Book Review: Stolen Dreams by Chris Lamb

Some stories need to be told lest they be forgotten with time.

Such is the story of a group of South Carolina Little Leaguers who, in the mid-1950s, wanted nothing more than to play baseball, yet were denied that opportunity.

The tale of the Cannon Street All-Stars takes place in the southern setting, under continued resistance to Brown v Board of Education and the overarching sentiment that segregation remained the best way to run a country.  Playing baseball for young men of color would not come easy.  In the case of the Cannon Street All-Stars, it would not come at all.

Chris Lamb’s Stolen Dreams: The 1955 Cannon Street All-Stars and Little League Baseball’s Civil War is a recap of this time, place and team, recounting a story not only of “man’s inhumanity to man but man’s inhumanity to kids.”

It is a story of American racial discord that intertwined law, baseball, and a group of young men who got caught in the crosshairs, their lives forever changed.  Stolen Dreams does justice to the injustice.  It is a battle of historical figures on both sides who waged a race war, while children, who could barely comprehend what was going on around them, remained stuck in the middle, wanting only to play a game they loved.  Stolen Dreams is a story of American institutions set in their ways amongst the pressure of those pushing for equality.  You read about cases like Plessy v Ferguson and become reacquainted with phrases like “separate but equal” all because kids, whose story was almost forgotten, wanted nothing but to play ball.

“This is the story of an African American Little League Baseball team that entered a baseball tournament in the summer of 1955 and all hell broke loose.” Don’t be surprised if a screen play emerges, but in this screenplay, you will not see a team celebrating on the field after beating another, for there was no baseball played and little joy to be found.

As with any story about the history of our country, within Stolen Dreams, there are many moving parts that led to the dismantling of Charleston’s Little League.  Lamb paints the picture of a segregated South Carolina, a state far from eager to join the direction in which America was moving.  Lamb also introduces you to the history of Little League Baseball in general and the Charleston YMCA in particular, again, all coinciding with a time and place in America where racial strife was at a peak.

Baseball also played its part.

“Nothing had a grip on American boys like Little League Baseball.  Baseball was the most popular sport in America and Little League Baseball was far and away the most popular youth baseball organization. Playing Little League Baseball made an impression on boys that lasted far into adulthood.” 

Little League Baseball was inclusionary from the onset, until it wasn’t, at least in South Carolina.  “The league’s principles have not changed since they were written in 1939.  There is no record of the first African American boy to play in the organization because Blacks were playing from the point of creation.”

In 1955, however, white parents didn’t want their kids playing against a team comprised of young black children. “Adults coopted it for their own self-interests and used the baseball field to exchange their differences of opinion on the biggest issue of the day – whether whites and Blacks should go to the same schools.”

Enter the Cannon Street YMCA, a safe haven for young men and women of color in Charleston.  “It was the only place they could go.  Decades later, many of those boys, now well into their middle ages, remembered the importance the Y had in their lives.”  Those behind the foundation “understood how sports could not only give African American boys something positive to do with their time, but it could also enhance their self-esteem.”

A few years earlier, Jackie Robinson had broken Major League Baseball’s color barrier “forever changing baseball and society.  Nothing in those years had a more pronounced impact on how white America saw Blacks, and how Black America – particularly the generation of young African Americans that came of age during this time – saw themselves.  The promise of baseball was that any boy could grow up to play in the Major Leagues.”

Then came Brown v. Board of Education, the South’s resistance to it and a little league baseball team caught in the middle.

“The Cannon Street team could not be kept out of the tournament without violating Little League Baseball rules that barred racial discrimination.”  That didn’t stop feathers from getting ruffled and tensions from rising.  White teams from South Carolina chose to quit the tournament rather than play against them.   Winning this tournament would qualify them for the Little League World Series but not by default.  The story made national news with journalists from around the country, from all different slants, drawing attention to what was happening down south. 

This is a not a story of young children proving their merit on an equal playing field, but rather one of them never getting the chance to do so.  It is a reminder of how segregation and exclusion can set back a city, a race, a people, and a nation for generations.  Lamb tells of struggles that exist to this day and how denied opportunities based on skin tone leave and indelible mark on the human psyche.  “Nobody ever talked about it after it happened. Our feelings on that day were inexpressible. Tears came to our eyes. We were a hurting bunch of young men, yet we held our heads up high because we were proud of what we had achieved.”

In the wake of everything else going on in our nation at the time, their story was all but forgotten.

It wasn’t until a man named Gus Holt, watched his son play baseball in the local Dixie League, as there was no Little League in Charleston per se.  The young man had a confederate patch on his sleeve.  Holt did some digging and found out exactly why there was no Little League in Charleston and stumbled upon the story of the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars, a team that was taken to the Little League World Series in Williamsport but not allowed to participate despite chants from the crowd shouting “Let Them Play.”

“Holt sought to bring Little League back to Charleston, decades after segregationists had replaced it with an all-white youth organization.  Holt received the story of how racial bigotry denied the Cannon Street team the opportunity of playing in the Little League World Series and, in doing so, brought redemption to a dozen or so middle-aged men.  The story slipped from their conversations but remained etched in their consciousness.”

Thanks to Holt and Chris Lamb, the story of these young men is not forgotten.  Lamb’s overarching theme to Stolen Dreams is of irreparable damage done with denied opportunity.  “What does a twelve-year-old boy do without dreams,” he asks.

While a stark reminder that conflict exists within America to this very day, Stolen Dreams shows us that with the effort and determination of few, with our national pastime as a backdrop, we shall still overcome.

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