Recalling what didn't make sports record books

July 27, 1995|By MICHARL OLESKER

Down here in the late-morning steaminess of Pat's Bar, a converted corner rowhouse basement in South Baltimore's Westport, Grant Burley rises slowly from his chair, puts aside his soda and his walking cane, and goes into some other man's pitching windup.

He is 75 years old and had a stroke a couple of years back. No matter. This, he says, going into a pitcher's stretch position and checking an imaginary runner at first, this is the way Leon Day used to pitch. Grant Burley knows.

Leon Day of 2411 Puget St., of baseball games played on the scruffy diamonds of Westport and Pigtown and Mount Winans, of the old Negro League that gave him a living when the major leagues locked out generations of black men, this Leon Day posthumously enters baseball's Hall of Fame on Sunday.

And those like Grant Burley are the keepers of the old details. Burley grew up across Puget Street from Day, played sandlot ball with him and remained friends across the decades. Now, standing in the heat of Pat's Bar, remembering yesterdays, he goes into Day's old windup.

"When Leon and me were kids," he remembers, "we used to take big wads of paper and wet 'em down, and then stuff the whole thing into a sock and make a rag ball. And we'd use that as our baseball, 'cause we didn't have no other ball, see? And that's where you'd develop your reflexes, trying to hit that rag ball, 'cause the thing dipped and dived all over the place."

He's just delivered an imaginary fastball in Day's honor. A lady behind the bar nods her head approvingly. A fellow nursing an early beer looks up from his morning sports pages and smiles.

"What'd we hit with?" Burley says now. "Naw, we didn't have no bats. We used tree sticks. And that rag ball came in and you learned to use your reflexes, see?"

Tree branches in place of baseball bats: It's the way America likes to think of its innocent youth, except that innocence went pretty fast in the time of Leon Day and Grant Burley, and of Vince Serio, too.

Serio's the owner of Pat's Bar. He's 77. He and Grant Burley go back to the early days. America was segregated then, but certain things transcended race, such as raw hunger. A long time ago, the two men racked coal together.

"Got 25 cents a bag," Serio says.

"And pick beans, too," says Burley. "You had to work to get that money."

Serio points a hand north. A few blocks from here, another Hall of Famer got his start: Al Kaline, of Westport's Cedley Street and Southern High School and the Detroit Tigers.

"Over there," says Serio, standing under a blistering sun now, pointing to Kaline's old house. Grant Burley, getting into his old Cadillac with the air conditioning on the blink, already knows the way.

Through the early-morning heat now, with all windows open to catch any vagrant breezes, he begins to drive to some South Baltimore athletic landmarks.

Here's Al Kaline's old rowhouse on Cedley Street, a few doors up from the back end of an old broom factory. Then a drive out to Waterview Avenue, and the Mount Auburn Cemetery. The great old boxing champ, Joe Gans, is buried here. In obscurity. In a field that has gone utterly to weed.

Burley shakes his head sadly. You see what happens to the old athletes, he seems to say. People forget. The old stories die, and the weeds hide the glory of their deeds and, as if to prove it, he drives over to Ostend and Nanticoke. Another great fighter, Harry Jeffra, grew up in that rowhouse, he says. It's boarded up now. Nobody remembers Harry Jeffra any more.

On Puget Street a short drive from here, though, Burley remembers. On one side of the street, that's his house. On the other: Leon Day's.

"All we wanted to do was play ball," Burley says. "We'd come home from school, go fetch water from the spring, and then go play ball. We never got in trouble. If we saw trouble coming, we went away.

"When we played on the Mount Winans Silver Moons, why, Leon was the No. 1 pitcher, and I was No. 2. I was good. I could throw with both hands. But Leon threw so hard, when it hit the catcher's mitt, it knocked it off. When people heard he was pitching, they came from all over South Baltimore. That boy could throw."

Burley wound up working for McCormick's Spices for 28 years. Day starred in the Negro League, but dropped by South Baltimore here and there.

"He'd say, 'I love the game, but I gotta go through so much.' They had to eat food in the bus. They couldn't go into restaurants. He loved the game, but he couldn't get food.' Just gotta keep going,' he'd say."

He kept going until last March, when he heard he'd been voted into the Hall of Fame. Six days later, having held on so long, Leon Day died.

"I know he's looking down somewhere, and he's happy," Grant Burley said the other day.

He knows. He goes back to the beginning, and he remembers all the things they don't keep in the record books.

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