Day dies a week after greatest honor

March 14, 1995|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writer

Leon Day, a star Negro league pitcher with the Newark Eagles, died yesterday at St. Agnes Hospital, six days after being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Mr. Day was 78.

"I think that's what he was waiting for," said his sister, Ida May Bolden, who lived with Mr. Day and his wife, Geraldine, in West Baltimore. "I expected him to pass before the voting."

Mr. Day, who suffered from diabetes, gout, and heart and kidney problems, died about 4:30 p.m. of heart failure.

His sister and many former Negro-leaguers remember him as the Newark Eagles' ace pitcher. They saw him strike out 18 batters at Baltimore's Bugle Field. They saw him defeat Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige in three of their four recorded meetings. And they saw him return from World War II for Opening Day in 1946 and pitch a no-hitter.

"If Satchel Paige is like the Negro league icon, Leon Day is the warrior," said Max Manning, Mr. Day's former Eagles teammate, who gave him the news that he had been elected last Tuesday. "He's a guy who goes out there, does his thing, does it completely. That epitomized the Negro leagues. Everybody was out there doing what they had to do. He did it and did it a lot better than a lot of other people."

Mr. Paige's loquacious personality helped make him the natural choice as the first Negro-leaguer elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971. Soft-spoken Mr. Day waited for historians to discover his accomplishments rather than boast about them. He waited for his turn to get elected to the Hall.

"He was never a self-promoter. If he were a self-promoter, he might have been elected years ago," said Negro league historian Todd Bolton, whom Mr. Day chose to write the Hall of Fame speech that he won't have a chance to give. "But he was a humble man, and he let his record speak for itself. Unfortunately, there weren't enough people looking at his record years ago."

The campaign to get Mr. Day into the Hall of Fame began about a dozen years ago. In 1993, he missed getting elected by one vote because one member of the Veterans Committee, Roy Campanella, was ill and could not cast his ballot. The late Mr. Campanella, then a catcher with the Baltimore Elite Giants, struck out three times the night Mr. Day recorded 18 strikeouts at Bugle Field.

Two years after Mr. Day just missed getting elected, the Veterans Committee, under a revised set of election rules, made him the 12th Negro-leaguer elected to the Hall and the first since 1987.

William J. Guilfoile, Hall of Fame vice president, said Mr. Day is the first person to die between the time of his election and his induction.

Many of Mr. Day's biggest advocates, former Negro-leaguers, said they are saddened that his honor did not come sooner.

"It's a shame after he made it he couldn't be here to see it," said Gene Benson, an infielder and outfielder with the Philadelphia Stars. "Like everything else with us, they wait so long for anything to happen. He should have been in there years ago."

There is one living Negro-leaguer in the Hall of Fame, Buck Leonard. For Mr. Benson and the other surviving black players, Mr. Day's selection was like their getting elected. Many have vowed to accompany Ms. Bolden and Mrs. Day to the induction July 30 in Cooperstown, N.Y.

They will be thinking about him.

"I just think it's terrible he wasn't there to appreciate it and stand up there like the rest of the them, to say the words that he was thankful for getting into the Hall of Fame," said Wilmer Fields, a pitcher and infielder with the Homestead Grays. "That means a lot to a ballplayer because he has all the other Hall of Famers sitting there."

"There's nothing we can do about it," Mr. Fields said. "But he'll always be a Hall of Famer to me."

No one is prouder of Mr. Day's accomplishments than Ms. Bolden. When the family moved to the Mount Winans section of Southwest Baltimore when Mr. Day was 6 months old, she was with him. When he pitched for the local sandlot team, the Mount Winans Athletic Clubs, she went to the games. When he struck out 18 and pitched a no-hitter, she was there.

Ms. Bolden also was there the day he died. She said that his election to the Hall did not come too late and that his death did not come too soon.

The night before he was elected, Mr. Day said, he dreamed that he was receiving his Hall of Fame ring and plaque at Cooperstown.

"That was a premonition," Ms. Bolden said. "I think Leon gave up after he made it. I really do. That's what he's been waiting for all these years."

Mr. Day is survived by his second wife, Geraldine, 55, and his sister, Ms. Bolden, 80, both of Baltimore; and his daughter, Barbara Jean Hart, 43, of Warminster, Pa.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

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