They wheeled Leon Day into the hallway. The former Negro Leagues ace was 78 years old and being treated for heart and kidney issues. A quiet and reserved man, he was one of the best pitchers of his time—the Satchel Paige of silence; a soft-spoken Bob Feller—but they still hadn’t let him in the Hall of Fame.
The campaign to get him into Cooperstown had been taxing and endless. Phone calls, arguments, bureaucracy, interviews on Larry King. The backing of Ted Williams, Monte Irvin, Bob Feller, countless other baseball figures, and even Al Gore hadn’t been enough to get Day in.
His supporters had begun to lose hope. But when they wheeled him into the hallway, not long after another HOF vote to determine his fate, Day was a little optimistic. He assumed they’d let him in; they were waiting for him to die.
“Where’s Dr. Hieronimus?” he asked from his wheelchair.
Dr. Bob Hieronimus, an internationally known historian, visual artist, and radio host, was a close personal friend of Day’s and a leading advocate for his Hall of Fame candidacy. Day never called him “Dr. Hieronimus,” only “Dr. Bob. ” So when he called for him, Dr. Bob knew that Day didn’t want to be pitied, coddled, or soothed. He wanted to know if he would die a Hall of Famer.
“He was not only about the best pitcher in the Negro Leagues—one of the best, you could definitely say that—but he as a person was so kind,” Dr. Bob says. “He was not one of your ‘take-over’ kind of people. And that got him in big trouble because it meant that most people didn’t know how good he was.”
Dr. Bob had been on the phone with representatives, administrators, and influencers for years, rattling off Day’s statistics and citing his place in history to whoever was on the other end.
“Most of them didn’t believe that Negro League players belonged in the Hall of Fame. And that was a wake-up call for me. I thought, ‘how in the hell could they still think this?’ But they did. There were a lot of people who were just not interested in Negro League baseball at that time. There were others that didn’t know their Negro League history. We got ourselves in a lot of trouble.”
There was no trouble in this hall. It was only joy in Dr. Bob’s heart when he approached his friend, bent down, and told him the bullshit was over.
He was in.
Day looked up at him.
It’s a moment that defines the work of the now 79-year-old Dr. Bob, an advocate and lifelong fan of the Negro Leagues. As a kid, his stepfather took him to a game up in Pennsylvania between a Negro Leagues team and a white team from a steel mill.
“I heard, when they played baseball, there were always fights and always threats and things of that nature,” Dr. Bob says. “And my stepfather said, ‘no Bob, that’s not true.’”
His stepfather was right. There wasn’t going to be a fight at the game that night; not unless somebody felt embarrassed.
But by the time the steel mill boys were down something like 18-3, everybody could feel the humiliation in the air. Including the Negro Leagues team.
There would be no miraculous comeback. The game ended and the Negro Leaugers hopped on their bus and headed down the road before any trouble could finish brewing. It was the wrong time and place to celebrate a win, even though they deserved to. It was just easier—and safer—to disappear.
“They could see what could happen. They didn’t want to mash them up,” Dr. Bob says. “And that was a different side of baseball than I ever saw.”
Disappearing is what a lot of the Negro Leagues did. Without their wins recorded, names known, or stories told, a lot of the players and teams missed history and went straight into obscurity. It took Major League Baseball almost 90 years to formally acknowledge that the Negro Leagues were as much a part of their past as Joe DiMaggio and the spitball.
“I think the world of the Negro League players, because now, unfortunately, all the ones I knew–dozens and dozens–they’re all dead. They’re all dead,” Dr. Bob laments. “It’s a very strange feeling, because now I know what it means when you say you really miss somebody. I’ll never be able to talk to Monte Irvin again.”
Before his death, Leon Day knew how easy it was to be forgotten. But Dr. Bob and his associates have worked for years to make sure that Negro Leagues players like Day get their due, even after they’re gone. Part of that is the work they put into their advocacy campaigns, and part of it is the mountain of Negro League artifacts Dr. Bob has in his home: Bats, balls, and posters he had players sign every time they were together.
There’s a Satchel Paige bobblehead and a Buck Leonard figurine. A ball signed by 11 Negro League players and a bat signed by four Hall of Famers from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. He’s crafted his own souvenirs and commemorative items just to have another surface for their signatures. Fragments of the past, snatched out of time and placed on a shelf, so that even if no one is left who remembers, will still contain the moments that have faded from minds. It’s what makes them utterly irreplaceable.
And now, it’s all gotta go.
You can sift through Dr. Bob’s baseball treasures, find something you like, and know every dollar you buy it with will go toward Dr. Bob’s next project: the Leon Day Statue Project, the ultimate goal of which is to build a statue of Leon Day outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Day isn’t invisible in Baltimore. He’s got a street named after him by Camden Yards, a park named after him in Gwynns Falls, a mural bearing his likeness on Greenmount Avenue, a foundation named after him made up of historians who set up baseball programs for city youth. In 2022, he was posthumously inducted into the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame. Day’s doing what he always did: Hanging in the background, quiet, waiting to be noticed.
