or the past 75 years -- and maybe even longer, people here say -- folks in these communities have congregated every weekend in a family reunion fashion on forgotten fields. Children parade their innocence, laughing and chasing one another. Adults sit on makeshift benches, some sipping on strong drinks. Cigarette smoke swirls around the scent of fried okra and BBQ ribs in the air. Neighbors of all ages have come together for decades, for fun and food, but most importantly, for baseball.
Here the spirit of Negro Leagues isn't dead.
Teams from 12 communities in western South Carolina and Georgia made up the Community AllStar Baseball League this season, which ran from March until September. Players range in age from 15 to 61. A few are Latino, and a couple are white. But the league is distinctly and unapologetically black. And it doesn't cost much to watch.
"You charge people to come in, park and view the game," league umpire Brian Shumpert explains. "But usually it's a buck or two dollars. It's never been more than that."
In the 1940s, the league got its start with the church. Stands have always been filled with black folks. What has changed, however, is the talent. As its popularity has grown, so, too, has the performance of the players. It is not uncommon to see HBCU baseball players spending their summers on these fields.
Nor is it rare anymore to see a pro player who got his start here. C.J. Edwards, 24, entered this season on Baseball America's Chicago Cubs top-10 prospects list before being called up in September. He learned his craft here, starting at age 15. Ironically, it gave him an unfair advantage.
"I feel like I was better for it because I was playing against older guys," Edwards says. "And then to play in my competition and my level, it made me a lot better than other kids."
It wasn't merely age differences that were valuable to Edwards. It was what he heard, too. It forced him to grow up, to mature -- quickly.
"It was an experience dealing with the trash talk," Edwards says. "But not cursing, not that kind of trash talk. It's more like, 'Oh, you're too young to be out here. We 'bout to hurt this little boy's feelings.'"
Those older guys? They include people like Kenneth "Duck Titty" Sims Jr., a former Triple-A pitcher in the Orioles organization. They are colorful and delightful and unafraid to challenge the youngsters and intimidate them with a fastball when need be. Sims, by the way, doesn't know why folks started calling him Duck Titty, just that his father went by the same nickname, and by the time Junior was 7 or 8 years old, he was Little Duck Titty and his old man was Big Duck Titty.
"Still they call me that," Sims says. "And I'm 40 years old now!"
Sims is just one character. The league features dudes with nicknames that include the following gems: Patty Melt, Pig, Skeet, Black Knight and, of course, Cream.
Fun and games aside, the league means something different: the preservation of a deep love of baseball in the black community. Things have stayed the same here despite racial tension in the area and around the country. It's an irreplaceable sense of normalcy. Life wouldn't be life without baseball here.
"Even if this league wasn't here, we would still find a way to play," Sims said. "We love the game too much."
Each field in the Community AllStar Baseball League is unique. Here in Lancaster, S.C., right field dips down a couple of feet, making routine fly balls tougher to handle. In Antreville, a go-kart track, now closed and overgrown with weeds, has left its mark on the dimensions in the outfield. Newberry's old wooden benches bend but don't break under the weight of those sitting on them.
A group of older men watch a game in Carlisle from the comforts of shaded aluminum benches. On this day, even Carlisle Mayor Mary Ferguson Glenn shows up. "We're a small community," she said. "We don't have a lot going on, so baseball provides entertainment."
A chain-link fence takes the place of a locker room as Heyward Edrington, a 31-year-old catcher for the Union County Cardinals, gets ready for a game against the Carolina Marlins in Carlisle, S.C. Edrington learned how to catch from his father, Heyward Sr., who made it to the big leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the '70s. "My dad brought me into the league when I was 12," he said. "I started playing at shortstop batting second, and my dad batted third."
From old, worn scoreboard numbers in Newberry to a slightly obscured sign in Carlisle, clues abound that the Negro Leagues still exist in the South. "You can call it a bush league, but there's always been some baseball played in the black community," said Brian "Uddie" Shumpert, an official for the Community AllStar Baseball League.
I just got a love for baseball. It's my first love."
Rodney "Duke" Jones
Roman Marcano, 39, is covered head to toe with dirt as he joins his team for a pep talk between innings in a playoff game against the Carolina Marlins. Marcano, a shortstop, is as gritty as they come in the league. "Since I didn't make it to the pros, this league is all I got," he said. "So I play like it's the last game of my life."
Howard Scott, 66, left, and Edward "Pap" McGowan, 68, watch a game in Antreville, S.C. Both played in what they consider the best era of black baseball. McGowan started in the league in 1957 and played for 49 years. "We were straight-out country boys," he said. "You just played wherever there were games." McGowan says many great players lost their chance to play professionally because they had to work the cotton fields. "Yeah, that's why I might have missed my chance," he says.
Juan Rodriguez is one of three Dominican players on the Union County Cardinals. Rodriguez was pushed through the ultracompetitive Dominican system as a young pitcher but ended up signing with the Boston Red Sox at age 19, considered late for Latin prospects. Now 26, with a fastball still hitting 90 mph, he's one of the stronger arms in the Community AllStar Baseball League.
Union County Cardinals designated hitter Rodney "Duke" Jones dreamed of playing baseball for the New York Mets while growing up in Union, S.C. Now 40, Jones just wants his young children to see him play. "I just got a love for baseball. It's my first love."
It's like a Blues thing. Baseball has always been in the black community."
Brian "Uddie" Shumpert
The Carolina Marlins' Marco Patterson dives safely into third for a triple as Union County third baseman Terrell Gilmore waits for the ball. The hard dirt infields of the league offer no cushion for baserunners.
