Negro League star Leon Day waits for fame

March 05, 1995|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writer

Ida May Bolden saw her younger brother play baseball on the sandlots of Mount Winans in Southwest Baltimore every Sunday when he was a boy. She saw him strike out 18 batters at Baltimore's Bugle Field and pitch a no-hitter at Newark's Ruppert Stadium when he was the star pitcher for the Negro National League's Newark Eagles.

Her brother is Leon Day. He is 78, suffers from gout, diabetes and a bad heart and has spent most of last week in a bed at St. Agnes Hospital. Tuesday he is up for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It might be Mr. Day's last chance to see himself get elected.

"I almost think if Leon gets in the Hall of Fame he'll get better, because that is all he's thought about all his life," Ms. Bolden said from the West Baltimore home that she shares with her brother and his wife. "That has been his greatest ambition."

A pitcher, outfielder and second baseman who spent the bulk of his career with the Negro National League's Newark Eagles, Mr. Day cannot be judged by statistics, which are incomplete, but only by the memories of those who played with and against him.

"He's always been the best pitcher of every team he's ever played," said Monte Irvin, a member of the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee and Mr. Day's former Eagles teammate. "He played center field as good as or better than our starting center fielder did. The center fielder at that time was me."

Mr. Day was a good hitter and fielder, but he was best known as a pitcher. He appeared in a record seven Negro League all-star games, and he defeated the legendary Kansas City Monarchs pitcher Satchel Paige in three of their four recorded meetings. But unlike the flamboyant Mr. Paige, Mr. Day is a quiet, soft-spoken man who does not brag about his accomplishments. Many historians and former players say that's why Mr. Day has not yet been elected to the Hall of Fame.

That was his only fault," said Mr. Irvin, a Hall of Famer. "But he was never worried about money, he was always the best pitcher, and he was one of the most talented people who ever played, all around."

According to Mr. Irvin, this is Mr. Day's year.

The Hall of Fame has adjusted its rules to enable the Veterans Committee to elect more Negro Leaguers. And with Mr. Irvin and Kansas City Monarchs first baseman Buck O'Neill on the committee, Mr. Day has two major advocates. Mr. O'Neill, who is not in the Hall of Fame, said that Mr. Day is the last living Negro Leaguer deserving the honor.

"He's the only living candidate," said Mr. O'Neill, the star of Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary. "He's the only one left. That's my opinion."

Born in 1916

Born in Alexandria, Va., on Oct. 30, 1916, Mr. Day was the second youngest of six children. The family came to Baltimore when he was about 6 months old.

His father, Ellis, got a job in a glass factory in Westport. He made $30 a week, but his salary was cut back to $16 or $17 during the Depression.

Only white people lived in Westport, so Mr. Day's family settled in Mount Winans, a poor, rural and all-black community wedged in between the Baltimore and Ohio railroad tracks in Southwest Baltimore.

Leon Day grew up in a house on Pierpont Street with no electricity and no running water. There was a large cooking range and big, round belly stove downstairs, but no heat upstairs. Outside, there was a garden, some hogs and an outhouse.

"We were poor, but we were never hungry or raggedy," Ms. Bolden said. "Never."

Leon always had baseball.

He would regularly make the 2-to-2 1/2 -mile walk from Mount Winans to Maryland Baseball Park in Westport so he could watch the Baltimore Black Sox, a Negro League baseball team.

Anything to get into games

He would do anything to get into the games.

"I had to go over the fence, under the fence," Mr. Day said. "I got in there some kind of way."

Mr. Day also made himself into a ballplayer. When he was 12 or 13, he began playing with the local men's team, the Mount Winans Athletic Club. It was a community event.

"We had to go through a neck of woods. That is where they played ball," Ms. Bolden said. "Everybody had to go to church on Sundays. You changed clothes, ate and went down to the ballgame, old and young."

Mr. Day was young and restless. Against his mother's wishes, he left Douglass High School after two years because the school did not have a baseball team. He joined a semipro club, the Silver Moons. Midway through that summer, former Black Sox star Rap Dixon asked Mr. Day to join his professional team, called the Black Sox, which played out of Chester, Pa.

Mr. Dixon offered Mr. Day $60 a month and promised his family to look after him.

It was 1934. Mr. Day was 17.

The team was run on a shoe-string budget, and Mr. Day was lucky to get $2 or $3 a week. Mr. Dixon's team folded, and the following year Mr. Dixon went to play for the Brooklyn Eagles. He took Mr. Day with him.

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