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Off the Wall

The 521 All-Stars-Baseball and Community
Photographs by Byron Baldwin
Text by Frye Gaillard

The following text and photos are excerpted with permission from The 521 All-Stars: A Championship Story of Baseball and Community, photographs by Byron Baldwin, text by Frye Gaillard, published in 1999 by Black Belt Press, Montgomery, Alabama. For more information, contact Black Belt Press at www.blackbeltpress.com.

The 521 All-Stars at the end of the 1998 season.

The stadium is made out of scrapwood and tin. It is tucked away near a thicket of pines where U.S. Highway 521 winds its way through the flatlands of South Carolina. In the winter it's a cold and solitary place, when the season has ended and the people in the tiny community of Rembert have gone off in search of something else to do. But from April through the fall, the field comes alive. It is home to the 521 All-Stars, a semipro team with roots going back to the 1920s.

A young All-Stars fan watches the action from a box seat.

The team, like the community around it, is black-part of the Gamecock League, where the competitionis good-humored and fierce. Every Saturday and Sunday, the parking lots are overflowing with cars, as the people come together for the games.

There was a time in the days of racial segregation when the scenes were common all over the South-particularly in African American communities, where baseball offered a measure of relief from the oppressive realities of life. Times have changed, but even today there are hamlets where the baseball tradition has survived. From the Carolinas to Texas, summers are shaped by a love of the game and the pride and the solidarity that it brings-to those who play it and those who gather every week in the stands.

In the village of Rembert, they understand the heritage they have tried to keep alive. Larry Doby got his start in these converted cotton fields of Sumter County. He was born in Camden just up the road and played for the teams in his own hometown before his talent took him away to bigger things. There have been others through the years who have followed in his path, going on to the Negro leagues or the majors, but eventually finding their way back home.

The roster of the 521 All-Stars is dotted with people like Emmett Robinson, the power-hitting shortstop, who was a replacement player with the Toronto Blue Jays in the strike-threatened season of 1995. Bobby Thompson spent a year with the Texas Rangers, hitting .225 in sixty-four games, and there are others who made it to the minor leagues or college. They are older today, a little past their prime, but they are driven even now by a love of the game and the feeling of being a part of something good.

Catcher David Stuckey shows concern as he kneels over an opposing player who has just been beaned.

For three straight years in the Gamecock League, from 1997 to 1999, the 521 All-Stars made it all the way to the championship game, winning two of the three. The players will tell you that 1998 was the best. It was a season tinged with heartache and loss, as Harvey Skinner, a relief pitcher on the team, died of a stroke at the age of thirty-five. The season was dedicated to his memory, and the All-Stars stormed through the playoff rounds, winning a total of thirty-two games, which they thought was appropriate. Thirty-two was Harvey Skinner's number.

When they swept through the championship series as well, winning the last game 22-2, they rushed to the mound and held a picture of Harvey high above their heads. For the people of Rembert who were there that day, the bonds of community had rarely been as strong. Whatever the sadness that went with the season, and the feelings of grief that were yet to disappear, they had to admit on this October day that they could not have written the ending any better.

The victory was sweet, and they expected it would feel that way for a while.

The All-Stars celebrate their second consecutive championship season, October 3, 1998. A picture of teammate Harvey Skinner, who died during the year,
is held aloft.

-EFQ

BYRON BALDWIN has taught photography at Myers Park High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, and at area colleges and universities. His work has been exhibited throughout the Southeast and is included in numerous collections. He lives in Charlotte with his wife, Ann.


FRYE GAILLARD's career as pitcher and shortstop peaked on the city league softball fields of Charlotte. He has written sixteen books and co-edited four, including the award-winner, If I Were a Carpenter: Twenty Years of Habitat for Humanity. He lives with his wife, Nancy, in Indian Trail, North Carolina.

 

 


© 2000 photography Byron Balwin
© 2000 text Frye Gaillard

To order The 521 All Stars, click here

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