By Barney Blakeney
I can’t remember exactly when it was I first met Augustus ‘ Gus’ Holt. It was a long time ago. But over the years I found him to be giving, unselfish, appreciative and incessant. After a long battle with various health issues, Gus died April 16 at 73. Over the past few weeks I’ve lost a number of friends. They all are special. Gus was special among those special friends.
Gus came into my life looking for something – like many of the people I meet. He wanted me to write about something important to him. A lot of people ask me to write about stuff that’s important to them. The problem is what’s often important to an individual, may not be important to very many others. Gus’ story was about baseball.
Gus loved baseball. He played as a kid and wanted other kids to play it. But Gus also had a strong sense of ethnic pride. He grew up in the Jenkins Terrace neighborhood of North Charleston, went to school there and graduated from Bonds Wilson High back in the day when Black teachers taught their students they had to be twice a nice as white kids in a world full of injustice and inequity. Gus learned those lessons well. He was well educated, intelligent and knew the rich history of Black people.
By the time I met Gus, I think during the 1990s, he had been drafted into the United States Army and served honorably for 8 years during the Vietnam War Era. When he returned home, he received his Associate Degree from Trident Technical College and was employed at the Charleston Naval Shipyard. A relentless advocate for young people, and especially for baseball and other sports, he took great pride in setting the standard and always arrived in style ready to heighten or enlighten the conversation at hand.
Gus threw all that into his request of me to write about the inequities in local little league baseball. He piqued my interest. I played baseball with my ‘Our Gang’ crew on Six Mile/Accabee as a kid, but never was good at it – those hard balls came too fast and I couldn’t catch worth a dang. But Gus’ argument wasn’t just about the sport it was about the inequities in the sport and how those inequities even in our so-called ‘integrated’ society perpetuates racism and discrimination at the earliest stages of youth in America’s game.
Our conversations led to the too little known history of the 1955 Cannon Street Allstars. Dozens of boys played during the spring and summer of 1955 in Charleston in the first black Little League in the state. When the season ended, the coaches selected the best players for an all-star team and registered the team for the city tournament. The 1955 Cannon Street all-stars unwittingly found themselves in the middle of the civil rights movement that was taking root in the United States.
Danny Jones, the director of Little Leagues in South Carolina, took his stand against the Cannon Street team in Charleston, a short distance from where the first shots of the Civil War were fired April 12, 1861. Jones led a boycott of white teams against the Black 11 and 12-year-olds. The Cannon Street team won the city tournament and then the state tournament by forfeit. But Little League Baseball told the team it was ineligible for the regional tournament in Rome, Ga. because it had advanced by forfeit. The Cannon Street team appealed to Peter McGovern, executive director of Little League Baseball, but he denied the appeal.
Cannon Street players later learned that McGovern had been told that the boys’ safety would be at risk if they confronted segregation laws on Rome. McGovern invited the team to Williamsport, Pa. for the World Series. The boys could stay in the same dormitory and eat in the same cafeteria as the boys who were playing in the World Series. But the Cannon Street boys could not play. They could only sit in the bleachers and watch other boys play for the Little League World Series championship. The Cannon Street team all-stars and their coaches sat in the stands for the finals of the World Series. They were recognized with a standing ovation. Then they drove back to Charleston.
All that led to the creation of the Dixie Youth League when 61 teams in South Carolina departed Little League in 1955 – the foundation for Dixie Youth was created. Those teams went on to form a league that was originally named Little Boys Baseball Inc., before being renamed Dixie Youth Baseball around 1966. Gus spent much of his life advocating for the Little League.
The last time we met Gus and I had lunch at a little restaurant across the street from Harmon Field on peninsula Charleston’s west side where a lot of youth baseball still is played and just a stone’s throw from Riley Stadium, home of the Charleston RiverDogs. How he found that spot, why he chose it, I don’t know. I guess he’s just drawn to baseball.
Many of us lost a good friend when Gus passed on to that great baseball diamond in the sweet bye and bye. His children, sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews of course, lost a great deal more. Little league baseball and the youth who love America’s game lost a lot as well – one of their staunchest and most sincere and unsung advocates.