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Members of the 1969 Little League World Series champion team pose for a photo during a Chattanooga City Council meeting Tuesday, July 9, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They were honored on the 50-year anniversary of their win.
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1969 Dixie Youth world champs

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Fifty years having passed since he helped the Lakeside All-Stars become the first team from Tennessee to win the Dixie Youth World Series, Perry Perkins decided it was time to get as many of those 16 boys as possible to come together again for a golden reunion.

"As soon as I'd reach them," Perkins recalled this week, "it was like we were all 12 years old again."

Forever young. Isn't that what our best childhood memories keep us? And could it get any better for a bunch of 11- and 12-year-old boys than winning a youth league world title?

So nine of the 16 made their way to City Hall on Tuesday evening to hear that Chattanooga mayor Andy Berke was proclaiming July 9, 2019, as "Lakeside Dixie Youth Baseball Day."

No youth league team in Scenic City history has deserved such an honor more. For the 1969 Lakeside All-Stars weren't just the first team from Tennessee to win the Dixie Youth World Series, they were also the first integrated team to do so. And they did it in Montgomery, Alabama, with George Wallace, the state's segregationist governor, even sharing a dugout with them for one of their victories.

"I was the first African-American to hit a home run in the Dixie Youth World Series," said Herman Grier, a lifelong resident of our town. "The next two times I came to the plate, I got hit in the head (by a pitch)."

Sadly, that wasn't the only negative the Lakeside team faced because of the presence of Grier and fellow African-American Melvin Fluellen.

"My father was the head coach," said catcher Deaurhan Crawford, referring to his late dad, Charlie. "It was customary for families in the town you were playing in to take in visiting teams for the week. But no family in Montgomery would let Herman or Melvin stay in their home. But my dad told the Dixie Youth folks, 'It's either all of us or none of us.'"

Thankfully, Huntington College agreed to house them and one problem was solved.

But there was still the occasional issue of where to feed them.

"A lot of restaurants wouldn't serve us," Perkins said. "Coach Crawford would stop at a Kentucky Fried Chicken or something, or parents would make a bunch of sandwiches and we'd end up eating at a roadside park. I still remember seeing signs that read, 'whites only' or 'coloreds only.'"

Not that any of it seemed to dampen the enthusiasm that both Grier and Fluellen still have for that long-ago summer.

"It was great," Fluellen said Monday evening from his Nebraska home. The retired Air Force chaplain moved there more than 15 years ago because his son Isaiah earned a football scholarship to play for the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

"Herman and I had our challenges being African-Americans. But we had so many white friends. My mother always told me, 'We're all God's children. We all bleed red. We should harbor no ill will.'"

Later, after that championship season, Herman's parents even wrote the following note to Charlie Crawford, which read, in part: "The type of training you are giving them is essential in developing good citizens. We have seen them experiencing teamwork and fair play, which are necessary for character building. Then came the glory of being a champion. Thank you so much."

The glory of becoming a champion took all 16 of them. Jim Baker. Crawford. Lebron Dill. Jerry DeFriese. Allen Edmonds. Bobby Edmondson. Mike Ford. Fluellen. Grier. Brian Hickey. Reid Hughes. Robin Johnson. Perkins. Gary Pickett. Jimmy Sheets. Tim Womack, who pitched the final World Series win in a still-record 45-minute game.

Coaches Crawford and Frank Strunk were crucial as well.

Said Hickey, who made the 605-mile drive from Clearwater, Florida, to Chattanooga to be a part of the reunion: "These were the best group of guys in the world."

But the best player was clearly Edmondson, who passed away too soon on April 6 of this year.

Edmondson, who went on to spend several years in the Kansas City Royals organization after playing high school ball at both Baylor School and Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, still holds a Dixie Youth World Series record for striking out 20 of 21 batters. And his hitting was just as amazing.

"I remember facing him before we were together on the All-Star team," Perkins said. "Even though I was a catcher, my coach made me pitch this one game against the Tigers, which was Bobby's team. I threw one down the middle and he didn't just hit it over the fence, he hit it over the trees beyond the fence, then he just smiled at me while he ran the bases."

Said Pickett of his most celebrated teammate: "Bobby was probably six feet tall and 180 pounds when he was 12. We'd get off the bus and people would point to him and say, 'Where are his wife and kids?'"

Added DeFriese: "Bobby was probably the best 12-year-old who ever played the game."

The 16 of them were arguably the most important Dixie Youth World Series winners ever, and over the next three or four weeks they'll be justly honored for that achievement, beginning with a number of them throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at this year's state tournament in Sweetwater on Thursday.

Then several of them plan to travel to Ruston, Louisiana, on Aug. 2 to throw out the first pitch for the Dixie Youth World Series.

"A lot of us have hip and knee replacements now," said Pickett, who plans to travel to Ruston. "But it's great to be remembered after all these years."

It was a great Tuesday night, right down to the orange ball caps — the same color they wore in victory 50 years ago — the group donned at City Hall, the caps' white stitched lettering proclaiming "1969 Dixie Youth World Series Champions" on the front and "Honoring Bobby Edmondson" on the back.

And forever young being as much about mind as body, Grier posed a question for them all as they went their separate ways following the ceremony.

"I just want to know," he asked, "where we're going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of this championship?"

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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