CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Three weeks after his collapse on a grimy sidewalk reminded a nation that he was once a star first baseman, the only Venezuelan to play in America's Negro baseball leagues has died.

Carlos Ascanio, 82, who played three months with the New York Black Yankees in 1946, died Friday of respiratory failure, said Dr. Isis de Landaeta, director of the National Geriatric Institute in Caracas.

``He was improving and strong in recent days, and so his death has surprised us all,'' she said.

Ascanio, whose powerful swing earned him the nickname ``The Earthquake,'' was found destitute and starving earlier this month and was taken to a hospital emergency room. An orderly gasped when he saw the name on his fading ID card.

Soon, a small radio station was broadcasting the news and appealing for help. Dozens of Caracas residents showered him with clothes, food and offers of money.

In an interview with The Associated Press before he died, Ascanio, his voice quivering, said his stint in the Negro Leagues taught him ``to love baseball even more.''

``My best moments with the Yankees I lived with the glove. More than once people told me we won thanks to my fielding,'' a grinning Ascanio said from his hospital bed.

He had been living with his wife in a rundown boarding home in downtown Caracas, selling batteries and cassettes on the street.

On Feb. 9, his body gave out. Two people found him on the sidewalk unconscious and drove him to the National Geriatric Institute, where he was diagnosed with severe anemia caused by years of malnutrition.

Venezuelans, moved by his plight, tried to help.

``I came to see how he is and offer my help. I feel like I owe a debt to this man because he gave me so many happy moments in my youth,'' said Magaly Mosquera, 61, a retired secretary.

Ascanio said he was buoyed by the outpouring.

His career started in 1946 in Venezuela's professional league. Playing in Cuba that year, Ascanio met a Negro League pitcher who helped him land a spot on the Black Yankees. But he was homesick, and before the season ended he returned to Venezuela and national stardom.

The book ``Venezuelans in the Major Leagues'' says he hit a respectable .290.

His eyes lit up when he talked about his glory days.

``I played with (Joshua) Gibson, Satchel Paige and (Buck) Leonard,'' he said, recalling Negro League colleagues who made the Baseball Hall of Fame. ``They were excellent players, and if they didn't play in the major leagues, it was because of racism.''

Ascanio's skin was light enough _ he was of mixed European and indigenous ancestry _ to enable him to pass for white, and many nights he was sent out to buy food for the team. Because he spoke little English and mostly used hand signals, store owners thought he was mute, he said.

``For me it was strange that a man had to go to bed without eating because in many cities in the United States blacks could not go into the same places as whites to buy food,'' he said.

After retiring in 1961, Ascanio spent years running a sporting goods store in Caracas. Oil prices started plummeting in the early 1980s, and his business _ along with oil-rich Venezuela's economy _ went into a tailspin.

But as the years passed, few remembered that The Earthquake ever stepped up to the plate in the Negro League.

Ascanio had hoped the Negro League Baseball Players Association, based in Manassas, Va., would provide him with a pension for his stint in the United States.

``Who could have told me that 50 years after that experience, I would be here sick and poor, hoping that the Negro Leagues can give me the opportunity to die with dignity in my homeland?'' he asked.