Pitcher deserves a place among baseball's greats

January 24, 1995|By WILEY A. HALL

Leon Day, the great Negro League pitcher, enters so silently that I almost don't hear him. I am standing with my back to the entrance of Mr. Day's West Baltimore living room admiring the memorabilia on his bookshelf: autographed baseballs, and commemorative plaques, and pictures of Day as a tall, broad-shouldered young fireballer with his cap cocked jauntily on the back of his head.

And then I hear a soft rustling noise behind me, and then I turn and then Mr. Day walks in ever so slowly and lowers himself onto the couch. He is 78 years old now and round-shouldered; in a soft, hoarse voice, he complains of a persistent cold. He is one of the few surviving Negro Leaguers and a candidate for the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

"I never saw Leon Day pitch," Louis Fields had told me. "But man, the more I read up on what he accomplished, the more amazed I became. This man belongs in the Hall of Fame."

Mr. Fields, a West Baltimore marketing executive and Negro League buff, is one of a small group of people across the country who are lobbying on Mr. Day's behalf by contacting the National Baseball Hall of Fame Committee on Veterans. The 16-member committee -- including baseball legends such as Yogi Berra, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and Buck O'Neil -- votes next month.

"Here is a man who established a pattern of winning wherever he played," Mr. Fields continued enthusiastically. "He went to the East-West All Star Game seven times, a Negro League record. He had a 70 percent winning percentage in 22 years as a pro. He led the league in strikeouts three times and in shutouts three times. I'll tell you how good Mr. Leon Day is: He beat Satchel Paige three out of the four times he faced him. No other pitcher, living or dead, can say that."

"Sure, it's important to me," Mr. Day is saying to me now in his soft voice. "The Hall of Fame is about as high as you can go in baseball. But you know, I used to love to play baseball. It didn't make any difference to me whether I was famous or not, rich or poor. I just loved the game."

Mr. Day was born in Alexandria, Va. and raised in the Mount Winans section of Baltimore. He pitched for a number of Negro League teams, including the Newark Eagles and the Baltimore Elite Giants, as well as winter ball in Puerto Rico and Mexico. In 1993, he was inducted into the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame. That same year, he fell one vote short of induction into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

Mr. Day would be the 12th Negro Leaguer in the Hall of Fame and the first inducted since Ray Dandridge in 1987. It is sad that so few Negro Leaguers have been recognized by Major League Baseball, particularly since Negro League All-Stars beat their white counterparts in two-thirds of the games played. That part of history has almost been lost. Records of Negro League games are spotty. The generation of fans who remember the Negro League in its heyday, from 1930 to the early 1950s, is getting older and older.

I ask Mr. Day if he was bitter about being denied the opportunity to compete in the major leagues and about the comparative lack of recognition in baseball history.

"Nah," he answers with a chuckle. "We didn't even worry about it. I figured it was more fun playing in the Negro Leagues anyway. The white boys played by the book. Our game was faster, more wide open, more unpredictable. Besides, we didn't need a lot of money. We got paid $1 a day for food, but shoot, you could get breakfast in those days for 25 cents and lunch for 50 cents."

It has often seemed to me that one of the lessons the older generation of blacks has failed to pass on -- especially to young black men -- is how to cope with anger and disappointment; how to find self-respect even in the absence of recognition from the mainstream.

Mr. Day agrees. "Young people today have all the opportunity in the world," he says fiercely. "Anything they want to do they can do. They don't know about segregation and Jim Crow and sitting in the back of the bus.

"Shoot," he exclaims. "All they have to do today is stay in school, get an education, and make up their mind that they want to do something and then go out and do it."

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