Leon Day, Honored at Last

March 12, 1995

One of baseball's most enduring shames is its neglect of the old Negro leagues. That is gradually being remedied by long overdue recognition of some black stars who played before 1947, when Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey broke the color barrier in major league baseball. Now it's the belated turn of Baltimore's Leon Day, who has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame decades after he should have been.

Leon Day was a big star in those leagues, but his name is less known to fans, even African-Americans, than the millionaire players with inflated egos who pass for stars today. In part that is because of his quiet, unassuming nature. He saved his flash for the mound, where he delivered a blazing fastball and sharp curve with hardly a windup. From a hospital bed, the 78-year-old Mr. Day saw nothing but the bright side of the event. Yet in recent years he had started to doubt if he'd be elected in his lifetime.

Even today baseball buffs remember Bob Feller, a contemporary who struck out 18 batters in one game. They remember Dizzy Dean, who fanned 17. Mr. Day also struck out 18 in a game, among many other achievements. Lest anyone wonder whether the Negro National League had inferior players, Mr. Day pitched against an exhibition team of white major leaguers three years later, winning the game with a four-hitter. Like the venerated Babe Ruth, Mr. Day was an all-round player, as adept at second base or center field as he was on the mound.

Baseball owners sometimes wonder why they see mostly white faces in the stands at their games. The long neglect of black contributions to the sport is part of the answer. One of the most informative exhibits at baseball's FanFest during the All-Star Game festivities here in 1993 was devoted to the old Negro leagues. Symbolically, it was still at the back of the bus, tucked away in the rear of the second floor, out of the main flow of visitors.

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