In 1955, an all-black Little League team from the Cannon Street YMCA in Charleston, South Carolina entered the state tournament. Little League was an explicitly integrated institution at the time, but the tournament was, in practice, nearly all-white. This was the year that Rosa Parks refused to stand up and, perhaps more pertinently, the year Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella led the Brooklyn Dodgers to a World Series title over the Yankees. Racial politics were front and center, doubly so in South Carolina. All 61 of the all-white teams in the tournament dropped out. The Cannon Street 12-year-olds were declared state champions and excluded from the regional tournaments because they hadn’t won any games in tournament play.
The other teams left Little League entirely to form an explicitly racist and exclusionary league of their own, which they called Little Boys Baseball. The league not only allowed racist whites to avoid having their children play with African-American children, it slowed the entrance of young black players into higher level baseball leagues by essentially disconnecting the pipeline. A generation of black talent suddenly had nowhere to go.
Today, Little Boys Baseball has a different name, Dixie Youth League, and roughly 200,000 players active in 1,000 affiliated leagues in 11 states run predominantly by town recreation departments. The Dixie Youth League hasn’t been segregated since it was forced to integrate by the Civil Rights Acts so it differs very little from Little League but refuses to merge with that larger organization.
Dixie League coaches and administrators claim that it remains independent because it is somehow superior to Little League, but the nature of that superiority is unclear. The organization is run entirely by volunteers and disseminates power to local league officials rather than investing in strong central governance. Little League, on the other hand, is a nonprofit with a small staff for its size. Volunteers functionally hold the bulk of the power. When it comes to the rules and regulations, the differences are even less noticeable. The Dixie League pitcher’s rubber can be 50 feet from the plate compared to Little League’s 46 feet and outfield fences can be up to 25 feet deeper than Little League’s 225 feet. Runners can steal on the pitch instead of waiting for the ball to cross the plate.
Little Leagues and Dixie Leagues poach players from each other in the south. They compete for resources. They play on the same fields. It is inconvenient and, for black children and parents, can be alienating or intimidating. Why does the league persist? Why is it trying to grow? The answer seems to circle around on itself.
“Most of the towns affiliate with us because the towns around them affiliate with us,” admits Dixie League Commissioner Wes Skelton. “They want to play in the same organization that the other towns around them play in.”
People play Dixie because they have for decades. And, yes, it’s hard not to read that reality as the organization being a bulwark against the intercession of northerners into the vibrant baseball life of the south, which, due to long seasons, does produce a disproportionate number of the nation’s best players.
“It was 2014 — you’d have thought you’d see more African-American kids. I told my kids they had to focus on playing the sport and not get caught up in the history, the flag and all of that.”
The biggest difference between the leagues, in truth, is that, come August, Dixie League players don’t go to televised nationals. No one sees them playing on ESPN. They don’t compete against the rest of the world. None of them ever lose to Japan or South Korea. They may be the best — this is not a ridiculous idea — but they never prove it. Instead, they play amongst themselves.
(Ignore Our History and) Play Ball!
When a parent signs their kid up for youth baseball, they tend to do so for many reasons. The first (hopefully) is that baseball is fun. The second is that it’s social. The third is probably that it’s something to do. Lower down that list lies opportunity. If players show early talent, they can find a path toward successful high school, college, or even pro careers. Those paths tend to begin in local leagues and lead to “travel ball.” In the south, the strongest teams — the ones that coaches watch — tend to be affiliated with the Dixie League.
This helps to explain why someone like Myron Lott, a 35-year-old African-American father living Hattiesburg, Mississippi who grew up playing Little League, chose to register his son for Dixie League — against his own father’s wishes. Lott says he always wanted his son Camron, now a ninth-grader at Hattiesburg High, to play with and against the best players he could find. That meant Dixie League.
Lott went all in, taking on a volunteer position as team manager and helping his son make it to the Dixie’s Junior Boys World Series title in 2015. The Hattiesburg team crushed the competition, beating a team from Louisiana 18-1 in the championship game. Still, Lott is uneasy about the Dixie League experience.
“I’d be lying if I said the league’s history didn’t cross my mind,” Lott says, adding that he felt particularly uncomfortable playing in Aiken, South Carolina in the wake of the mass shooting by white supremacist Dylann Roof. “But the boys were just baseball players, it didn’t matter if they were black or white. I have a kid who wants to play baseball and they haven’t done anything to restrict him so let’s play ball.”
It’s important to note that in Hattiesburg, “let’s play ball” are serious words. The high school team — made up of mostly African-American players — is the favorite to win this year’s state championship thanks in part to Joe Gray, a projected first-round pick in June’s Major League Baseball draft and a Dixie League alumnus. Dixie League sits at the center of that local baseball culture.
