This article was written by John Holway
This article was published in the 1983 Baseball Research Journal
“I just can’t get over Leon Day. People don’t know what a great pitcher he was! In my opinion, he was as good or better than Bob Gibson. He was a better fielder, a better hitter, could run like a deer. And just as good a pitcher. When he pitched against Satchel, Satchel didn’t have any edge. You thought Don Newcombe could pitch. You should have seen Day! One of the most complete athletes I’ve even seen. He was fantastic, that man.” — Monte Irvin, former shortstop, Newark Eagles
When St. Louis Cardinal fireballer Bob Gibson was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame August 2, 1981, Baltimore’s Leon Day, star of the old Newark Eagles, was outside looking in – again.
He’s used to that. Day was born 19 years before Gibson, or he might well have been up on the Cooperstown rostrum alongside him accepting his own plaque as one of baseball’s immortals. When Gibson was a youngster growing up in Omaha in the 1930s and `40s, Leon Day was already established as one of the best black pitchers in America.
Three of Day’s younger teammates on the Eagles – Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, and Don Newcombe – followed Jackie Robinson into the major leagues; Irvin went on to the Hall of Fame. Day was just a shade too old at 30 to go with them.
“But I didn’t see anybody in the major leagues that was better than Day,” says Doby, now an official with the New Jersey Nets. “I’d put him in the same category with other right-handers like Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Bob Gibson – all the top pitchers. There’s no doubt about it, if you want to compare him with Gibson, stuffwise, Day had just as good stuff. Tremendous curve ball, and a fast ball at least 90-95 miles an hour. You talk about Satchel; I didn’t see any better than Day.”
Day once struck out 18 Baltimore Elite Giants in one Negro National League game. Was Roy Campanella catching for the Elites that day? “He was three of `em,” Day smiles.
“Campanella was a good fast ball hitter,” says Day, who is now retired and living in Baltimore. “But he was a little weak on the curve. I used to throw him fast balls – I was throwing pretty hard then, you know – and I could sometimes get them by him. Then after I got a couple of strikes on him, I’d throw him a curve. 1 think I got Roy three times that day.”
“Day was a `short arm,’ ” says Campanella, now doing public relations work for the Dodgers. “He used very little motion, but he was very quick, had good control, plus a breaking pitch and a change of speed.”
“Day had smoke!” nods old-time speedster James “Cool Papa” Bell. “And his curve ball would break like that” – a sharp motion of his palm – “quick!” It wasn’t a big curve,” says Irvin – “just a wrinkle, just enough. Good control though. What would get you off-stride was that little hunch just before he threw.”
If Day was as fast as Gibson, in stature he couldn’t have been more different than the gangling six-foot Gibson. “He looked like he was too small to be the batboy,” laughs his Newark teammate, first baseman George Giles. “Little bitty guy, but oh, could he throw hard! He had a good curve ball. He hit that ball too. Yeah, he was a goodie. He was a goodie!” After his playing days Leon tended bar in Newark. The news amused Giles. “A bartender?” Giles exploded. “Can you picture Leon Day being a bartender? Leon? He couldn’t see over the bar!”
Gibson almost fell off the mound with the force of his delivery. Day was one of the original no-windup pitchers – he just cocked his pitching hand at his ear and threw, like Don Larsen, the World Series perfect pitcher, or Bullet Joe Rogan of an earlier Negro League era.
Gibson is articulate and handles the press well. Day is quiet and modest to a fault. In a roomful of black veterans he sits silently, smiling and listening to them spin their stories about themselves and about him, but rarely volunteers anything.
Because Day was quiet, he rarely got much publicity, unlike the loquacious Satchel Paige, for instance. But while Satch bested Leon in story-telling, Leon bested Satch at least three times on the pitching mound. Once was in the Negro League all-star game of 1942, once in the black world series of that same year, and the third time was in the regular season of 1946. “I beat him in Kansas City 3-2,” Days says laconically. “They said I was cuttin’ the ball. I ain’t ever threw a cut ball in my life. I said, `I wasn’t cuttin’ it, I was blindin’ you.’”
