kids playing organized baseball (it’s really not baseball unless someone is umpiring, etc.) and every year we’ve had to deal with one or two monster parents (and now and then, a coach) who go overboard. But usually it’s what you narrate above.

However, Chicago has many many other problems with baseball, the biggest of which, which I discuss below, is that the economics are tilted away from the poor and working class. Not only can the kids not afford the equipment, but they are also barred by league fees and other barriers.

The corruptions of “Little League” by adults hasn’t begun or ended with this latest bit of dishonesty. Go to PPBA.us and you will find that to play “Little League” at Chicago’s Portage Park this summer, you have to pay $200 for the bigger kids (our 13 year old) and $190 for the younger ones (our ten year old). That’s officially “Little League,” Chicago-style, 2015. And just as a reminder, I’ll check out to see whether “Little League” still officially requires that any kid can play. (My memory of the history of Little League, no quotes, is that its founding rules demanding that any kid could join a team; founding being during the Great Depression).

Chicago 2015 reality also means that just about every team draws from a wider area. Kids we know play at Horner Park (if they want that punishing 40-game schedule) or over at Dunham Park (both in Chicago and on the North Side). Nobody has mentioned “boundaries” to me in more than a decade, and by sons (the eldest of whom is now 25 and a successful engineer in San Francisco) have been in “Little League” for the better part of 16 or 18 years.

When I read about the challenges to the integrity of the Jackie Robinson West victory, my first thought was “Danny Almonte.” Danny who? Look him up. He’s still famous. When my eldest was playing lots of baseball (back in the days when I could catch two or three times a week; unlike today when my legs can’t do it anymore), I read the New York Times one morning and there was a front page story that a Little League pitcher had pitched a PERFECT GAME for a team from the Bronx in Williamsport. Wow! Anyone with a baseball kid in the family read that and said, to be duplicative, “WOW!!”

… until, of course, the second look. The first question was how a 12-year-old could be throwing an 80 mph fastball. My son Dan, who won the frosh soph City Championship game for Whitney Young over Lane Tech in 2005, only began to hit 80 mph at age 15 or 16. That is what most kids who play hard do. We had one kid at Whitney Young in those days who threw his four-seam over 90 mph, but as a senior.

And 80 mph fastball on a 12-year-old sounded suspicious.

And, sure enough, Danny Almonte was pitching for that Bronx team because of a forged Dominican Republic “birth certificate.” By the time he pitched that “perfect game” he was 14 or so.

And so, in the course of time, the game was thrown out and the team disqualified. And some people in the Bronx said the disqualification was racist. Etc.

So now Chicago is now, and we have another issue with whether the rules are the rules for everyone and whether inner city kids should get the chance to play a very very complex game beginning when they are little and regularly. Because very few kids can master all the skills necessary to play high school ball without having done some games as a youngster. And that means, usually, Little League or even “Little League.”

Back ten years ago, I did a study of the reasons why Chicago kids were not getting as much baseball as suburban kids. Summers, my older kid was on a travel team, and playing in the suburbs (or Northwest Indiana) was enough to make you cry. Chicago’s baseball fields are a mess, and the pitcher’s mounds especially are rutted and dangerous. A few years ago, CPS, as always facing an “austerity” budget, eliminated funding for pre-varsity baseball coaches in the city’s public high schools. I covered the press conference at which Ron Huberman said that was a necessity because, after all, the money just wasn’t there.

If Chicago wants to encourage all kids — and not just those who are willing to pay $200 for a season of “Little League” this summer — to play baseball, Chicago has to pay coaches to coach and make sure every baseball field is safe to play on. When I watched Rahm Emanuel hype himself during those heart warning JRW games last summer, I asked loudly whether he was going to put the maintenance of the fields and the paying of the coaches into Park District and CPS budgets.

But of course that hasn’t happened. And so, today, anyone who wants to watch the latest examples of Chicago hypocrisy can go to the city’s varsity baseball fields (the ones with pitcher’s mounds and 90 feet between bases) and do what I did. Stand on the mound and lurch forward and see what happens to your legs (ankles, knees, hips) when you land in one of those many Chicago Ruts instead of on the smooth surface that every suburban field and every suburban public school field guarantees for its kids.

I’ll stop now and publish our updated photo essay in about six weeks, when the latest Chicago (Park District and CPS) field neglects become visible with the coming of Spring.

As to the latest “Little League” scandal.

Let’s just not pretend it’s Little League until every kid who wants to can play — even if her or his parents cannot afford the dollars to buy into a season at some Chicago park.

Lastly, from my friend and teacher, Glen Brown. Glen’s writings can be found at Teacher/Poet/Musician

Thanks Mark and Fred. Here’s a memory I have playing pony league in Niles…

Just Not Fast Enough

I tied a league ball in it,
roped it around twice with jute twine
after greasing the pocket with Vaseline,
and stuffed it in between
my mattress and box spring
each fall.

By spring, my Wilson A2020
“Nellie” Fox baseball glove
was primed for another season.

Through May and June,
the days rang with Hey, batter, batter.
Swing batter, swing!
I swung a Duke Snyder Adirondack,
but I was Louis Aparicio at the plate—
a singles hitter and fast—
a sure steal on the base paths.

In one game, the rain fouled up
my fifth stealing attempt,
as second base became a buoy.

The game was called,
and my father and I
navigated out of the bog
in his new ’64 Oldsmobile Starfire,
until he asked about my muddy spikes.

We torpedoed across traffic
and slid across shoals.
He popped open the trunk
and hurled my baseball spikes
high into the air.

I watched them descend—
the long, mucky laces twisting
in slow-motion, my mitt tied to them—
then hit the street with a dull splash.

I held my breath for an eternity;
as if dreaming, I dodged
the gloom of headlights
bearing down Dempster Street
with quick resolve
to swipe one last time,
‘til I watched the entire season
disappear suddenly beneath
a semi-trailer’s tires
five times.

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