Bus to Cooperstown bridges two worlds


Segregation in professional baseball produced two different leagues with two different modes of travel. White major-leaguers usually traveled by train. In the Negro leagues, teams traversed the country by bus, playing as many as 200 games a year.

They called it barnstorming, and it was a way of life for Leon Day. A pitcher, outfielder and second baseman, Day grew up in the Mount Winans section of Southwest Baltimore. He died on March 13, six days after becoming the 12th Negro leagues star elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Leon Day missed his last bus ride.

About 40 former Negro leaguers are making the trip for him, including a handful who left Baltimore by bus early Saturday morning bound for Cooperstown, where Day will be inducted today along with Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt, Phillies center fielder Richie Ashburn, National League founder William Hulbert and turn-of-the-century pitcher Vic Willis.

"I'm definitely looking forward to this," said Hyattsville's Gordon Hopkins, who played with the Indianapolis Clowns from 1952 to 1954. "This is not only a great day for us but also for history, for society, for all the things we worked for and got out and tried and tested. Leon's induction into the Hall of Fame is really a proof of the pudding."

Hopkins and five other players rode up on the bus sponsored by WJZ and the Orioles, one of three air-conditioned buses that carried about 75 people from Baltimore to Cooperstown. It was a far cry from their barnstorming rides through Southern towns that refused to feed or lodge them. The players made this trip in style.

"Of course, you had to sleep and eat on the bus," recalled Columbia's Bert Simmons, 71, who played for the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1950. "You couldn't pull up and say, 'We'll sleep here all night.' We just kept going."

Hopkins, who in addition to playing for the Indianapolis Clowns barnstormed with a bearded band of white semi-pros known as the House of David, said the worse the team, the worse the LTC travel.

"They didn't have no such thing as air conditioning," Hopkins said. "If you were riding in Texas, you couldn't get no air, anyway. You hoped the night would hurry up and come. You knew when you got to Georgia because the roads were bad."

There were other problems.

"It was rough," said Vincent Lee, 86, of Pimlico. "I remember when I was with the Syracuse Red Caps through Tennessee, we ran out of gas. We played us a team that wouldn't give us no money or nothing. Gas wasn't but 11 cents a gallon then."

Bus travel became popular in the Negro leagues in the early 1930s. Most teams bought makeshift school buses and painted their names on the side.

The players referred to these buses with derisive nicknames. The Elite Giants called their first bus the Gundolian. Day and his Newark Eagle teammates dubbed theirs The Blue Goose. They passed the time by playing cards, telling jokes and singing songs.

Day, former teammate Max Manning recalled, possessed a beautiful tenor voice. The soft-spoken pitcher liked to sit in the third row of the bus on the aisle. His teammates rarely heard his voice unless he harmonized with them.

He did his talking on the field.

Best known as a fireballing, short-arm delivery pitcher, Day appeared in a record seven Negro league all-star games, won three of his four recorded meetings against legendary Kansas City Monarchs pitcher Satchel Paige and struck out a Negro National League record 18 batters one night at Baltimore's Bugle Field.

Although the statistics on the Negro leagues are incomplete, historians and former players estimate that Day won close to 300 games as a pitcher and was a consistent .300 hitter.

Day spent the war years overseas in a segregated unit that participated in the Normandy invasion. Day said he wasn't the same pitcher after the war. He threw a four-hitter against a service team that included several white major-league servicemen before 50,000 at Germany's Nuremberg Stadium. He returned to the Negro National League in 1946 and pitched a no-hitter on Opening Day against the Philadelphia Stars. An arm injury that season curtailed his pitching career.

A quiet, humble man who did not like to brag about his accomplishments, Day learned that he had been elected to the Hall while at St. Agnes Hospital. Manning gave him the good news. Six days later, Day, 78, died of heart and kidney ailments. Manning said Day died happy.

"Leon, he's a unique kind of a person," said Manning, who is flying to Cooperstown from his home in Montclair, N.J. "It meant enough to know he was in. The actual ceremony didn't have that much meaning for him."

Manning made many bus rides with Day as teammates on the Eagles. The team got an air-conditioned, commercial bus with reclining seats in 1946. The Elites bought a similar model around the same time.

"I like to talk about it," Manning said. "It puts pictures in my head. I can see everybody on the bus. It brings back some nice memories for me."

The Negro league players busing from Baltimore to Cooperstown are reliving those memories, through the induction ceremony, through the recognition bestowed on Day. They rode the buses, too. In many ways, Day's induction is as much their honor too.

"It's more special for me to see a black person come out of the Negro National League and get into the Hall of Fame than to have a black person come out of the major leagues and get into the Hall of Fame," said Perry Hall's Ernest Burke, 71, who played for the Elite Giants in 1947 and 1948.

For Burke, Hopkins, Lee, Simmons and Elbert Israel of Rockville, it will be one last, long bus ride. Six hours to Cooperstown. A trip that Day did not live to make but that these other Negro leaguers could not live without.

"I figure that they didn't recognize black baseball for so many years; a lot of people don't recognize it now," Burke said. "For Leon to be put in the Hall of Fame, it's just amazing."

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