“Day was also an excellent hitter,” Eagles owner Effa Manley once pointed out. “He could play any position in the field except catch, and played them all magnificently. There was no place you couldn’t play Leon in an emergency. It’s a shame he was born when he was. He is definitely Hall of Fame caliber.”
Some black oldsters, such as Baltimore second baseman Sammy T. Hughes, feel that Day, like Babe Ruth, was too good a hitter to pitch. Hughes would have made him a full-time outfielder, to get his bat into the line-up every day.
Clarence “Half a Pint” Israel, the Eagles’ third baseman now living in Rockville, Maryland, goes even further. “Day was the best athlete I’ve even seen in my life,” he says. “When the second baseman got hurt, he’d go in and play second. You’d say, `How long you been playin’ second?’ He’d say, `I’m a pitcher.’ `What! I hope I never get hurt; you’ll go in there and take my job.’ He was the most complete ball player I’ve ever seen.”
Day mainly played second base, shortstop, center field, and pitcher. And he had the best right-handed move to first base of any pitcher in black baseball, according to Eagles infielder Dick Seay. Irvin agrees.
Day was born in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1916 but grew up in Baltimore’s Mount Winans area, not far from Westport Park where the old Baltimore Black Sox played. “I used to go `over the fence’ every Sunday when I was a kid to see the Black Sox,” he says. “My favorite player was Laymon Yokely. I liked the way he held the ball behind his back before he pitched.”
Yokely, now deceased, remembered Leon well. “He was my boy,” Yokely beamed. “I’d tell him what to do, what not to do.”
Day started playing sandlot ball with the Mount Winans athletic club, then hooked on with the Silver Moons, a semi-pro team. He played second base, “but when guys got in trouble, I’d say, `Give me the ball’.” Catcher Macajah “Mac” Eggelston of the Black Sox saw the boy and recommended him to manager Herbert “Rap” Dixon. In 1934 Dixon took Leon to spring training as an infielder.
“They said they’d give me $50 a month,” Day says. “Heck, that was a lot of money then. But I never did get all my money. They were playing `percentage ball.’ After the game the players would split the money up, but I didn’t know anything about it. The manager’d give me two dollars, ten dollars, something like that. I’d be eating ice cream. I bet I didn’t get over $50 that whole season.”
In 1935, when Leon was 19, Dixon moved to the Brooklyn Eagles and took Day with him as a second baseman. Candy Jim Taylor was managing the Eagles. One day Taylor told the rookie to go out and throw a little batting practice. “He had good control,” Yokely chuckled. “The batters couldn’t touch him.” Impressed, Taylor made Day a regular pitcher. “You know, he was the pitching star that year,” Yokely said.
Day was elected to the Negro Leagues’ East-West, or all-star, game that year, pitching before 25,000 fans in Chicago’s Comiskey Park. He was 19 years old. “I was scared to death,” he says. “I couldn’t hardly stand up. I’d never played in front of that many people before.” But he says he didn’t have any trouble – “after I got my act together.” He struck out three in his stint.
Just how good was the Negro National league that Day pitched for?
“It was – no question in my mind – a great league,” Doby says emphatically. “The only difference between it and the major leagues was bench strength.” The majors carried 25 men on each team roster, the black teams only 16. “But you put nine people out there on the field, you had a good ball club. I went from Newark direct to Cleveland, so I must have had pretty good training.”
After the 1935 season, Day sailed to Puerto Rico to pitch winter ball. Quincy Trouppe, a top catcher in the black leagues, shakes his head over the painful memory. “In Puerto Rico I used to go up there with that timber and bring it back two straight times against Day – with all my owners sitting on the bench!”
The Eagles moved to Newark in 1937. “I think that was my best year,” Day says. “I think I lost one game. I don’t know how many I won. We never did keep count.”
The Eagles had a powerful club. George “Mule” Suttles, who reputedly hit the ball as hard as Josh Gibson, was on first base. Willie “Devil” Wells, a great fielder and hitter, played short. Ray “Hooks” Dandrige, the Brooks Robinson of his day, was on third. Dick Lundy – “King Richard” – managed. All four, along with Day, are Hall of Fame candidates.
They played in Ruppert Stadium, home of the Newark Bears, one of the greatest clubs in minor league history. Most of the Bears went on to star with the great Yankee teams of that period — Joe Gordon, Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller, etc. The Eagles were pretty popular too. “We had some good crowds,” Day says. “Sometimes the stadium was packed. I think it held about 18-19,000. We were going to play the Bears after the regular season. The Bears players wanted to play us, but they wouldn’t let them. I don’t know who said no. We would have made ourselves $700 a game. That was a lot of money.”
Day was always missing out on the big money. In 1937 Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and other black stars jumped their Stateside teams to play in the Dominican Republic, where dictator Trujillo was handing out big pesos to play. Day missed that. He also failed to get a raise from the Eagles and sat out the 1938 season as a result.
He returned to the team in 1939 and found a newcomer, shortstop Monte Irvin, on the roster. “We called ourselves `The Raggedy Nine’.” Irvin says. He likes to recall the time the Eagles beat Gibson, Buck Leonard and the great Homestead Grays two straight games. “I played short, Leon second,” Monte says. “In a crucial part of the first game, somebody hit a ball right over second base. Leon went over there and backhanded the ball and gave it to me for a double play. We beat them 2-1.” The Eagles won the next game 6-0. “We were `hoo-rahing’ Josh and Buck,” Irvin laughs. Day says he got Hall of Famer Leonard out by pitching high and tight to him. “You couldn’t hardly shoot the fast ball by him,” he says. “If you let him see that fast ball, make it bad.”
Negro League statistics were not well kept during the Depression, and scholars are only slowly resurrecting them from old box scores. All we know of Day in those years is the tantalizingly brief information that he appeared in the 1939 East-West game and pitched three hitless innings.
That winter Leon sailed to Cuba to pitch in the tough Cuban winter league against the best Latins and the best American blacks in the game, plus white big leaguers such as Dolf Luque and others. Day won seven and lost three.
Day’s arm went sore in spring training 1941, Irvin reports. It was a boiling hot day in Daytona Beach, and Day declared that “I’m either going to play ball or go back to the farm.” Says Irvin: “He just threw and threw, as hard as he could, as long as he could, and literally threw the soreness out of his arm.”
Meanwhile, Day had been returning each winter to Puerto Rico, where statistics where kept somewhat more carefully. In 1935-36 he batted .307, five years later he hit .330, and in 1941-42 he led the league with a .351 mark, while compiling a 2.93 earned run average on the mound.
Back in the States in 1942, Day pitched again in the East-West game, which was all tied up 2-2 after six innings before 48,000 fans in Comiskey Park. The East pitcher got in a jam in the seventh and Day was rushed to the rescue. He put out that fire and went two more hitless innings, striking out five, as Paige, pitching for the West, gave up three runs to give Leon the victory 5-2.
That autumn the Homestead Grays went into the black world series against Satchel’s Kansas City Monarchs, who won the first three games. That’s when the Grays sent out a call for help to Day, who was under contract to the Newark Eagles. Day responded by whipping Paige 4-1 on a five hitter, but the Monarchs protested and succeeded in having the game thrown out. Then Satch came back to beat the Grays’ regular pitcher 9-5 to sweep the series.
Mid-way through the 1943 season Day got his draft call and was shipped to England with the 818th Amphibian Battalion, driving an Army “Duck,” or amphibian landing truck. He drove one onto Normandy Beach six days after D-Day. When he wasn’t driving trucks, he was playing ball for George Patton’s Third Army team. It boasted a fine pitching staff of Day, Russ Bauers of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Sam Nahem of the St. Louis Cardinals. Willard “Home Run” Brown of the Kansas City Monarchs and later the St. Louis Browns played center field. Manager was John Quinn, in peacetime the general manager of the Philadelphia Phils.
Day pitched for the Third Army team in 1945 against Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell before 100,000 GI’s in the Nuremburg stadium where Adolph Hitler had once harangued massed Nazis.
Besides Blackwell, the other club could field pitcher Ken Heintzelman of the Phillies, outfielders Harry Walker of the Cardinals and Johnny Wyrostek of the Pirates, plus second baseman Benny
Zientara of the Reds.
Day took a 2-1 lead into the ninth, but the first batter tripled, with Walker, Wyrostek, and Zientara coming up next. “I pitched Walker high and tight,” Day says. “With lefthanders, I always went high and tight.” Walker went back to the dugout on a strikeout. Wyrostek, another lefthander, also saw three fast balls, high and inside, and went down swinging. Zientara, a right-hander, couldn’t touch the ball either, and Day walked off the field the winner on a four-hitter.
Day and Blackwell would square off once more, in Marseilles, France, before some 50,000 soldiers. “We beat Blackwell 8-0,” he says. “I shut them out. Willard Brown hit a couple home runs off Blackwell. That’s how we got all our runs.”
With the end of World War II, Day returned to Newark in time for Opening Day 1946. The Eagles had a fine young club, managed by Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, Campanella’s former mentor at Baltimore. Monte Irvin was also back from military service, teaming with young second baseman Larry Doby on the double plays. Lenny Pearson was an inspirational leader at first base. The pitching staff missed young Don Newcombe, who had followed Jackie Robinson and Campanella into the Brooklyn Dodger organization, but it still had Max Manning, Rufus Lewis, and knuckle-bailer Lemuel Hooker.
Could Leon Day, now 30 years old, come back after two and a half years in the Army? Day answered that question on opening day against the Philadelphia Stars at Newark. He pitched a no-hitter, struck out five, and walked only one. “Doby tripled and stretched it – kept running and came home to win it 2-0,” he says. “That’s got to be the best game I ever pitched.”
Day says he went on to beat Satchel Paige 3-2 that year. “But I don’t remember how many games I won, I really don’t.” He hurt his arm at the end of 1946 and rode the bench for most of the world series. He did try to pitch the opening game against the Monarchs in the New York Polo Grounds with several big league scouts in the stands. But he could last only a couple of innings as Satch came on to win it in relief. (The Eagles, however, finally won the series in seven games, beating Paige in the clincher 3-2.)
Day played in Mexico City in the summers of 1947 and 1948. “I made more money in Mexico than I made here in the States,” he says. “I think I played for four months and made about $5,000.” He returned to the States in 1949 to join the Baltimore Elite Giants, who won the Negro League pennant that year. But the Negro Leagues were crumbling fast under the impact of the major league raids.
In 1950 Day went to Canada, to the Winnipeg Buffaloes. At the end of 1951 he joined Toronto in the International League, appearing in 14 games, mostly in relief. “I did pretty good,” he says. But, at his age, 34, the major leagues simply wouldn’t give him a tryout. So, in 1952 Day was in Scranton of the Eastern League, where he won 13 and lost nine. He led all pitchers in fielding and batted .314 in 73 games.
That autumn and the next he barnstormed with Campanella’s All-Stars against a white squad that included the Yankees’ Whitey Ford and the Dodgers’ Gil Hodges. “We did pretty well,” he says. But the old smoke was gone. “I don’t think I beat them either one of those years.”
Day went back to Canada, where he ended his career with the Edmonton Eskimoes and finally Brandon, Manitoba, in 1955. Then he retired to Newark to tend bar. He now lives in Baltimore in an attractive home on a quiet side street.
Day probably won’t be on the dais in Cooperstown next year. But there are many who feel he should be there soon. Day has watched his white contemporaries, as well as the younger black stars, walk through the doors of Cooperstown. Campanella for one thinks Day belongs there with them. “He could have gone as far as anybody else,” Roy says enthusiastically.