It's Day's turn to throw again Negro League great throwing out first pitch at Oriole Park

September 24, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

Leon Day, a soft-spoken, modest man, snaps out of character when the subject turns to money.

"Oh man, boy," he says, sitting on the porch of his West Baltimore rowhouse, "I'd been a millionaire before I started playing. They'd probably given me a million dollars just to sign."

Day, one of the greatest athletes to play baseball in the Negro Leagues, leans back and rubs his square jaw.

"God dog," he says, "if they'd caught me when I was 18, 19, 20 years old, I'd be making as much as anybody up there."

As it is, Day lives simply, supplementing his Social Security income by signing his baseball cards at occasional autograph shows.

The Orioles will honor Day tonight before their game with the Toronto Blue Jays. Fans will see a compact, 75-year-old man amble out to the pitcher's mound and throw the first pitch.

What they won't see, and what they'll never see, is Leon Day in his prime. He was the bulldog pitcher of the Newark Eagles, winning 13 games and losing none while hitting .320 in 1937, setting a Negro League record by striking out 18 in one game, out-dueling the legendary Satchel Paige in the 1942 league World Series, playing in a record seven Negro League all-star games between 1935 and 1946.

"I would say he was the most complete ballplayer I've ever seen," says Monte Irvin, a superb outfielder who played with Day in Newark and went on to hit .293 in eight seasons with the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs.

"I've never seen a better athlete, never seen a better baseball player all-around," Irvin says.

Irvin, who lives in Florida, said Day was as overpowering as Bob Gibson, the Hall of Fame pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals. But Day, Irvin says, was more valuable because he also played nearly every day. He played infield and outfield, hitting about .300 in 20 years of professional baseball.

"Leon Day was the perfect ballplayer," Irvin says. "He would have been a superstar [in the major leagues]."

Irvin is one of 11 veterans of the Negro Leagues in baseball's Hall of Fame. He says Day clearly belongs there, too.

Todd Bolton, a Washington County resident and Negro Leagues historian, agrees. He has turned up old newspaper clippings that ranked Day a better pitcher than the flamboyant Paige, who is a Hall of Famer and generally said to be black baseball's greatest pitcher.

"If Leon talked like Satchel Paige, he'd been in the Hall of Fame years ago," Bolton says. "Or if he'd been white, he'd been in the Hall of Fame years ago."

But Day is no self-promoter. Asked just how good he was, he says, "I could hold my own."

Good enough to have played in the major leagues? "Oh boy, yes," he says. "They let us play, and you see what happened."

After Jackie Robinson ended baseball's apartheid in 1947, six of the next seven rookies of the year in the National League were veterans of the Negro Leagues.

By that time, Day was in his 30s. He played his last five years in the minor leagues, but never made it to the majors. That doesn't bother him now, he says, and it didn't then.

"We never talked about it," he says. "We never thought about it. We figured we were in the major leagues. We were as high as we could go."

They traveled by bus, ate in segregated restaurants and stayed in segregated hotels. Sometimes, no one would rent them a room, so they stayed in homes of black families or slept on the bus.

"We didn't worry about that," Day says. "See, we loved to play baseball. As long as we played, we didn't care where we played."

They played in parks with rocks in the infield and holes in the outfield. Men with generators would string lights on ladders so they could play at night.

But they also played in Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, Crosley Field, Comiskey Park and other stadiums when major-league teams were on the road.

"They had nice showers, those parks," Day says, "and plenty of soap. That's where we'd stock up on soap. I think the Dodgers used Lifebuoy. We'd take five or six bars and put them in our bags. Oh, they had good showers.

"And, after the game, they'd bring you a cold beer. There was nothing better than a cold beer after a hot game."

Teams in the various organized Negro Leagues, from 1920 into the 1950s, played 40 to 80 games a season. They also played many exhibition games, including some against major-league teams or barnstorming bands of major-league all-stars. The black teams won about two-thirds of those games, says Bolton.

The black players also joined teams in foreign countries to supplement their summer salary. Day played winters in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela and Mexico.

The most he ever made in the Negro Leagues was $450 a month, he says, in 1946 for Newark, when, according to incomplete records compiled by Bolton, Day batted .469, and in 1949, Day's last year in the Negro Leagues and his only season with the Baltimore Elite Giants.

After he retired in 1955, he worked as a bartender in Newark. He moved to Baltimore -- he had grown up in Mount Winans -- in 1980 and worked for a couple of years as a security guard. He lives with his wife and sister.

Does he really wish he could play today for a few million a year?

"I probably wouldn't have as much fun," he says. "These guys today are all business. They can't have any fun.

"I was glad to play in the Negro Leagues. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."

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