Schmuck: Geraldine Day honors late husband, Hall of Famer Leon at Negro League Day

Geraldine Day celebrated late husband Leon's 100th birthday early by throwing out the first pitch Saturday.

Geraldine Day was in her early 20s when she met her late husband Leon in 1960, but it was another two years before she was aware that he had been one of the greatest pitchers in the history of Negro leagues baseball.

She wasn't a baseball fan back then, obviously, but she has made up for lost time over the past half century, during which she learned the game in front of the television with Leon and developed into one of the Orioles' most faithful fans.

So, it was quite a big deal to throw out the ceremonial first pitch Saturday night at Oriole Park to honor her late husband during the year he would have turned 100 and on the second Saturday in May, which was designated seven years ago by the state as Negro League Day in Maryland.

"All of it is a thrill," she said. "It's really a thrill and it's nice that the Orioles are honoring him, because he was the first black Negro leagues player that lived in Baltimore that was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame."

Leon Day was born in Virginia, but he grew up in Baltimore before embarking on a Negro leagues career that began with his rookie season as a member of the Baltimore Black Sox in 1934 and ended after his second season with the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1950.

He passed away in 1995 — the year he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame — and his widow has spent the past couple of decades making sure he will never be forgotten.

That same year, Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke renamed the Eutaw Street Plaza entrance to Camden Yards "Leon Day Way" and in 1997, presided over the renaming of a park in West Baltimore in Day's honor. Orioles owner Peter Angelos provided the funding for the baseball diamonds, dugouts, basketball courts, playground and lighting system at Leon Day Park.

Four years later, Geraldine Day, 77, formed the Leon Day Foundation Inc., which is — according to its mission statement — "about kids and baseball; and the fierce urgency of connecting the two; we do this by making baseball history 'relevant and exciting' and by playing baseball."

"Leon was interested in helping kids, to keep them off the street," Geraldine Day said. "We did have a Little League called the Leon Day League and now we're trying to bring it back up again, and help kids by giving them scholarships for school."

Day's actual 100th birthday is Oct. 30, but the Orioles decided to celebrate it during "Play Ball Weekend," and invited 150 kids from the Baltimore City Parks and Recreation League programs to attend the game between the Orioles and Detroit Tigers.

The Leon Day Foundation also supports youth baseball instruction in Baltimore City and, among other projects, has been a big supporter of the baseball program at Carver Vo-Tech High School.

"They've got a park. … That's pretty cool," said Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who has been vocal in promoting awareness of Negro leagues baseball. "They've got a park, a Little League, a lot of stuff. They stood for something."

Baseball fans don't have to go to Cooperstown or the impressive Negro leagues baseball Museum in Kansas City to get a sense of Day's career. He also is featured prominently in the Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro Leagues Baseball in the Owings Mills branch of the Baltimore County Public Library.

Still, manager Buck Showalter encourages his players — both African American and white — to visit the museum in Kansas City, which essentially is the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame, though most of the great Negro league players have been enshrined at Cooperstown.

"I think baseball has done a good job of making our guys aware of that [history], and not just the black guys. … They're aware of it," Showalter said. "I think everybody should be aware of it. I'm proud we're honoring him. He was a great player."

Relief pitcher Darren O'Day said Friday that there is something to be learned from the Negro leagues baseball experience for everyone who plays the game, regardless of race.

"There were a lot of good ballplayers who didn't get to play at the highest level because of the color of their skin, which is a silly qualification to be able to play baseball," O'Day said. "I can't say I've studied Negro League history, but I always want to hear about it and learn about it and be reminded of where we came from. Now, we have guys from all corners of the globe, all different skin colors and three, four or five languages being spoken on a team. It's pretty cool where our game has progressed to."

Geraldine Day said she had a pretty good idea what Leon would say if he knew she was going to throw out the first pitch in his honor at an Orioles game.

"He would say, 'Get the ball to the catcher, Geraldine. Just get the ball to the catcher,'" she said before heading out to the mound, "and I hope I do."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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