“The competition is way more advanced,” says Camron Lott, who is a catcher and designated hitter. “It gives kids a better opportunity to get better. It’s important to play against the best kids in my area. I want to be the best I can be, and playing against older kids and playing against good competition makes me better. In the future, it’ll pay off.”
Joe Gray Sr., father of the local phenom, says his son wouldn’t have gotten to where he is today without cutting his teeth against the best players in town, and those players were in the Dixie League in Hattiesburg. “It gave our kids an opportunity to be successful, and that’s what you need in life,” says Gray. “Those teams were just as good as the ones you see on TV. The [Little League] teams just had more media coverage.”
Gray, who grew up in the south in the 1950s and remembers seeing the KKK marching to plenty of fanfare, recalls the first time he brought his Hattiesburg team to the World Series in Georgia.
“It’s actually rather surprising how many African-American players play Dixie baseball around here. I think the one advantage Dixie has is there’s not many other options for them to play anything else.”
“I walk in with a 99 percent African-American team and Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina — every other team was white. It was a feeling like you’d gone back in time, into a time that you were supposed to have stepped beyond. It was 2014 — you’d have thought you’d see more African-American kids. But I told my kids they had to focus on playing the sport and not get caught up in the history, the flag and all of that.”
Focusing on play rather than principle has worked out for Gray. He says all 32 Major League Baseball teams have come through his front door this spring to talk about drafting his son. “He’s a 3.9 honor student. You can call a judge, you can call the mayor of Hattiesburg, call the principal, every school around us, every team, they respect him, and it goes back to listening to us at that tournament.”
Gray thinks the local teams’ success in the Dixie tournaments, and their subsequent success at Hattiesburg High has actually increased interest in baseball among African-Americans. “A lot of the black kids had moved away from baseball,” Gray says. “But after they saw the success we had, now they are coming back, because they want the opportunity they saw we had.”
America’s Pastime and the Racial Divide
Outside of Hattiesburg, there has been a massive decline in the participation of black players in professional baseball. In 1981, 19 percent of professional ballplayers were African-American. Today, that number is just 6.7 percent. The last time it was that low was in the 1950s. Baseball is understood to be an integrated sport because Jackie Robinson remains famous, but modern baseball is different. In the statistical age, general managers and scouts don’t just look for talent, they look for sustained success at a college level. Only two percent of NCAA baseball players are African-American.
Are African-Americans being shut out of baseball? Some argue yes. Other argue no. What’s clear is that they are struggling to find opportunities and taking them where they can. Dixie League is one of the places they, whether they like it or not, can prove themselves.
T.J. Rostin, the recreation director for Goose Creek, South Carolina, said there was a moment after the racially motivated murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, when some players and teams considered leaving Dixie for Little League and others actually made that jump. However, after playing a season in Little League, they came back to Dixie because the competition wasn’t good enough. Also, they didn’t want to drive to Virginia to qualify for regional tournaments.
Little League was the worse option because Dixie League had the players. The team was, in essence, railroaded into the choice.
“It’s actually rather surprising how many African-American players play Dixie baseball around here,” says Rostin. “I think the one advantage Dixie has is there’s not many other options for them to play anything else.”
This explains why Dixie League has managed to continue attracting African-American players despite its racist past and despite a polarizing political moment. As some southern states tear down Confederate memorials and political rhetoric devolves into dog whistles, Dixie League has managed to sidestep controversy. Why? Because this is baseball. In sports, players are the thing, not optics.
The interesting thought exercise is what would happen if the Dixie League melted away. The answers seems to be … not much. If Dixie League dissolved, Little League and Babe Ruth, which attracts talented older players, would likely fill the space quickly. The best players would go back to playing the best players. That said, a southern tradition would die — even if southern pride finally made its way to Williamsport, Pennsylvania. To talk to African-American Dixie League players and coaches is to get the sense that they would be fine with this — that their loyalty is to the game, not the legacy of an organization created solely to exclude them.
But when you’ve been the best game in town for 60 years, that’s sometimes enough. Dixie League has been and likely will continue to be just that. Is that the best way to recruit African-American kids to play baseball again? Almost certainly not. Does it ensure the best competition for everyone? No. What it does is keep a tradition — a tradition that many people feel very strongly about — alive. It keeps the thousands of Dixie League volunteers from finding themselves under the thumb of Little League, which seems to matter a great deal to many people even though, as Wes Skelton puts it, “there’s really not a lot of difference.”
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