Fame and misfortune Geraldine Day: Leon Day died before he could reap the benefits of his Baseball Hall of Fame induction, and now the Negro leagues star's widow is struggling to pay her bills and deal with her declining health.

February 07, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Geraldine Day stood in front of the crowd in Cooperstown, N.Y., in the summer of 1995 and read an emotional speech on the day her late husband, Negro leagues pitcher Leon Day, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

She remembers that day vividly. Her husband of 30 years had died of heart failure that March, six days after learning of his election to the Hall. She had to give his acceptance speech, while dealing with his loss and the feeling "that Leon had somehow been cheated."

It seemed all their lives they had struggled, financially and physically. And, now, when he finally had been recognized for his accomplishments in the Negro leagues of the 1930s and '40s, when his past glory might finally bring some new income, Leon died and left Geraldine to continue the fight.

On that induction day, she says, she felt uplifted, believing that her husband was appreciated and that she, too, was someone special.

The next day, Geraldine returned to Baltimore and found life had not changed at all.

"It was right back to the same old struggle," she said, not complaining really, just facing the truth.

The struggle is trying to make ends meet on her take-home pay of about $190 a week from her job at Weyerhaeuser Paper Co. in Dorsey. The company's health insurance plan pays 80 percent of her medical costs, and she gets assistance from a Major League Baseball health insurance fund, but still she is left with several thousand dollars' worth of doctors' bills a year.

Geraldine is 57, a survivor of bladder cancer. Although her cancer is in remission, her health continues to decline. She has intestinal problems, just one kidney and a stomach in such distress that her doctor says it will have to be removed in the next few years.

"Geraldine needs help," said Todd Bolton, a longtime friend of Leon's and Geraldine's. "Geraldine is not a complainer. She's a kind, decent, caring person who barely makes minimum wage. Her health is deteriorating, and she can't make ends meet by herself."

And so, there will be a benefit for Geraldine on Feb. 15 at Overlea Caterers, 6809 Belair Rd. Tickets are $75 apiece. Former Negro leagues stars and members of the Orioles are expected to attend, and there will be silent and live auctions of Negro leagues and major-league memorabilia.

Joe Black, a former teammate of Leon's and a member of the Baseball Assistance Team board of directors, which also helps Geraldine, said he is worried that the high price of the ticket will shut out many of the people who know her and who would help if given a chance. He also wondered how much of the ticket price actually will go to helping Leon's widow.

Bob Hieronimus, the radio personality who is organizing the benefit, also has been concerned about the ticket price, but said he was forced to set it at a substantial level because of the event's costs.

"The first $10,000 we take in goes for the hall and the food," Hieronimus said. "We've now sold more than 120 tickets, which means the expenses are [just about] covered and everything taken in from here on will go directly to Geraldine."

Hieronimus said the money will be used to pay Geraldine's medical bills and to create a trust fund for her.

When Leon was alive, Bolton, his longtime friend in Smithsburg, would take him to baseball memorabilia shows to make an extra $400 or $500 a month to help with such things as car insurance and medical costs. When Day was elected to the Hall, an appearance schedule was in the works that would have brought the family $75,000. But when Day died, so did the financial opportunities.

There is no Major League Baseball retirement package for widows of Negro leagues players. A recent vote by major-league owners to pay pensions to two dozen or so former Negro leagues players does not help widows like Geraldine. Even for major-league players who retired before 1947, there is no pension fund.

Max Manning, a friend and former teammate of Leon's, sighs heavily when asked about Geraldine.

"Physically, she isn't able to do as much as she has in the past," Manning said from his home in New Jersey. "And she's struggled a long time. She's a very religious woman, and she feels it's her lot to struggle. Anyone who has gone through what she has would consider themselves self-sufficient. But the time comes when you have to reach out for help."

The Baseball Assistance Team, which helps Day by paying her $480-a-month rent and by issuing her a monthly check for $200 to help with auto insurance, is an arm of Major League Baseball, but is not funded by it.

Black said BAT is supported by donations from major companies and individuals. BAT accepted 99 cases to help last year, he said.

"We basically get our money from a benefit dinner and from begging people to contribute," Black said. "And what we do for others is not made public. We do not want to embarrass anyone we help. There is a lot of pride involved."

Black, who said he hopes the benefit for Day goes well, said he is disappointed in the way it is being presented.

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