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2015 is important anniversary at Little League World Series

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The Little League World Series is underway in Williamsport, PA. Sixteen teams will vie for the 2015 championship; eight from regions within the United States and eight from countries around the world.

For many years, the South region (now Southeast) tournament was played in St. Petersburg. From there, Tampa’s Belmont Heights Little League, featuring Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield, Derek Bell and Carl Everett won four Southern Region titles in the 70s and 80s. Three times Belmont Heights won national titles and finished second in the world.

The Southeast Region is now played in Warner Robbins, Georgia and the 2015 champion is the Northwood Little League of Taylors, South Carolina. Things were quite different for another South Carolina team 60 years ago.

In 1955 Charleston’s “Negro” Y.M.C.A. (later known as Cannon Street) All-Stars were the “champions” of the South Region. They achieved that distinction without ever taking the field or swinging a bat.

The Y.M.C.A. fielded a four team league in 1955, the only African-American league sanctioned by Little League Baseball in South Carolina. Later that summer, league officials selected the best players to form the All-Stars who would represent the league in the Little League tournament.

Rather than play against a black team, local officials canceled the city tournament. Winners by forfeit, the All-Stars prepared to play in the South Carolina state tournament.

Coaches, parents and state Little League Officials staged a “mass boycott” of the state event. They sought to have a separate, white-only event to determine the state representative in the South Region (District 5) tournament. When national Little League officials refused, the All-Stars became the state champions.

Knowing they would forfeit any chance for their youngsters to realize the chance of a lifetime, the other southern state champions refused to play the All-Stars and held their own district tournament. The boys from Charleston were the only ones left standing and were headed to Williamsport!

But not to compete. Little League rules state a team must WIN their region in order to play in the World Series. As a consolation, Little League officials invited the All-Stars to come to Williamsport and take part in activities with the other qualifiers.

The journey from Charleston to central Pennsylvania was not without drama. The old bus broke down along the way, but the weary players and coaches finally arrived.

The first all-black Little League team was in the “mansion” of Little League Baseball. They were the invited guests of the “owners.”

Though Jackie Robinson was a hero to these youngsters, this was not a Jackie Robinson moment. They did not have the opportunity to show what they could do.

The team was permitted a practice session on the field prior to the championship game. As the spectators watched, they broke into a chant of “let them play.” Following the practice session, their time on the big stage came to an end.

While they didn’t compete in Williamsport, the importance of the Cannon Street All-Stars’ presence in Williamsport cannot be minimized. In fact, it fits in within the context of other landmark events at that time.

Just one year before was the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Four months after the Little League World Series, Rosa Parks made her stand by staying seated on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Tallahassee would be the scene of a famous bus boycott just a few months later.

In 2002, the All-Stars were invited back to Williamsport. This time, surviving members were honored on the field and presented with a banner declaring them “1955 South Carolina State Champions.”

Many of the players have now passed, but survivors have one remaining goal. After 60 years, they would like to visit the White House and meet the President.

Why not? They played by the rules, did everything that was demanded of them and held their heads high. They were, and are, role models.

Before there were international teams and those like Belmont Heights in Tampa playing in Williamsport, there were the groundbreaking All-Stars from Charleston.

Let them play.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at [email protected]

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