Honoring a Baltimore hero and baseball legend

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Little Leaguers at Leon Day Park in Baltimore. (All photos courtesy Michelle Freeman.)

As Christmas approaches and the happy holiday season continues, I wanted to put up a post about something good, something positive, something inspiring, and fortunately, my friend, fellow SABR member and Malloy Conference-goer Michelle Freeman was glad and eager to help out. 🙂

Michelle is the head of the Baltimore-based Leon Day Foundation, which honors the legendary Hall of Fame pitcher and his legacy by doing a whole bunch of good in the local community. And, seeing as how we’re less than a year away from what would have been Mr. Day’s 100th birthday, Michelle was gracious enough to submit the following article about the organization …

By Michelle R. Freeman, President
The Leon Day Foundation, Inc.

The Leon Day Foundation, Inc., was founded in 2001 by Mrs. Geraldine Day, widow of the late Leon Day, Negro Leagues pitcher and member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Leon Day Foundation is a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization dedicated to the education and preservation of the legacies of Leon Day and the Negro Leagues. The Foundation’s purpose is to give recognition and exposure to a group of talented baseball players who were never acknowledged. The Foundation is 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.

Prior to the founding of the organization, Leon Day’s memory and legacy were firmly cemented in Baltimore. In 1995, then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke renamed the Eutaw Street Plaza entrance to Oriole Park at Camden Yards the “Leon Day Way.” On Aug. 23, 1997, Mayor Schmoke renamed the former “Bloomsbury Oval,” a meadows/playground along the Gwynn Falls Trail, to “Leon Day Oval.” It is most commonly referred to as Leon Day Park.

Leon Day became the first Negro League player in Baltimore to have a city park named in his honor. This park has been a source of pride for families in the Rosemont/Franklintown community. The park received funding from Peter Angelos, majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles. Mr. Angelos provided funding for the baseball diamonds, basketball courts, playground, lighting system, dugouts and the viewing stands.

The park is also the host of the annual Leon Day Festival. This festival is usually held the second Saturday of June and provides an opportunity for families in the neighborhood to come together for a day of celebration, food, baseball games and fellowship. In 2013, the community center at Leon Day Park was dedicated in the memory of the late Mrs. Betty Hawkins. Mrs. Hawkins was a charter member of the Leon Day Foundation, Inc. and a community organizer in the Rosemont/Franklintown neighborhood. In 2013, a new mound was built at Leon Day Park. It was dedicated by the late Al Burrows, another Negro Leagues player.

Leon Day was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995. He was the 12th Negro League player selected. Many of the records he established during his career still stand today: a record-setting seven appearances by a pitcher in the East-West All-Star Game; strikeout record in a game (18); strikeout record in the East-West All-Star Game (14); and the strikeout record in Puerto Rico (19).

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Leon Day’s winning percentage as a pitcher was .708 and he consistently hit over .300. He was widely regarded as the best fielding pitcher in the Negro Leagues. In his career, he played every position except catcher. In 1937, as a member of the Newark Eagles, he was 13-0 on the mound and hit .320 with eight home runs. In 1942-43, he was named the best pitcher in the Negro Leagues. In 1946, after serving two years in the military, he pitched an opening-day no hitter against the Philadelphia Stars.

Why is Baltimore a center of Leon Day remembrance? Leon Day was born on Oct. 30, 1916 in Alexandria, Va. His family moved to Baltimore when we was six months old and settled in the Mt. Winans community. He was discovered playing baseball in the sandlots of Baltimore. He began his professional baseball career in 1934 with the Baltimore Black Sox. He is considered a son of Baltimore, and the foundation seeks to do its part to preserve his legacy.

Through the years, the foundation has sponsored various little league teams and a football team, as well as supported the baseball team at Carver Vo-Tech High School. Currently, the foundation sponsors the Yankees of the James Mosher Little League. This is a team for 9 to 12 year olds.

In 2014, the foundation established the Leon Day 10th Man Award. This award is given annually to a senior baseball player at Carver Vo-Tech High School. This award recognizes the player who best embodies the spirit and legacy of Leon Day. This player exemplifies the best in sportsmanship in conduct both on and off the baseball field. This player captures the “warrior” spirit that was the essence of Leon Day. The winner receives a trophy as well as a small monetary scholarship.

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The foundation is currently developing curriculum for a teen-mentoring program. This idea developed due to the unrest in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray. This program will teach high school aged kids to serve as mentors in their schools.

The foundation is also committed to a better Baltimore. Our community partners include Docs in the Park, the KJM Youth Foundation, the James Mosher Little League, the Friends of Gwynn Falls Trail, the SABR Baltimore Babe Ruth Chapter, Bundy Films LLC, the Baseball Factory Foundation, the Epsilon Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Omega Baltimore, and the Hubert V. Simmons Negro Leagues Museum of Maryland.

The Foundation underwrites the Carver-Vo Tech High School Bears signature program’s Baseball Tuesdays and is active in their capital campaign to raise funds for a new baseball field in West Baltimore that would serve the Carver Bears and the baseball team of Coppin State University. Past projects include Sandlot Saturdays, a six-week program teaching baseball fundamentals to kids in the Rosemont/Franklintown community at Leon Day Park.

Throughout his career, Leon Day played for teams such as the Baltimore Black Sox, the Brooklyn Eagles, the Newark Eagles and the Baltimore Elite Giants. He played baseball in Puerto Rico, Mexico and Canada. He played briefly in the minor leagues during 1951-52. He would retire from baseball in 1955 and settle in Baltimore. Drs. Robert and Zohara Hieronimus successfully led a campaign to have Leon Day inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. On March 7, 1995, he received the call that he had been elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sadly, he would pass away six days later on March 13, 1995.

Leon Day has been enshrined in the Puerto Rico Baseball Hall of Fame (1994), the Newark, N.J., Jersey Sports Hall of Fame (1993) and the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame (2002). A nomination was recently submitted to the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame. In 2016, the foundation will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Leon Day’s birth with a series of events during the year.

The Leon Day Foundation, Inc. is committed to preserving the legacy of Leon Day and all of the unsung heroes of Negro Leagues baseball. We are committed to creating opportunities to engage kids with baseball in West Baltimore. To learn more about the foundation, follow them on Twitter @leonday park and on Facebook here. Emails can be sent to the foundation at leondaypark@gmail.com.

Many, many thanks to Michelle for being willing to write such a wonderful piece for this blog, and for everything the Leon Day Foundation does to better the Baltimore community. Happy Holidays to all!

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2 thoughts on “Honoring a Baltimore hero and baseball legend

  1. I am the founder and President of the Judy Johnson Memorial Foundation and am a friend of Geraldine Day. The Judy Johnson Memorial Foundation has promoted 20 consecutive yearly Negro League Tributes in Wilmington, Delaware at Frawley Stadium, the home ball field of the Wilmington Blue Rocks, a Class A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. I wish to have the Leon Day Foundation keep me apprised of the various activities that they promote.

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