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Hall of Famer Leon Day's 100th birthday celebrated at Babe Ruth Museum

Happy 100th birthday to former Negro Leagues Baseball great and Hall of Fame honoree Leon Day.

Saturday in Baltimore was a blue-sky, soft-breezes, 70-degree, short-sleeves, glad to be alive day. The Hall of Fame pitcher Leon Day would have thought it a perfect day to play baseball.

It was also ideal for celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Day, a former Baltimorean and stalwart of Negro Leagues baseball. About five dozen of Day's friends, family members and admirers gathered at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum to sing a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday," reminisce and raise money for causes dear to Day's heart.

The event included a raffle for an iPad Mini and the chance to purchase 60 lots of collectibles, including replica Negro Leagues baseball uniforms.

Separately, an auction featured a commemorative bat signed by Day, former Orioles great Brooks Robinson and late New York Giants' star outfielder Monte Irvin. A calling card once owned by Leon and Geraldine Day could be purchased for $1. The starting bid was $500 for a card bearing the autograph of pitching legend Satchel Paige.

Michelle Freeman, president of the Leon Day Foundation, said 25 percent of the proceeds will be directed toward ensuring the futures of two youth baseball teams: the Yankees, who play in the James Mosher Baseball League, and the Carver Vocational Technical High School Bears.

The remaining 75 percent raised Saturday will be used to help Day's widow defray medical expenses.

Now 78, Geraldine Day is a survivor of bladder cancer and has one kidney left. Though her husband is acknowledged as a baseball star of the first magnitude, he was never able to capitalize financially on his talents.

"Because Leon Day was not allowed to play in the major leagues, Geraldine Day doesn't receive a major league pension," Freeman said. "She survives on the kindness of strangers."

As a pitcher, Day was known for having defeated Paige a stunning three times. But when it came to making the kind of money earned by his white counterparts, Day had three strikes against him: he never made it to the major leagues, was elected to the Hall of Fame too late and he gave away valuable personal possessions.

Day had been nominated to the Hall of Fame many times before he received the nod in 1995. Two years earlier he had missed being elected by just one vote because one of his staunchest advocates, the catcher Roy Campanella, was ill that day.

By the time Day made it into the Hall of Fame, he was just six days from dying — and thereby unable to take advantage of the lucrative endorsement contracts that his agent had lined up.

In addition, Day freely gave away items — such as his old glove — that might have fetched up to six figures in today's market.

"Leon Day was a warrior," Bob Kendrick, president of The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, told the group. "He was also unbelievably humble and gracious. He loved kids, and he loved baseball."

Attendees nibbled on such standard ballpark fare as chicken wings and hot dogs and cut a cake featuring Day's likeness. But mostly, they told stories.

Some tales were about how tough the players had to be in the old Negro Leagues.

"There were different rules," said Bob Hieronimus, a longtime friend of Day's who donated his personal baseball collection to the fundraiser.

"Spiking another player was legal in the Negro Leagues. Any kind of pitch was fair, and some pitchers froze their baseballs. Each team only had 13 players, so each person had to play more than one position. It was more like football than baseball."

They told stories about Day's prowess on the field.

Kendrick said that though Day made it into the Hall of Fame as a pitcher, knowledgeable insiders think that Day was even greater playing center field. He recalled "the wondrous, diving catch" Day made that won the 1946 Negro World Series, when the Newark Eagles defeated the Kansas City Monarchs.

There were stories about the time that Day was among a group of Negro League ballplayers who visited the White House in 1992 at the invitation of President George H.W. Bush.

"President Bush graciously invited them into the Oval Office," Hieronimus recalled.

"Some of the players acted like big shots and even put their feet up on his desk. But, the President loved it. He just laughed."

Geraldine Day recalled that when her husband courted her in the late 1950s, he was such a gentleman and treated her so well that she quickly forgot the two-decade difference in their ages.

"I miss him so much," she said.

"I have no words to express what this event would mean to him. I can't wait for it to be over so I can go to the cemetery and tell Leon all about it."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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