Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955, the same year Charleston’s Cannon Street All-Stars and their parents held tightly to baseball dreams.
Solutions: Reach out, spread RBI
How to get more black children involved in baseball. Ideas are easy, and execution isn’t heavy lifting:Expand the RBI concept to rural areas. Reviving Baseball in Inner-Cities has been a big hit in urban areas, including Charleston. But rural areas, particularly in the South, also need help.Tie baseball to academic success. Parents get more interested if reading and math are linked to hit-and-run strategy. L.E.A.D. Atlanta is a great example. “Through baseball development and training, it helps the kids with academics and civic engagement,” said former College of Charleston player Jasha Balcom, one of the L.E.A.D. directors. “We show them how to get scholarships. That’s what you have to do, get your hands dirty and work with these kids at schools that don’t have the resources and budgets.”Reach out to kids in non-traditional ways. Go beyond media notices and website calendars to notify large black churches and after-school care centers about local baseball opportunities. Established youth leagues should hold used equipment drives once per season and funnel the take to less fortunate programs.11. 7 education: College coaches must make sure high school coaches and athletic directors know that while the NCAA’s 11.7 scholarship restriction for baseball is a challenge, there are many ways to plug in other scholarships and grants.Coaching clinics. “A lot of African-American kids go to high schools where the baseball coaches really are football or basketball coaches who don’t know much about baseball but are just picking up the extra check to help with baseball,” Balcom said. “If there is no structure, players will lose interest.” By Gene Sapakoff
“All the fathers must have gone to some kind of convention because they were all telling us we could be the next Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella or Don Newcombe,” recalled John Bailey, one of the former All-Stars and now a contractor in Kensington, Md.
Many black South Carolinians have gone on to play Major League baseball, but Hilton Head’s Dan Driessen comes the closest to representing the Lowcountry:Player Hometown In the majorsWillie Mays Aikens Seneca 1977-1985Terry Blocker Columbia 1985-1989Danny Clyburn Lancaster 1997-1999Lafayette Currence Rock Hill 1975Gookie Dawkins Newberry 1999-2003Larry Doby Camden 1947-1959Dan Driessen Hilton Head 1973-1987Tom Dunbar Graniteville 1983-1985Ty Gainey Cheraw 1985-1987Ike Hampton Camden 1974-1979Pep Harris Lancaster 1996-1998Tim Hosley Spartanburg 1970-1981Orlando Hudson Darlington 2002-2012Morris Madden Laurens 1987-1989Marcus McBeth Spartanburg 2007Glenn Murray Manning 1996Willie Randolph Holly Hill 1975-1992Pokey Reese Columbia 1997-2004 Jim Rice Anderson 1974-1989Gene Richards Monticello 1977-1984Reggie Sanders Florence 1991-2007Mike Sharperson Orangeburg 1987-1995Nate Snell Orangeburg 1984-1987Leroy Stanton Latta 1970-1978Reggie Taylor Newberry 2000-2005Terrell Wade Rembert 1995-1998Billy Williams Newberry 1969Brian Williams Lancaster 1991-2000Reggie Williams Laurens 1992-1999Mookie Wilson Bamberg 1980-1991Preston Wilson Bamberg 1998-2007Herm Winningham Orangeburg 1984-1992 Dewayne Wise Columbia 2000-2013Source: BaseballReference.com
Robinson had broken the Major League color line eight years earlier. But the sun set fast on the 1955 Cannon Street team. The 12-year-olds advanced by forfeit in city, state and regional Little League tournaments after white teams seceded from Little League to immediately form what became Dixie Youth Baseball. Founded in Charleston, Dixie Youth’s original charter stressed “for the best interest of all concerned that this program be on a racially segregated basis.”
Fifteen-year-old Jordan Jeter of Union is off to a busy summer in the Mount Pleasant-based Diamond Devils travel baseball program.May 18-19: Practice weekend, ColumbiaMay 25-27: Memorial Day Tournament, CharlestonMay 31-June 2: Diamond Devil Classic, GreenvilleJune 7-9: Travelballselect.com Regional, Myrtle BeachJune 14-16: Rock Hill Classic, Rock HillJune 20-28: Perfect Game World Wood Bat Tournament, AtlantaJune 30: USC Underclassman Tournament, ColumbiaJuly 6-7: TBAJuly 13-19: CABA Wood Bat World Series, CharlestonJuly 30-Aug. 4: Perfect Game World Series, Fort Myers, Fla., or Travelballselect World Series, Kissimmee, Fla.
The impact stymied organized baseball activity among black youths in South Carolina, particularly in the Lowcountry, and resonates today. What began as overt racism in 1955 still dilutes baseball interest among blacks.
