Youth baseball league founded on racism flourishing as integrated program
AUBURN, Ala. -- Dixie Youth Baseball was founded on racism, when dozens of all-white teams formed their own league to escape integration.
Fifty years later, as the league's World Series begins this weekend in Alabama, its leaders say it's all about kids, not color.
Rather than play an all-black team that entered a state tournament during the days of legalized segregation, 61 all-white teams from South Carolina bolted the Pennsylvania-based Little League organization and held their own tournament in 1955 -- no minorities allowed.
That act of defiance planted the seed that became Dixie Youth. As white opposition to integration spread across the Deep South, the lily-white league grew like kudzu after a summer shower.
Today, Dixie Youth Baseball has hundreds of leagues in 11 Southern states. And although it banished racial restrictions decades ago, it still has its critics. Players of any color or ethnicity are now welcome, as are both boys and girls, and the program is flourishing as the nation's No. 2 youth baseball program.
"Everything has changed," said 81-year-old Matt Goyak, the league co-founder and longtime president. "We've got everyone including girls in the World Series."
The league still stresses local autonomy, a reminder of the "states' rights" cries of Southern opponents of integration a half-century ago. And it got rid of what some saw as a symbol of open defiance -- the Confederate battle flag on its official insignia -- but not until 1994.
Gus Holt, who serves as a spokesman and historian for the all-black South Carolina team that the white Little League teams wouldn't play in 1955, has little use for Dixie Youth Baseball, then or now.
"I don't think too much of it," Holt said. "No one is saying it is a bad organization, but there is a legacy and a stigma behind it."
As 24 teams converged on the east Alabama town of Auburn for the 50th anniversary Dixie Youth World Series, which begins Sunday with opening ceremonies, Goyak said today's organization bears little resemblance to the original incarnation.
About 400,000 players participate in Dixie Youth Baseball, second only to the much larger Little League, which holds its better-known World Series in Williamsport, Pa., beginning Aug. 19. Little League has more than 7,400 programs in over 100 countries.
But in the Deep South, Dixie Youth Baseball is the only kids' league that many people know. Shortstops field grounders in dusty parks where their dads once played, and entire communities turn out for district tournaments leading to state competitions.
It all started because of 14 black kids who could really play ball.
In 1955, as blacks and progressive whites began challenging legalized segregation, the Cannon Street YMCA in Charleston, S.C., fielded an all-black Little League team and entered the state tournament, which had always been for whites only.
Rather than playing and possibly losing to blacks, 61 white teams quit Little League and started Little Boys Baseball Inc., which became Dixie Youth Baseball a few years later. Goyak was city recreation director in Georgetown, S.C., at the time and withdrew his town's team.
"We all dropped out and played our own tournament," Goyak said. "The next year we went to six states, then eight and eventually 11. None of them wanted to play blacks, anywhere in the South.
"Michael Jordan played in North Carolina in Dixie Youth. Bo Jackson played in Alabama," Goyak said. "He's going to be one of the speakers this year at the World Series."
But the team that started Dixie Youth Baseball simply by being black never took the field.
The Cannon Street All Stars were declared the state winner by default when the whites quit, but rules prevented a team from participating in the Little League World Series unless it had played in a tournament. That kept the boys off the field at Williamsport.
The black players, however, did get an expenses-paid trip to Pennsylvania, where they stayed with other teams and watched the Little League World Series. The surviving Cannon Street All Stars were honored at the Little League tournament in 2002.
At least one member of Cannon Street All Stars had a son who played in a Dixie Youth program. Leroy Major, a pitcher and center fielder back in '55, said other members of the team have razzed him about his son, who's now 25, participating in the program.
"Somebody told me, `Man, I can't believe you let your son play in that league. They're the ones who discriminated against you," Major said. "I didn't know the history at the time."
Major said Dixie Youth Baseball has never apologized for what happened 50 years ago. But last year some of the Cannon Street players did get to meet players from one of the all-white teams that wouldn't play them.
"We don't have any animosity toward them," he said. "It was an adult thing, not a kid thing. We all just wanted to play ball."
On the Net:
Dixie Youth Baseball: http://www.dixie.org
Little League: http://www.littleleague.org
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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