If you’re a Baltimore baseball legend, there’s a chance you’ve got a statue within the city limits. Nine of them stand in Oriole Park at Camden Yards alone. Brooks Robinson’s is nine feet tall and when they unveiled it in 2011, everybody came.
“When you have a statue dedicated to you, that’s a wonderful tribute,” said Jeff Idelson, the president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame at the time. “The fact that it’s nine feet tall is appropriate because his accomplishments and his humanity towers above others.”
That’s the kind of expression only a statue can convey; the size of a person is determined by their impact, not their height. And no baseball fans in Baltimore will argue with the idea that Brooks Robinson was a giant.
“He’s the type of ballplayer who should be your children’s idol,” one said at the time.
“It’s what he means: his loyalty to the city, his integrity,” added another. “He’s everything you want in a person.”
Dr. Bob wants Day to be more than a name on a street sign or a plaque in Cooperstown. He wants him to be as well-known in Baltimore, the city he played in and the city he died in, as anyone else who already has a statue there. A statue outside Camden Yards would ensure that fans pass by him on their way to see Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson, that his name is read by people stuck in foot traffic, that a kid might ask his parents who he was.
“We’ve been talking to many different people around our country and around our world,” says Dr. Bob. “The Negro Leaguers have more support than they know. In time, I think they’re going to find that they’re becoming more and more popular. And I think this is going to help.”
Leon Day and many of his Negro League contemporaries had the speed, the arm, the heater, and the curve to be legends. All they were missing was the recognition.
And when they got it, “It was the world,” Dr. Bob says. “That sounds corny. But it was the world.”
Day’s career spanned over a decade, playing for the Baltimore Black Sox, Newark Eagles, Homestead Grays, and Philadelphia Stars, as well as in Mexico. In April 1949, the Elite Giants signed 32-year-old Day to pitch, not long after clearing a spot for him by releasing pitcher Ernest Burke.
Burke was a right-handed curveballer and, according to him, the only black kid growing up in 1930s Perryville, Maryland. For a long time, the only sport he played was rolling a rim or a tire with a stick. When his parents passed away, Burke was taken in by some friendly French Canadiens who moved him from Maryland to Quebec.
When he turned 18 in 1942, Burke’s government informed him that it was his turn to take a run at the Fuhrer. He became one of the first black Marines and a medal-winning sharpshooter, and still had time to help his ball team win the Pacific Championship while stationed in Hawaii. Fellow Marine Johnny Wrigley told him to stick with this baseball thing–he seemed good at it.
Once Hitler was dead, Burke was able to focus more on baseball than sharpshooting and returned to Maryland. In 1947, he walked on with the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro Leagues. After his playing career, Burke resettled in Maryland and found construction work in Baltimore while taking care of his diabetic grandson. Speaking at baseball history events, he did his best to spread word of the Negro Leagues and the contributions of its players, telling gatherings of people about playing in front of a packed Comiskey Park for the Negro League All-Star Game, getting slurs screamed at him by gas station attendants, and eating his favorite road meal, a hunk of bread with a can of beans poured in the middle.
“There are so many young people who have never heard of the Negro Leagues,” he said at Orioles FanFest in 1999. “I really shock them when I say where I played and who I played for.”
Burke died in 2004, but 17 years later, he reappeared in Havre de Grace’s Tydings Park, thanks to the small but tireless Ernest Burke Memorial Sculpture Committee. At the unveiling of his statue in June 2021, his former teammates suited up in their old uniforms. The town council declared his birthday, June 26, “Ernest Burke Day.” The lieutenant governor sent a few words to be read by a surrogate. In a speech, Burke’s daughter, also a Marine, called him “twisted steel and sex appeal.” Then everyone sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
The event, like Burke’s life, was well-attended. Among those in Tydings Park that day were Dr. Bob and Negro Leagues ambassador Ray Banks. As the singing transitioned from “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” to “Happy Birthday,” Banks had an idea. He leaned over to Dr. Bob and muttered, “You know… we could do this for Leon Day in Baltimore.”
As efforts continue to memorialize Day outside Camden Yards (There are back-up locations being considered as well), there may be no better activist to speak to than Camay Calloway Murphy, who spearheaded the Ernest Burke campaign in Havre de Grace. At 96 years old, she knows how to get a statue up.
“You really have to have the support of your local government. They may not give very much, but their support is critical. And one of the biggest things is getting the right sculptor—you have to have somebody who is vaguely familiar with how the stance should be, how the arm should be, what the foot position is, if they’re batting or running. Of course, the Negro League is not familiar to everybody. So fundraising is not very simple. You’ve got to research and find people who love baseball, who have money.”
Murphy and her committee were fortunate in Havre de Grace—the two mayors they worked with and a county executive all fully supported their efforts, as well as the Community Projects of Havre de Grace and the organizations within. Former mayor Bill Martin would tell Murphy every time he saw her: We’re gonna do this. It’s gonna happen. Don’t give up. We’re gonna get this statue going.
