A Day to celebrate: Park honors player from Negro League

West Baltimore site has ball fields, track after 4 years of work

June 11, 2000|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Geraldine Day will never forget the question her husband, Leon, asked several years ago after returning from a park dedication in East Orange, N.J.

"He said to me, `Baby, I wonder will Baltimore ever name a park for me,'" she said yesterday.

"I said, `Maybe, maybe they will.'"

Yesterday, the grand opening was held for Leon Day Park in the Rosemont/Franklintown neighborhood in West Baltimore.

Day, a former pitcher in the Negro League, died in Baltimore in March 1995, six days after learning he had been elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Day, who died at age 78, holds the record for the most strikeouts in a Negro League game (18); had a winning pitching percentage of .708; consistently hit over .300; and played every position except catcher.

He was named best pitcher in the league during the 1942-1943 season; beat fellow Hall of Famer Satchel Paige four out of five games; and on Opening Day in 1946 pitched a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars.

During his 22-year baseball career, Day played for the Baltimore Black Sox, the Brooklyn Eagles and the Baltimore Elite Giants.

He also played in the minor leagues from 1950-1954, in the Venezuelan and Mexican leagues and in the military.

His widow, who lives in Southwest Baltimore, attended yesterday's ceremony, as did several former Negro League players, city officials, NFL Hall of Famer and former Baltimore Colts great Lenny Moore, former Orioles outfielder and now farm director Don Buford and Orioles second baseman Delino DeShields.

"It feels good just to tell all of these guys, `Thank you,'" DeShields said between autographs yesterday.

"That's really why I started wearing my uniform the way they did, my socks are high, my uniform is baggy," DeShields said. "At the time, I never really thought I'd get a chance to meet these guys."

DeShields said he appreciates what former Negro League players such as Day, Ernest Burke, Gordon Hopkins, Jim Cohen, Wilmer Fields, Jim Robinson, Jim Carter, Maxwell Manning, Herbert "Bert" Simmons, Leroy "Toots" Farrell and Mamie "Peanut" Johnson did for him and other black Major League players.

Though he played a different sport, Moore, too, said he appreciates the Negro League players and what they did.

"A lot of these guys never got to play professionally in the league that everybody recognizes, but they paved the way for me," Moore said.

"They were out there taking their blows, playing professionally and hoping that things would open up for them," he said.

James "Pee Wee" Jenkins, who pitched for the New York Cubans, and Bob Scott, who pitched and played first base for the New York Black Yankees, said they think some black Major Leaguers fail to recognize the accomplishments of Negro League players.

"It's lost with quite a few young players because they don't understand what it means for someone to build a bridge for someone to cross," said Scott, 69, who played from 1946-1950.

But both men said they were honored to be in Baltimore yesterday for the opening of a park named after Day.

"This is real great," said Jenkins, 77. "I'm glad I was invited here. I hope the kids will appreciate it and not tear it up."

The 15-acre park off Franklintown Road has a new red, yellow and blue jungle gym, six new basketball goals, a baseball field, a softball field and a cricketfield. There is a fourth field at the park that can be used for soccer and football, and it also has a half-mile track.

"We don't have too many of these nice parks in the city," said Aaron Davis, 14, a incoming freshman at Walbrook High School, who plays shortstop and center field for the James Mosher Astros.

Aaron and several teammates talked about some of the hardships Negro League players faced decades ago.

"They couldn't play with white people," said Jonathan Everett, 14, an incoming freshman at Woodlawn High School.

Terrance Arter, 15, an incoming freshman at Edmondson High, added: "They had a hard time because they had to deal with racism."

None of that seemed to matter yesterday, as the former players signed autographs, posed for pictures and reminisced.

For Louis C. Fields, the day couldn't have been better.

Fields, the executive director of the Baltimore African-American Tourism Council, began trying to get a park named for Day shortly after the death of the former ballplayer.

"This was four years in the making," Fields said. "I'm very happy this day finally got here."

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