It was one of the last nights of the Fairmount Park League this season, and perhaps for all time. One never knows. One has never known.

Weedy and cratered, the baseball field at Northeast High School had one access point, a spot where someone had dislocated one of the horizontal poles of a chain-link fence so that players and spectators, if they were nimble enough, could hold down and climb over the netting. Rocks and divots pocked the infield dirt. Behind the third-base line, an ice cream truck trundled past rows of red-brick apartments on Algon Avenue, its inviting jingle drowning out the chatting and banter among the players.

Founded before Major League Baseball had desegregated, an all-Black alternative to what had been an all-white institution, the league has seen much of its history — a kind of oral tradition handed down through anecdotes and word of mouth and rarely documented — peter out and its relevance to the modern sports scene fray like an old thread. It thrived when baseball had a stronger foothold among Black people than it does now, and it has survived for more than three-quarters of a century by absorbing teams and players from other semipro leagues in the region. It fed players to and accepted them from the Negro Leagues and, later, the farm systems of franchises in the National and American Leagues. It had as many as 20 teams, most or all of them based in neighborhoods throughout the city, community pride on the line in every game. That was its heyday. That was its peak. That was a long time ago.

There are just four teams in the Fairmount Park League now, loose collections of business owners and firefighters and college players and former high school standouts who pigeon-toe out of the batter’s box when they used to sprint, who long ago traded in six-pack abs for six-packs, whose big-league dreams went unfulfilled and who still enjoy baseball and competition and maybe the chance to see themselves as they once were. They are Black. They are white. They are Hispanic. They range in age from their early 20s to their late 60s. The crowds, if they can be called that, who come to watch them play are small: wives and girlfriends and parents and friends. They’re hanging on to the sport, and the Fairmount Park League is hanging on because of them.

This particular game, late last month, was between the league’s best team, the Phantoms, from Delaware County, and the Athletics, who draw players from Rhawnhurst, Mayfair, Torresdale. But the Phantoms had a problem. Just eight of them had made it to the field in time for the game’s 6:15 p.m. first pitch, and those eight included Kahreem Cunningham, who is the team’s manager and Fairmount’s commissioner, who is the head coach at Delaware County Community College, who is 41 and sports a James Harden-style beard flecked with gray, and who doesn’t suit up anymore ... unless he has to.

Phantoms outfielder Luis Abreu started calling players to find out if anyone else was en route. After a few minutes on his phone, he told Cunningham that two team members were in a car together.

“How far away are they?” Cunningham asked.

“They’re in Frankford,” Abreu said. “Should be five minutes away.”

Cunningham set up his starting lineup with just two outfielders, then grabbed a glove and trotted out to the infield to play second base. He had to.

A mysterious history

The Fairmount Park League is old enough that even those with the longest ties to it, the keepers of its flame, aren’t certain anymore how old it actually is. Maybe the league was established in the 1940s, they say, and a 1987 Inquirer article does pinpoint its inaugural year as 1945. Maybe it was established earlier. In a Sept. 24, 1955, column in the Philadelphia Tribune, journalist Malcolm Poindexter wrote that Walter “Pop” Myers “has spent the past 17 years managing and coaching the Philadelphia Vikings, five-times (sic) champions of the Fairmount Park League,” which would mean the league’s first season would have been 1939, eight years before Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“When Pop first got the idea to start a team,” Poindexter wrote, “there was increasing juvenile delinquency all over the city. He thought a baseball club would provide a natural outlet for some of the young fellows in the neighborhood.”

Regardless of the precise date of its inception, the league quickly evolved into something more than a safeguard or distraction for the city’s Black kids and men. In playgrounds and parks — 33rd and Dauphin, 48th and Woodland, 5th and Washington — hundreds of fans would station themselves in lawn chairs along the right- and left-field lines to watch the games. They’d have cookouts. Managers and players would pass a hat to take up a collection for equipment and fees. Ernie Blake, who worked at a shipping-and-packaging company, joined the Germantown Bombers in 1951 as an infielder. One of his teammates was a North Philadelphia native named Bill Cosby, who later sponsored the Bombers.

“Anyone can play softball,” Blake, who stayed involved, as commissioner and a manager, for more than 50 years, told the Tribune in 1987. “You can go to the bar after a game or even before, but you can’t do that with baseball.”

The league had no age limits at the time; a player who proved himself worthy could enter immediately. The Rev. Clarence Hester, pastor of Erie Avenue Baptist Church, first tried out in 1969, when he was just 13, then made the Bombers in 1970. He played every year thereafter before stepping away last season because of the pandemic.

“It was a place where African Americans had the opportunity to come together to hone their skills,” he said.

Each season was 60 games. Each team played five nights a week. While barnstorming the country, Negro League teams, including the Philadelphia Stars, plucked players from Fairmount to replenish their rosters. Minor league affiliates of Major League Baseball clubs did the same — a two-way membrane separating Fairmount from those higher levels of baseball, other players, be they Black or white, recognizing the opportunity that the league presented them.

