Integration couldn't catch up with Day's best fastball, either

John Steadman

February 03, 1992|By John Steadman

Now the mood is sympathetic, generally followed with words of remorse, to Leon Day and the legion of black baseball players who had the ponderous doors of prejudice slammed in their faces before R&R (Rickey and Robinson). Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the game's emancipator, signed Jackie Robinson as the first black to a major-league contract.

In tandem, they, in 1945, changed an all-white establishment to a sport where it wasn't the color of a man's skin that was important but how well he got around on the fastball or fought off a sliding baserunner.

Leon Day, now 75 and living in Baltimore, doesn't look back too often and, when he does, it's not accompanied by regret. That's left for his friends. Besides, a man can't change the past -- certainly not the social structure of a half-century ago -- so why try? But he admits there are moments when he wonders how it might have been if he could have pitched against Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Hack Wilson and all the rest of the preeminent white standouts.

It's Day's belief, measuring ability, that Josh Gibson, a fair catcher who he says might have hit 100 home runs in a season if he had had the opportunity, or infielder John Beckwith could have presumably preceded Robinson in breaking the color line.

"I never saw Jackie with the Kansas City Monarchs," says Day, but he respects Robinson for his achievements, along with fightingthe demeaning racial abuse that accompanied his role as a pioneer.

Day's days in the Negro National League were bracketed between the years 1934 and 1949 with the Baltimore Black Sox, Newark Eagles and Baltimore Elite Giants. In 1947, he went off to pitch in Mexico, where he made his highest salary, $5,000. It was a time when major-league "jumpers" Danny Gardella, Sal Maglie, Mickey Owen, Freddie Martin and others, all white, bolted their teams because they, too, decided more money could be made outside the country.

An effort to substantiate Day's record by historians has led to frustration and inadequate totals but the mission continues. In only 11 of the 22 years he pitched, his mark is 63-26, a winning percentage of .708, 667 innings, 442 hits, 256 strikeouts and 142 bases on balls. Day knows that's not right, and researchers readily agree it's incomplete.

"I couldn't tell you," he says, "but I think I won around 300." That's because Negro teams played league schedules that rarely exceeded 60 games a season but barnstormed the country, playing semi-pro competition or independent town teams. Just anywhere they might draw a crowd and, most of the time, the results never made the sports pages of metropolitan newspapers.

Traveling conditions were abysmal. Often they changed to their uniforms in an old bus that had long seen its best days and got back on, after nine innings, to hit the high way for another game later that day or night.

"A lot of times we didn't have a hotel or a rooming house so we just slept on the bus," Day recalled. "I started out getting 75 cents a day meal money, then $1 and the highest was $2 when I was with the Newark Eagles."

In 1944 and 1945, Day was in the Army, attached to an amphibious unit that landed at Normandy (D-Day, plus six) and carried supplies to the forces. "I was scared as hell," he comments. "I'll never forget June 12. I lost a lot of good friends."

When World War II was over in Europe, Day pitched for the Third Army team and twice beat Ewell Blackwell, the whiplike Cincinnati Reds righthander, 2-1, in Nuremberg, and 8-0, at Marseille, before a combined audience of 150,000 servicemen and women.

Both Monte Irvin, a Hall of Fame member, and Larry Doby, the first black to play in the American League, put Day in a special category. Both compare him favorably to Bob Gibson, a powerful winner with the St. Louis Cardinals.

"Leon was fantastic," says Irvin.

Doby adds, "I didn't see anybody in the major leagues better than Leon Day."

Todd Bolton, a ranger at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, who is a member of the Society of American Baseball Research, says, "My guess is Leon won 300 games or close to it because only about a third of the box scores of all the games he played in have been located."

To see that Day be given proper attention during Black History Month, it was significant that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke honored him with a special proclamation. Dr. Bob Hieronimus and wife Zoh gathered friends together to add luster to the occasion and to present Day with a copy of the baseball shirt he wore when he was pitching for the Newark Eagles.

Day holds the distinction of playing in more Negro League all-star games than any player, seven, and establishing a strikeout record of 14; He had a single-game strikeout high of 19 in the Puerto Rican Winter League and once he struck out 18 Baltimore Elite Giants, including Roy Campanella three times.

In 1942 and '43, the Pittsburgh Courier ranked him ahead of Leroy "Satchel" Paige as the best pitcher in the Negro League.

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