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Negro Leagues museum a big hit at Owings Mills library branch

As he counts down the days until the second Saturday in May, Rayner "Ray" Banks' excitement level skyrockets.

And that's because this year, on May 13, it will be Negro Baseball Leagues Day in Maryland, a designation that Banks and some of his other close friends helped to implement.

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There would be no better way to celebrate the event than by heading to the Owings Mills branch of the Baltimore County Public Library at the Owings Mills Metro Centre Complex, where Banks' other labor of love — the Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro Leagues Baseball — has occupied parts of the lobbies on three floors since 2014.

The 54,300-square-foot library, which opened in March 2013, shares the building with the Community College of Baltimore County.

"Oh my gosh, the museum is just fabulous," said Barbara Salit-Mischel, the library's branch manager. "The exhibits are so well done. There's so much to learn, which makes for a great synergy between the museum and the library. We like to work together with them, and Ray is just such a wonderful man. He's a walking encyclopedia on the Negro Leagues."

Simmons, who died in 2014, was a former Negro League player befriended by Banks and was an inspiration for the museum, which is free and open to the public for self-guided tours during normal library hours.

Although Banks, 70, who is black, grew up in Baltimore, he never attended a Negro Leagues game of either local franchise, the Baltimore Black Sox or the Baltimore Elite Giants.

For one thing, by the time he was old enough to watch the Negro Leagues, the St. Louis Browns moved east to become the Baltimore Orioles of the American League in 1954.

Besides, with the color barrier having been hurdled by Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, more and more African-Americans were on major-league teams, including former Negro Leagues player Jehosie Heard of the Orioles.

Still, being an avid baseball fan, Banks was always interested in just about anything associated with the sport.

Owing to his friendship with Simmons, Banks became deeply involved in the idea of preserving and promoting the rich history of the Negro Leagues and the dazzling array of star African-American players during the days when Jim Crow laws were enforced in Maryland and institutionalized segregation was a way of life.

That's why Banks deems May 13 such an important date.

"I pray that everyone will celebrate Negro League Day in the State of Maryland," Banks said. "Let's all keep the Negro League legacy alive."

Banks has been doing his part since meeting the wife of Leon Day at a park dedication in 1996, a year after the Negro Leagues legend's death and induction into the national baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

"I was sitting home watching TV when I heard about something in reference to a Negro League player," Banks said about meeting Geraldine Day at the event. "I knew very little about the Negro Leagues until I met her. After she told me who she was, I asked if I could do anything to keep her husband's legacy alive. In addition in meeting Mrs. Day, I was amazed at all of the Negro League players who had come out to be part of the dedication. I was like a kid in a candy store. From that point on, Mrs. Day and I became the best of friends."

Banks met Simmons, nicknamed "Bert," around the same time and, he said, their friendship blossomed as well.

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Because of his lifelong devotion to a sport he played as a student at Dunbar High School in East Baltimore, and because of his later association with Simmons and Day, Banks accumulated an abundance of Negro Leagues-oriented memorabilia throughout the years that he still exhibits at schools, recreation centers and other sites — sometimes as far away as North Carolina — to spread the word about an important part of sports lore.

"Ray is a champion among champions as an ambassador for the Negro Leagues," said his close friend, Melvin Stukes, who represented the 44th legislative district in the Maryland House of Delegates and now is a customer service investigator for the Maryland Transit Administration.

In 2008, Banks and Simmons headed a group to search for a permanent site for a Negro Leagues museum.

They worked tirelessly to find a spot and eventually the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum set up at the Lochearn Presbyterian Church in September 2009, although the space was small and it was open by appointment only.

Still seeking more room to display his bounty of Negro Leagues historical artifacts, Banks was ecstatic when Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz was invited to a fundraiser and vowed to find an appropriate site for the museum.

"He showed up, and he said he would help us," Banks said. "Kevin Kamenetz made this happen."

Not only did the county chip in $125,000 for the project, it donated the space in the sparkling new library as well to showcase a variety of cutout vintage photos, historical graphics, banners, uniform jerseys, balls, bats, gloves, pennants and figurines.

Kamenetz's admiration of Banks continued when in 2016 he presented the museum co-founder with the Louis S. Diggs Award, which honors those who make significant contributions to African-American life in Baltimore County.

"The Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro Leagues Baseball is a real Baltimore County treasure," Kamenetz said. "In February of 2016, we recognized museum founder Ray Banks as the one of the first recipients of the Louis S. Diggs Award, and it's hard to think of someone more deserving of this recognition. What Mr. Banks has done in creating the museum is nothing short of amazing. It is a must-see stop in Baltimore County."

Banks said that about 85 percent of the items in the displays came from his collection.

"Ray Banks is an angel, and I mean that in the best possible way," said Bob Hieronimus, co-host of 21st Century Radio and a proponent of the Negro Leagues museum. "He works his you-know-what off to keep the Negro Leagues history alive."



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