300-plus pay last respects to Day

March 18, 1995|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writer

A folded American flag lay atop Leon Day's coffin during his funeral yesterday at the Central Church of Christ.

For most of his life, his country treated Day like a second-class citizen because of the color of his skin.

He grew up in a segregated world in Mount Winans in Southwest Baltimore, fought in a segregated army during World War II and played in a segregated baseball league as the ace pitcher of the Negro National League's Newark Eagles.

A little more than a week before he died of heart failure, Day, 78, learned that he had been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He received a first-class funeral yesterday as more than 300 friends, family, former Negro leagues players and local dignitaries -- including Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- paid their last respects.

"In an age when baseball only seems to be about money and replacement players, Leon Day's life was about dignity, class and talent and so much more," Schmoke said.

Schmoke mentioned the indignities Day suffered because of segregation -- the long bus rides, the hotels and restaurants that refused to serve him and the money that eluded him because he did not play major-league baseball.

"These things we can't give back to Leon Day," the mayor said. "I think he would tell us not to worry, because Leon Day's heart is bigger and stronger than the time in which he lived."

About 30 former Negro Leaguers turned out for Day's funeral, leading the procession and testifying to his ability as a ballplayer.

Monte Irvin, Day's Newark Eagle teammate, came from Florida despite having spent part of the week in the hospital. Irvin, 75, gave a moving speech about the teammate he met in 1936 and whom he helped get into the Hall of Fame on March 12.

"Whenever I think of Leon Day, I get a little tearful because I'm almost afraid I won't be eloquent enough to talk about this beautiful person," said Irvin, a Hall of Famer and a member of its Veterans Committee.

Irvin talked about Day's on-field charisma that his teammates and opponents knew well. He recalled when he faced Day in the Puerto Rican winter league.

"The first time I came to the plate, he knocked me down," Irvin told the mourners. "I said to him, 'I'm your teammate. I just got here and I'm hitting .250.' He said, 'I'm going to make sure you don't hit .251.' "

For the six winters he spent in Puerto Rico, Day was elected to the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993, the year he missed getting into the Hall of Fame in his own country by one vote.

Some players, including Irvin, say Day would have been elected to Cooperstown sooner if he had been more outspoken about his accomplishments. "If he had a fault, it was being too quiet," Irvin said. "You almost didn't know that he was on the team if you didn't call out his name."

But Day will get his due. His wife, Geraldine, will accept his plaque at the July 30 induction ceremonies and make a speech, Hall of Fame president Ed Stack announced at the funeral yesterday.

Day was buried at Arbutus Memorial Park. National Guardsmen gave Day, who was in the Normandy invasion, a three-gun salute and played taps. His gravesite is not far from that of Day's first manager with the Eagles, Ben Taylor, who died in 1954.

Irvin said Day died before his Hall of Fame induction because he wanted to join his former Eagle teammates who have died.

"I guess he wanted to be with Mule Suttles, Willie Wells, Ray Dandridge, Biz Mackey and all those other great Eagles he played with," Irvin said. "He didn't have any time to enjoy the honor that had been given to him, but all of us who played with him will read the list of the all-time great pitchers, and Leon Day's name will have to be at the top."

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