After Major Coleman, a 22-year-old pitcher with the Philadelphia Vikings, struck out 12 batters in seven innings in a 1954 Fairmount game, the Philadelphia Athletics signed him to a minor-league contract. Before the Boston Red Sox drafted him 14th overall in 1984, Temple’s John Marzano played Fairmount ball for three years. When the Houston Astros cut Gerald Sanders, a William Penn High alum, from their minor-league camp in the spring of 1989, he collected his personal baseball memorabilia — balls, bats, gloves, photographs, trophies — in a plastic bag and dumped the bag into the Schuylkill. The only item he kept was his pair of cleats. It was good he did. He immediately joined the Bombers and led the league in home runs that year.

John DeLeon, a 6-foot-7 first baseman, was just a sophomore at University City High School when he started in the league in 1977. Two years later, the Baltimore Orioles selected him in the 30th round of the Major League Baseball draft, and the night before he flew to Bloomfield, W. Va., for his minor-league assignment, DeLeon played in a Fairmount game at 33rd and Dauphin. He broke his bat on a single — “The bat died a hero,” he said — and he and his teammates held an impromptu goodbye-and-good-luck ceremony for him after the game, digging a hole near the pitcher’s mound and burying the bat there.

“It was a unique brand of baseball,” said DeLeon, who turns 60 in August, who played, on and off, in the Fairmount league for 13 years, and who still plays on Sundays in a South Jersey league. “People would be right up against the cage, and you could feel their breath on the back of your neck. It was just that tight. You could hear all the heckling. Oh, my God. It was incredible. For you to be successful in that league, you had to have thick skin and earmuffs.

“If you heard it there, nothing in pro ball that fans could say to you could get you off your game. They were in the stands, a few feet away from you. These people were right up on the cage. It was pressure, especially playoffs and championship time, but it was welcome pressure. It just showed what you were made of. I really miss that type of baseball. That really made me who I was as a player.”

‘Ain’t nuthin’ here’

In a striped golf shirt and crisp black slacks, Wilmer Reid might have seemed out of place sitting on a set of metallic bleachers at Northeast High, one of fewer than a dozen people watching the Phantoms-A’s game ... unless you already knew who he was, in which case his presence made perfect sense.

Reid is 86 and a scout for the Phillies. He played ball in the Negro leagues and in the Milwaukee Braves’ system. When he refers to “Hank,” he’s talking about Hank Aaron. When he refers to “Satch,” he’s talking about Satchel Paige. He was friends with both. In the 1960s and ’70s, he served as the commissioner of the Fairmount Park League and played second base for the Woodland Giants, the team that was based in his West Philadelphia neighborhood.

“I used to ride home on his home runs,” said Roger Gorman, himself a former Giant and former league commissioner.

Reid carries his 1996 World Series ring, from his stint working for the Yankees, in his pants pocket. The next afternoon, he had to drive to Staten Island to see a player. He has been scouting for more than 40 years, and he has no plans to retire or stop traveling.

“As long as I see talent,” he said.

What about this game?

“S—, ain’t nuthin’ here.”

It was difficult to disagree with Reid’s assessment, though the players came by their gains honestly. Every play in the game — a force out at second, a catcher blocking a pitch in the dirt, a popup that plopped between two infielders — unfolded with maximal effort and the slowest of motion. On the mound for the Athletics was Bob Walmsley, a beefy 27-year-old righthander who, after pitching for Father Judge High School and Montgomery County Community College, joined his father’s construction company. Tony DeAngelis, the team’s first baseman/manager, is, at 66, the oldest player in the league.

“Nine out of 10 at-bats, he’s going to put his bat on the ball,” Cunningham said. “You’re not going to strike him out. That’s that old-school baseball mentality, and I really appreciate that.” As if on cue, DeAngelis lined out to third to end the first inning.

“I should have got it over the third baseman’s head,” he said later. “I can’t believe I didn’t.”

Leading off the second inning for the Phantoms was first baseman Lenny Ward Jr., who was in their lineup for the first and only time this season. Ward and his father had been fixtures in the league — Lenny Sr. in the 1940s and ’50s, Lenny Jr. from the late 1980s on. An account manager with a security company, Ward, 50, had moved to the Cleveland area in 2016. But his wife recently had accepted a new job in Boston, and since he would pass through Philadelphia as he relocated to Massachusetts, Ward called Cunningham to find out if he could play once more. By suiting up against the A’s, he ensured that he had appeared in at least one Fairmount Park League game in each of the last five decades. “I drove 450 miles to be here,” he said. “Got another 330 to go.” It was that important to him.

“This was our league,” said Ward, who grew up in West Philadelphia. “My son and my grandson, I let them know, ‘Hey, this is part of our story. This is where I played. This is where your grandfather played. We had opportunities to play against people who played professional ball.’”

