'You made it, man': Day named to Hall of Fame

March 08, 1995|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writer

Leon Day saw himself at the induction ceremony. He saw them place the ring on his finger. He saw himself making his speech. Then he woke up yesterday morning at St. Agnes Hospital and told his wife, "I'm in. I'm in."

Yesterday afternoon, he was in. Mr. Day, 78, became the 12th Negro league star elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Veterans Committee also elected Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Richie Ashburn, National League founder William Hulbert and turn-of-the-century pitcher Vic Willis, a native of Cecil County. Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt was elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America in January.

Mr. Day, a pitcher, outfielder and second baseman, is the first Negro leaguer to get into the Hall since 1987. Max Manning, his former teammate on the Newark Eagles, gave him the good news.

"You made it, man," Mr. Manning told Day, who was surrounded in his hospital room by several former Negro league players. "And there's nobody happier about it than me."

Tears leaked out of the corners of Mr. Day's eyes. His dream had come true.

"I'm so happy, I don't know what to do," said Mr. Day, who grew in the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood of Mount Winans. "I never thought it would come."

Neither did his sister, Ida May Bolden, who lives with Mr. Day and his wife in West Baltimore.

"I got chills. My body just shook," said Ms. Bolden, 80. "We thought it wouldn't happen unless he passed away."

Ms. Bolden remembers Mr. Day leaving Douglass High School after his second year, in 1935, to play Negro league baseball. He left over the objections of his mother, who died later that year, but with the support of his father, who worked in a glass factory until he died in 1941.

"I hope Mom and Pop know about this," said Ms. Bolden, who was at home resting up for last night's celebration at the Pikesville Hilton Inn.

Mr. Day was not able to attend. He had to be readmitted to the hospital Monday afternoon after a reoccurrence of the irregular heartbeat and stomach virus that kept him there last week. Yesterday, he was wearing a heart monitor.

Those who played with him in the Negro leagues remember Mr. Day as the star pitcher of the Newark Eagles. He set a record by striking out 18 Baltimore Elite Giants one night in 1942 at Bugle Field. He won three of his four recorded meetings with legendary Kansas City Monarchs pitcher Satchel Paige, himself a Hall of Famer. In 1946, Mr. Day came back from World War II and pitched a no-hitter on Opening Day at Newark's Ruppert Stadium.

Mr. Manning, who also pitched for the Eagles, was one of many teammates who carried Mr. Day off the field after his no-hitter.

"I still think that the players, if you said to the team at any given time, who would you like to pitch, they would all choose Leon," Mr. Manning said. "When he was right, I don't think there was anybody his equal."

Off the field, Mr. Day was quiet and unassuming. Mr. Manning remembers Mr. Day's beautiful tenor voice as he engaged the team in song during many hours on the club bus. His favorite song was "Sweet Adeline." Mr. Day said he liked to sit in the third row of the bus on the aisle.

"We used to sing and tell lies," Mr. Day said. "Then we'd go to the back seat and play rummy. Sometimes, if it was empty enough, we would stretch out back there."

Mr. Day never made it to the major leagues. He said Jackie Robinson asked him to join the Brooklyn Dodgers farm club in Montreal in 1946, but Mr. Day already had signed a contract with the Eagles. That season, Mr. Day hurt his arm. He made it as far as Triple-A with the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League when he was 35, mostly as a utility player.

But with yesterday's election, Mr. Day will join Mr. Robinson and the other 219 baseball greats already in the Hall of Fame. He has been a Hall of Fame candidate for nearly a decade. In 1993, he missed by one vote.

This year, the Veterans Committee placed Negro leaguers on a special ballot for a five-year period. With the presence of Negro leaguers Buck O'Neil and Monte Irvin on the committee, Mr. Day finally got elected.

Mr. Day said he has one more great performance left in him. He's saving it for the induction ceremonies July 30 at Cooperstown, N.Y.

"I'm ready to get up out of this bed," said Mr. Day, who suffers from diabetes, gout and a bad heart. "This has been in the back of my mind a long time."

DAY'S CAREER

How Leon Day's Hall of Fame plaque might read:

B: Oct. 30, 1916

Baltimore Black Sox '34; Brooklyn Eagles '35; Newark Eagles '36-'39,'41-'43,'46; Vera Cruz '40; Mexico City '47-'48; Baltimore Elite Giants '49-'50; Winnipeg '50; Toronto '51; Scranton '52; Edmonton '53

Pitcher, second baseman and center fielder

A consistent .300 hitter and a pitcher who historians estimate won nearly 300 games; played in record seven Negro league all-star games, holds record of 14 strikeouts in all-star game competition; struck out 18 against Baltimore Elite Giants, a Negro National League record; struck out 19 in Puerto Rico, a Puerto Rican league record; defeated Satchel Paige in three of their four recorded meetings; defeated a group of white major-leaguers in a post-World War II exhibition at Nuremberg Stadium, pitched a no-hitter in his first game back from the war against the Philadelphia Stars; played with Triple-A Toronto at the age of 35.

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