August 1, 2004

Baseball legacy lives on

Festival: An annual event reminds fans about the character of the Negro leagues' Leon Day.

By Sarah Schaffer
Sun Staff

August 1, 2004

It was muggy and hot, and their audience was scant.

But yesterday morning, members of the Charm City Challengers dance troupe were most definitely ready for showtime.

Decked out in smart white uniforms with red and gold trim, the sparkly and sequined teenagers left the parking lot of a West Baltimore school and stepped out to take part in the 5th Annual Leon Day Festival.

Their parade route along Poplar Grove Street was short, and the summer heat was becoming nearly unbearable. But the vibrant procession danced, undaunted, and they quickly drew a crowd.

By the time the young women, joined by drum lines and other troupes, shimmied down to meet a crowd at Leon Day Park on Franklintown Road, the morning's parade had become a full-blown afternoon party.

The Leon Day Festival began in 2000, five years after Day, a celebrated community figure and Negro leagues player, died of heart failure at the age of 78.

He died just six days after learning of his election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Known in life for his world-class pitching skills and a love of children, Day leaves a legacy that lives on in the annual Baltimore event, which promotes sportsmanship, community outreach and a number of youth leagues that play in his name.

"What you bring back to your community is truly who and what you are," said Victor Clark, a state official who spoke on behalf of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

Day's friends said they are proud to carry on his legacy and to show younger generations that, more important than fame and fortune, playing sports can build character and lead to lasting friendships.

"I've been trying to impart what I have learned to others. [Baseball] teaches discipline, teamwork," said
Hubert "Bert" Simmons , a former pitcher and outfielder for the Baltimore Elite Giants who was at the park signing autographs and shaking hands.

Some of the most at-risk children in Rosemont and Franklintown have managed to stay on track by participating in the Leon Day Little League, said foundation volunteer Wanda Carter.

"Kids that were rough around the edges have smoothed out nicely. I think it's worked well with them," said Carter. "[It] shows ... that there's something more than being on the corner."

Many attending the festival said they didn't know what Day himself would have thought of the event -- or any of the other things, including an entrance to Oriole Park at Camden Yards that bears his name.

Even Geraldine Day, his wife of more than 30 years, was hesitant to speak for her late husband, who was also known by many as a man of few words.

"He [didn't] say too much. He was a real quiet, humble man," she said.

But standing in the bright afternoon sunlight, watching young ballplayers eat hot dogs and toss baseballs on the field named after Leon Day, she did manage to venture one guess: "The only thing I could tell you is that he'd have a real big smile on his face."

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun