Take me out to the Leon Day Park Hundreds celebrate dedication of 15 acres in late ballplayer's honor

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Several hundred people gathered yesterday to honor Leon Day, the late Negro League and Hall of Fame pitcher at the dedication of a Baltimore park renamed for him.

The dedication included $100,000 contributed by the Baltimore Orioles to help pay for a baseball field at Leon Day Park, 15 acres in West Baltimore off Franklintown Road and Ellamont Street, the former Bloomingdale Oval Park.

Day -- who died in 1995 at age 78, six days after he was voted into baseball's Hall of Fame -- lived up the street from the park for 17 years and often played ball in the small field there, neighbors said. A humble man, Day never liked to talk about his accomplishments. Some say that's why he didn't get much attention.

Geraldine Day, 58, the baseball player's widow, hopes yesterday's celebration and the sign at the park's entrance that honors the pitcher will change that.

"It'll be great for Baltimore, especially the kids," she said.

"If they would read up on the Negro League players and what they had to do in order to play the game they loved, that would do a lot for the kids."

By spring, his grass-and-dirt baseball field will be a state-of-the-art facility, complete with bleachers and lights. The Orioles' donation and a matching $100,000 from the Trust for Public Land, a private nonprofit conservation group, and the Parks & People Foundation will pay for the construction. Plans for the park include fields for cricket, soccer and football, as well as a meeting room and picnic area.

On hand for yesterday's speeches and ribbon-cutting was Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, flanked by City Council members, Orioles outfielder Eric Davis and a dozen former Negro League players.

The ceremony turned into a big block party. The festivities included food, a visit by the Oriole Bird, autograph signings by Negro League players and -- of course -- baseball games.

And through it all, those who knew Day reminisced about what a great person he was.

"He wasn't only a baseball player, he was a beautiful black man," said Leroy "Toots" Ferrell, who played with Day in the late 1940s for the Baltimore Elite Giants.

"I was only 19 years old when I met him," Ferrell said. "He was like a father figure for me."

Added Ernest Burke, a Giants pitcher from 1946 to 1948: "Words cannot express about the man. Everything he done was wonderful."

Day stood out as a baseball player, too, holding the record for strikeouts for one game -- 18 -- in the Negro National League. He was also a consistent .300 hitter.

In the 1950s, he didn't even try to make the major leagues.

"He told me he wasn't good enough," said Geraldine Day. "He had lost [the throwing strength in] his arm. He said he loved the game too good to get out there and look bad."

That humble attitude was the way he was, said Todd Bolton, a friend who took Leon Day to card signing shows during the player's later years.

"He was very reluctant to talk about his accomplishments in baseball," said Bolton, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. "He'd want to tell you about everybody else. It was like pulling teeth to get him to talk about himself."

Day's self-effacing personality might have been the reason he just didn't get the tributes other players did, Bolton said. He thinks renaming the park for Day is an honor that's delightful -- but overdue.

"A lot of things for him, unfortunately, came too late," he said.

Pub Date: 8/24/97

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