Like Dr. Bob, Murphy was motivated by a personal connection with the figure she was trying to honor. Her husband had been to Havre de Grace many times as a child, and when they stopped through for a visit as adults, a thought entered her head.
“I just wondered where the black people were,” Murphy says. “Someone mentioned something about Ernest Burke, about the Chat & Chew, a local bar. We went there and they were talking about some of the highlights of people who’d come from Havre de Grace and they mentioned Ernest Burke.”
Through a few connections, Murphy and her husband got to meet Burke and learned all about him: That he’d been one of the first black Marines, that he’d lived in Canada, that his favorite upper body workout was lumberjacking and that he was just an all-around good fellow. Having heard his story, Murphy became driven to honor the man, and years later, they unveiled Burke’s statue in Tydings Park.
“That,” she says, “was a moment.”
The moment has expanded into many others. Ernest Burke’s legacy has been spread across Havre de Grace like a blanket, with various programs and initiatives bearing his name or inspired by his memory.
“It has to go on,” Murphy says. “We celebrate his birthday with the little league players, and then we are developing a scholarship. We’re trying to keep something going because you’re very soon forgotten if you don’t.”
In Baltimore, fundraising for a Leon Day statue is underway, and Dr. Bob and his supporters are looking for a Black, Maryland-based sculptor to do the job, but have also spoken to the Detroit-based sculptor who did the Ernest Burke statue. They’ve been in touch with the city of Baltimore and the Orioles about the statue, but not since October of last year.
“The last we heard from them was that they were planning some renovations along one side, although I think there was a misunderstanding about which side Leon Day Way was on,” says Laura Cortner, executive producer for Hieronimus & Co. “It didn’t sound like we were talking about the same side. And that’s where it dropped. They said, ‘we’re in the middle of re-signing contracts,’ and we haven’t heard from them since.”
Orioles chairman and CEO John Angelos is a little busy right now, preparing to provide unprecedented access of his team’s financial records to reporters and hoping to recapture the awesome luck he and his low-cost team experienced during the onset of the COVID pandemic.
But Dr. Bob is encouraged by one group in Baltimore to which he feels he and his advocates are getting through.
Hundreds of school kids come every year to the Babe Ruth Museum and the Bert Simmons Museum in Owings Mills. There are educational presentations by Mrs. Leon Day and others like Ray Banks and the Leon Day Foundation, and the kids, Dr. Bob, have soaked it up.
“I think that young people in Baltimore probably know more about Leon Day than most adults,” Dr. Bob says. “They have grandfathers and fathers that could talk to them about it and now are opening their mouths. Because it was not popular some years ago for them to come out and discuss the importance of the Negro Leagues. Other people have come to realize that I was not exaggerating about the ability of the Negro League players or the abilities of Leon Day.”
Murphy was watching Super Bowl LVII when Patrick Mahomes referenced Jackie Robinson and alluded to the Negro Leagues in an interview.
“I thought that was extremely interesting,” she says. “You really don’t know who knows what. What I’m trying to do now is to get some focus on the Elite Giants, or the Black Sox as they were called earlier, and see if that story can get out there because I think it’s an important story, and it’s a Baltimore story, and it’s something that they should not let escape and there’s much recognition of that team and the people who played on it.”
Leon Day got home from fighting in World War II and hopped in a cab. The driver immediately gave him shit because he was black. Most days, Day wouldn’t say a word, wouldn’t offend a soul, wouldn’t want to get involved. But on this day, back on American soil, Day found the words.
He went off on the driver: I just got back from overseas, fighting to save your ass. And when Day stepped out of that cab a few minutes later, he was home. Later, in his first peacetime start in three years, he threw a no-hitter.
There’s a lot of unrecognized greatness in baseball; a lot of unexplored corners and forgotten innings. A lot of books retell the same stories and a lot of legends are ignored or buried. Monuments can stake a small but impactful bit of history to the present, slowing the erosion of time. History is more than what’s written down—it’s what’s forgotten.
Last year on 33rd Street in Waverly, a mural was installed over a mattress store, a barber, a nail salon, and a check cashing place. It portrays a thread connecting a nest of ornithologically correct orioles on top of Memorial Stadium to the seams of a baseball traveling through time. A young ball player is waiting for it in mid-swing, eye on the ball, like they’re about to send it over the other salon across the street and into somebody’s beer at Peabody Heights, where Babe Ruth used to play.
No matter how long a rebuild lasts or how cheap an owner wants to be, baseball will always be more than a memory here, with images and names from its past all over town; painted on its walls, buried in its diamonds, standing in its gardens, nine feet tall. But you can name a street after somebody without ever really knowing the road they walked. And with Baltimore’s baseball history, there’s always more to be remembered.
 “Negro Leagues Baseball,” Roger Bruns, pgs. 156-159, Greenwood, c. 2012
 ”Exhibit chronicles Negro Leagues,” Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun, p. 3B, 24 January 1999
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