The Pomaria Royals' Ozzie Goree, 28, named after Cardinals great Ozzie Smith, played a year of college ball at Benedict College. "I just love the sport," he said. It's not uncommon to see players smoking in the dugout and some sipping beverages that are a bit stronger than your average sports drink.
Lexington Blue Jays pitcher Kenneth "Duck Titty" Sims puts on his uniform before a playoff game. Sims was a guard for the USC Trojans basketball team from 1996 to 1998 and played in the Baltimore Orioles organization, making it to Triple-A. The 40-year-old Sims still takes his baseball seriously. "It's a good, competitive league," he said. "If you're not good, it's going to show."
Fans sit on old, handmade wooden benches as they watch a playoff game at Rutherford's Field in Newberry, S.C. Fans have been coming to this site for more than 50 years. Newberry resident Mary Elizabeth Rutherford donated the land to build the original Rutherford's Field in 1963. "Her purpose was for the community to have a place to come on weekends and to keep the kids off the street," said Rutherford's daughter Bessie Rutherford Bookman, 66, who spends her time cooking, running concessions and watching the next generation of children during games.
As he takes right field, Cardinals outfielder Demond "Downtown" Brown, right, looks over at Donald Gist and shouts "save me a rack." Gist smiles and continues showing off his ribs along the right-field line. Gist played in the league for 26 years, and now he is there to provide beverages and barbecued meats -- for the right price.
Claudia Mayers and her granddaughter Cherrish Mayers walk by a makeshift scoreboard out in left field at Rutherford's Field. Mayer has been coming to the games at the field for more than 26 years. "It gives the children something to do and focus on," she said.
Since I didn't make it to the pros, this league is all I got, So I play like it's the last game of my life."
Kelton Tigers infielder John Means, 53, walks to the on-deck circle in Lancaster, S.C. Means was 14 when he first played in the league. "It's something to do to keep in shape," he said.
Charles Linklee, left, and Patrick Montgomery, right, talk trash as the hometown Carolina Marlins play the Kelton Tigers in Lancaster, S.C. "I like to mess with the opposing team like a good fan," Linklee said. Visiting players have to deal with constant talk by boisterous fans. "They talk about your mama, your girlfriend, your baby," said pitcher Kenneth "Duck Titty" Sims. "If your skin is not thick, you will falter."
Lance Miller, middle, and his uncle Kendall "K-Mill" Miller, left, joke with teammate Will Caldwell as they wait for the inning to start in Lancaster, S.C. Kendall, 27, is a crafty left-hander and one of the aces on the team. With an array of off-speed pitches, including a knuckleball, Miller keeps hitters off balance throughout the game.
Larecus Hughes of the Kelton Tigers is tagged out by Carolina Marlins third baseman Brien Clyburn during a playoff game in Lancaster, S.C. Fans park all over the grassy area adjacent to the field and tailgate as they watch the action.
The baseballs are worn and scuffed, the fields held together by old wood and dirt. Yet the Community AllStar Baseball League has forged an uncommon bond with the Southern communities that have long attended these games.
Highway 184 runs along the outfield fence in Antreville, S.C., and continues all the way down to the Georgia line. A's outfielder Joshua Airline, 30, has seen many fans park along the highway in his 14 years as a player in the league. In its heyday, crowds grew so big the state had to put "No Parking" signs along the highway. "It doesn't get any better than this," he said. "The major leagues have nothing on us."
The Lexington Blue Jays' Brandon Gipson waits to bat during a game in Antreville, S.C. Gipson would hit a controversial home run that appeared to curve foul of the left-field pole, prompting Antreville fans to assail the men in blue with a chorus of abuse. Umpires in the league never get the benefit of the doubt, and most hear as much trash talk as the players.
We were straight-out country boys. You just played wherever there were games."
Edward "Pap" McGowan
Earlia "Cakeman" Donaldson, 73, watches the A's playoff game in Antreville, S.C. A baker for more than 35 years, "Cakeman" fell in love with baseball as a young boy working the cotton fields. "Picking, pulling, everything really," he said. The work week would end at noon on Saturday, and Earlia and his friends would rush to the field to play ball. Transportation was whatever you could find available, including a mule and cart, Donaldson recalled. It wasn't uncommon to see 10 or 12 players packed together heading 15 miles down a dirt road to play. "I can't tell you how many games I played," he said. "I loved it to death."
Virginia Gray, bottom, enjoys fried okra and catfish as she watches her hometown A's in Antreville, S.C. Gray used to keep the books for the team when her husband, Rick Burns, played. "Boy, I used to talk a lot of junk," she said. "My husband used to tell me to hush up."
Kelton Tigers and Carolina Marlins players hold hands and form a prayer circle after their playoff game in Lancaster, S.C. "What makes our league unique is no matter what goes on and how much junk we talk, we're still coming together in the end," said pitcher Kenneth "Duck Titty" Sims. "Afterwards, we'll eat your food, you'll drink our beers, and it's all love."
Union County Cardinals manager Carl Briggs, left, and pitcher Juan Rodriguez prepare to head home after a tough loss to the Carolina Marlins. Briggs, who is 46, has been managing since he was 26. "Even when I was younger, in the military, they saw leadership qualities in me," he said. Today, he runs the Union County team like a well-oiled machine. The Cardinals are the most diverse team in the league, with five Latino players.
Niko Wadsworth, left, and his friends play some ball after a league playoff game in Newberry, S.C. "A lot of things come and go, but baseball keeps going," said Antreville manager John "Chew" Glenn. Glenn witnessed black baseball at the height of its popularity in the late '90s, when he said playoff games regularly drew over 1,000 people. He thinks the excitement of playing the game is fading among black youths but is optimistic games will continue to be played. "Black young guys just don't love baseball the way we used to," he said. "It's fading."