“That’s part of the reason,” said Ramon Jackson, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of South Carolina who studied the Cannon Street All-Stars extensively before starting his doctoral thesis on youth leadership among blacks. “The other thing that’s important to know is that organizations in South Carolina, including parks and recreation commissions, were very forward-looking. They knew the Civil Rights Act might actually happen and wanted to maintain segregation even if the federal government stepped in.”
Palmetto State college teams have few black players — sometimes none.
When Jackie Robinson broke the big league color line in 1947, it was a dream come true for black players and fans. But some breakthroughs take longer than others. As the hit Robinson movie “42” is on the big screen 66 years later, the Lowcountry still has not produced a black big-leaguer. Of the 33 black South Carolinians that have played Major League baseball, none are from Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester or Georgetown counties.
Dixie Youth Baseball eventually integrated. Dozens of future black Major Leaguers (and Michael Jordan) took part. But that was long after founder Danny Jones of North Charleston signed up 537 teams in 122 leagues for the 1956 season, with 390 leagues in eight Southern states by 1962.
As Dixie Youth took over, Little League baseball withered in South Carolina. So did organized baseball opportunities for black children.
“When I played, there was no American Legion baseball for us. There was only the sandlot,” said 65-year-old Gus Holt, a teacher who played youth baseball in North Charleston. “Then, when blacks started integrating high schools in South Carolina, they were steered toward football and basketball. Why? Those are the revenue-producing sports for all schools.”
Jordan Jeter, 15, is a veteran of the Diamond Devils travel baseball program known for helping develop more than 100 college or professional baseball prospects. He and his busy parents are back at it this spring.
Camron Hooks is a 2013 Citadel graduate, thanks partly to the academic scholarship won through the Charleston chapter of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities.
Jordan Jeter is a big, stocky freshman first baseman at Union County High School, where folks take Yellow Jackets football seriously. Former South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Steve Taneyhill was hired last year as Union County head football coach. “We hear it from people all the time, because of the body size,” said George Jeter, Jordan’s father. “ ‘Why doesn’t he play football?’ ”
But George and Penny Jeter spent last weekend watching their only child play baseball at fields in and around Charleston. He participated in a Memorial Day weekend tournament with his 15U Diamond Devils travel team.
There they were in Mount Pleasant that Saturday, at College Park that Sunday and at Charleston Southern that Monday. Jeter was one of just a few black players in action, or the only one.
“I like football, too,” George Jeter said, “but I’m glad he has stayed with baseball.”
The splintering of youth leagues in the South that began with the introduction of Dixie Youth led to an alphabet soup of leagues and multiple “state champions” by the 1990s. Enter travel ball, and the quest for elite competition.
It’s a time-consuming and expensive summer for the Jeters. Jordan’s parents will spend more than $2,000 (not including equipment). High-tech bats go for $400.
Their itinerary includes Greenville, Rock Hill, Myrtle Beach, Atlanta, Columbia, Charleston (twice) and Florida.
“It takes a parent who is willing to give up everything,” said George Jeter, who works for UPS. “Everything, including your rest on the weekend after a 50- or 60-hour work week.”
A full year of travel ball means surrendering 15-20 weekends.
The goal is nebulous compared to other college sports. Baseball as a “non-revenue sport” offers 11.7 scholarships per 35-player roster, while football and basketball are full-scholarship sports.
It’s not necessarily a race thing — no one likes buying a $400 bat. But if parents can pick between full-scholarship sports that cost less to play or a partial-scholarship sport that costs a lot, baseball usually loses.
“I coached a travel team in Union,” Jeter said. “The Carolina Sting, with 95 percent black players. If we asked kids to pay $5 or $10 for a tournament, the answer was no.”
The Jeters regularly hauled two carloads of kids to tournaments around the state.
They aren’t worried about the 11.7 scholarship issue at the end of the baseball rainbow — Jordan is near the top of his class academically.
Camron Hooks found a way to mix baseball and academics success, too, with help from a strong community program. Hooks graduated this spring from The Citadel, thanks partly to a $5,000 per year scholarship he received from the Charleston RBI chapter.
The program, sponsored by the minor league Charleston RiverDogs, includes 40 players ages 13 to 18.
Hooks, a member of the first Charleston RBI team in 2008, was a Garrett Academy of Technology student when he won his scholarship award in a national RBI essay contest.
“We are so proud of Camron,” Johnson said. “What an inspiration.”
Charleston’s RBI program has utilized Harmon Field, home of the 1955 Cannon Street All-Stars. A 1995 Sports Illustrated article about the Cannon Street mess was titled “Little League’s Civil War.”
Now the battle is to get more kids involved.