For Leon Day, dream is no longer deferred

July 31, 1995|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writer

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Six days before his death, Leon Day had a dream. Edward W. Stack, the Baseball Hall of Fame chairman, came to his room at St. Agnes Hospital, told him of his election and presented him with his Hall of Fame ring.

Day woke up -- a former teammate gave him the good news later that afternoon. Day, a native of Mount Winans in Southwest Baltimore, never received his ring. He died of heart and kidney problems on March 13.

Day's deferred dream changed but finally came true yesterday, when he became the 12th Negro league player inducted into the Hall. His wife, Geraldine, unveiled his plaque with Stack by her side and told a record crowd about her husband's hospital-bed premonition.

"He was a very happy man that day," Geraldine Day said. "He just lit the whole room up. He said, 'I have to get out of here and get to the Hall of Fame so I can get that ring.' "

The majority of the crowd, estimated between 25,000 and 28,000, came from the Philadelphia area to see the induction of Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt and outfielder Richie Ashburn. Other inductees included Cecil County native Vic Willis, a turn-of-the-century pitcher, National League executive William Hulbert and broadcaster Bob Wolff.

Schmidt made news with his speech, plugging for the induction of former Phillies team mate Pete Rose.

The Philly crowd periodically chanted, "We want Pete!"

The chants drew no apparent reaction from the 30 previously elected Hall of Famers who sat near Schmidt. However, the Associated Press reported that one of Rose's former Cincinnati Reds teammates, Johnny Bench, was heard responding, "You can have him," to the chant.

"I hope someday soon Pete Rose will be standing right here," Schmidt, wearing the uniform number, 14, of baseball's all-time hit leader on his lapel, told the crowd. "I know that you all agree with me on that one."

Rose was declared ineligible for allegedly betting on baseball.

Day, a pitcher, second baseman and outfielder mostly with the Negro National League's Newark Eagles, had been eligible for induction since the early 1970s.

That's when a committee drew up a list of 25 possible Negro leaguers for induction. At the time of his election, Day was the last living candidate on the list.

His former Eagles teammate, Monte Irvin, compared Day to St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson.

"I would compare him very favorably with Bob," Irvin said, "and if Bob had seen him play, he'd be very proud to be compared with Leon Day."

Day was a consistent .300 hitter but made his mark as the Eagles' ace pitcher. He appeared in a record seven Negro league all-star games.

One night at Baltimore's Bugle Field, Day struck out a Negro National League record 18 Baltimore Elite Giants. He returned from military service in 1946 and pitched an Opening Day no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars.

"He'd say, 'Give me one run,' " Irvin said, "and if you didn't get it for him, he'd get it himself."

Day refused to brag about his accomplishments and likely impeded his chances of getting into the Hall of Fame. "If he had a fault, it's that he was too quiet," Irvin said. "You didn't know he was there unless you called on him."

The more flamboyant Satchel Paige, a legendary pitcher with the Kansas City Monarchs, was the first Negro leaguer elected, in 1971. Day won three of his four recorded meetings with Paige.

One of those victories came in the 1942 Negro League World Series. Trailing the Monarchs three games to one, the Homestead Grays brought in Day to pitch against Paige. Day won, but the game was replayed because the Grays had used a ringer.

Hitters feared facing Day. "You didn't hit the ball hard," Stars infielder Stanley Glenn said, "because if you did, he was going to hit you the next time around." Day even knocked down his teammate, Irvin, when they played against each other in Puerto Rico in 1941.

That didn't diminish Irvin's admiration for him.

"Nine out of 10 times, he came through," Irvin said.

Irvin's only recollection of a Day failure was when Day tried to slip an 0-2 fastball past Grays slugging catcher Josh Gibson. A 1972 Hall of Fame inductee, Gibson hit a three-run homer that afternoon and defeated Day and Eagles.

Day was not deterred, according to Irvin: "All he said was, 'He got me this time, but I'll get him the next one.' "

Day began receiving serious Hall of Fame consideration in 1989. That year, he came up one vote short because Roy Campanella, a former Elite Giants catcher, was ill and could not vote.

Irvin, a member of the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee along with Campanella, made a big push for Day's induction. Buck O'Neil, the star of Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary, replaced the late Campanella on the committee and joined the campaign.

Irvin was seated on the podium with the other Hall of Famers. O'Neil, a former Monarchs first baseman who is not a Hall of Famer, sat in the audience in a green suit and beamed before the ceremony.

"This is special day for me, this is a special day for Monte, this is a special day for all the Negro league baseball players still living," O'Neil said. "One of our own is making it into the Hall of Fame."

Day was the first Negro leaguer inducted since his late Eagles teammate, Ray Dandridge, in 1987. He was the second Hall of Famer to die between his election and his induction. Pitcher Eppa Rixey was the first, in 1963.

Day's death almost prevented his family from realizing the rest of his dream. At first, the Hall of Fame balked at giving them his ring.

Rings are given only to living inductees, but Stack convinced the board to make an exception in Day's case. According to Hall of Fame officials, Geraldine Day was due to receive the ring at a private, post-induction dinner.

"Leon had visions of this day," Geraldine said. "He told me about his dream."

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