Barrel-chested, wraparound sunglasses covering his eyes, Ward ripped a line drive to left field for a double, went to third on a wild pitch, and, on a dropped third strike, lumbered home for the Phantoms’ first run. It was only the good fortune of Ward’s “last hurrah” — his tongue-in-cheek phrase — that had given the Phantoms eight available players and prevented them from having to forfeit. The two players who were supposed to be on their way from Frankford hadn’t arrived yet. As Luis Abreu tried calling them again, Cunningham meandered behind the batting cage, craning his neck to check if any familiar-looking cars had pulled into the parking lot.

Too few players? He’d never had such a situation arise before. His ready-made reservoir of available talent — the community college team he coached — afforded the Phantoms an advantage that helped them dominate the league. They had won the championship three consecutive years and were in first place again this season. Scheduling conflicts … traffic snarls … indifference ... Didn’t matter. Didn’t happen. His guys were dedicated. His guys always showed up … until now.

“Lou,” he asked Abreu, “what did they say?”

“They’re not coming.”

Cunningham walked back to the bench, shaking his head.

Ebbs, flows, and anger

Player shortages were new to Cunningham but not to the Fairmount Park League. “Black kids don’t wanna play baseball,” Reid said, and if you skim the few newspaper articles about the league from the late 1980s, when it had just five teams, you can read the same sorts of lamentations. These kids just don’t care about the game like they used to … Damn those video games.

The league soon opened itself up for the sake of staying alive. It diversified, expanding to include teams from other neighborhoods and even the suburbs, from the Pendel, Delco, and Bux-Mont Leagues. It worked for a while.

“It was so much fun,” said John Durso, who brought a team from Roxborough into Fairmount in 1999. “There was a catcher for the Mustangs. Every time you struck out, he would call you ‘Special K,’ like the cereal. He’d go, ‘Here’s comes Special K!’ And if you struck out, as he threw the ball down to third, he’d say, ‘You need Jesus in your life!’ ”

Eventually, though, interest ebbed again. In the old days, all it took to get to a game was a bus or trolley ride. Now, to be on time for a weeknight game, it often took a rush-hour drive into or out of the city on the Schuylkill Expressway or I-95 or Broad Street — an inconvenience that, over time, fewer players were willing to tolerate.

Softball leagues sucked up sponsorships. Teams struggled to find funding, and the cost of maintaining the league grew more expensive: This season, a team’s entry fee is $475, which doesn’t include uniforms, hats, and the $75 per-game payment for umpires. Field conditions and upkeep deteriorated.

In 2004, a dispute erupted when several of the newer managers — in an attempt to make Fairmount more competitive and attract more players, particularly pitchers — pushed to abandon metal bats and use wooden ones instead. The long-timers countered that buying brand-new wooden bats wasn’t financially feasible, that an entire team could use one decent metal bat for as long as three years — “I could see their point,” Durso said — and they resented the encroachment on what they regarded as their territory and tradition.

“There were some who still felt, ‘Who are these white guys to come in here and tell us what to do?’ ” Hester said.

So teams broke off to form their own leagues or return to their old ones, and the Fairmount Park League has limped along since, held together by the efforts of a couple of custodians of its legacy, Cunningham the primary one. He played varsity baseball for his four years at Strawberry Mansion High School, entered Fairmount in 2005, and has immersed himself in maintaining its well-being since.

“You learn from the Wilmer Reids and the Ernie Blakes, from your predecessors,” he said. “I just said, ‘Hey, no matter what, I want to try to keep it going because there are a lot of young guys, and it keeps them out of trouble.’ ”

The pandemic imperiled the league; there were just three active teams in 2020. But vaccinations and the lockdown’s relaxation allowed players to return this year, and Cunningham cobbled together an 18-game schedule. He covers the entrance fees for all his players because he wants them to stay sharp in the summer and doesn’t want to give them an easy excuse not to play in the league. He views its survival as his responsibility.

“As long as I have breath in me,” he said, “it will never die.”

Dedication

The sentiment was admirable, but the top of the second inning was finished now, and the Phantoms were still short a player … until Pat McCloskey, the team’s regular second baseman, trudged toward the bench at last. He had been at work, at a fitness center in Broomall, 30 miles away from Northeast High. The drive had taken him an hour and a half.

“Dedication right there,” Cunningham said.

Except McCloskey was dressed for the gym — a red muscle shirt, black mesh shorts, sneakers — and not for a baseball game. Cunningham was prepared. He had brought with him a plastic bag stuffed with extra uniform tops. McCloskey rifled through the bag and pulled out a black shirt, with Phantoms in royal blue across the front, to match his teammates.

“I don’t have pants,” he said.

Cunningham turned around in exasperation: “Anybody else have extra pants?”

No one did. Still in his shorts and sneakers, McCloskey jogged out to second base. The Phantoms would beat the Athletics, 8-2. The Fairmount Park League would make it through one more game, one more day. Beyond the patchy outfield grass, the sun began to set.