At the bottom of the ninth, a little justice

March 16, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Sam Lacy, now entering the springtime of his 91st year, is rushing out the door to play golf when the phone call arrives: Does he remember Leon Day? Does he remember? He remembers and remembers and remembers.

Lacy is our link with the vanishing past. Leon Day departs, six days after election to baseball's Hall of Fame, and everyone must describe him with secondhand language and meager scraps of fact from a distinguished career: the 18 strikeouts over at old Bugle Field, the wins over the legendary Satchel Paige, the no-hitter he pitched after his return from World War II, but so little beyond that to flesh out the story.

Day was part athlete but mostly invisible man, relegated to the old Negro League by virtue of his skin color and statistically immeasurable simply because there are no available statistics.

But Sam Lacy was there. Sports editor of the Afro-American for more than half a century now, Lacy inhabited the same world as Leon Day and Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell and all those who played for second-class wages and roomed in third-rate hotels and waited for white baseball to get itself a conscience.

When integration finally arrived with Jackie Robinson, it was too late for those like Day, already past 30 and no longer considered a youthful prospect. It took a later generation, trying to make amends, to elect him to the Hall of Fame. And that generation did it in the final hours before Day died Monday at St. Agnes Hospital, fighting heart disease and diabetes and kidney failure but holding on for word out of Cooperstown, N.Y.

"Leon Day," Sam Lacy says now, speaking with the precision of biographical notes in an almanac. "An outstanding pitcher, although I don't think he was the best in the league. Impeccable control. Zip on his fastball. Wicked curve ball. Got along very well with his teammates. A good person. And he wasn't one of those carousers, like some were."

Lacy was there. He covered the Negro League games, and he traveled with the ballplayers and heard their laments, and then he went to bat for them.

It was Lacy, even before the arrival of Robinson, who asked Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to tear down racial barriers. Landis was immovable. It was Lacy who went to team owners and got thumbs down on integration from all but Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck.

And it was Lacy, when Robinson finally broke the color line, who was there not only to chronicle Robinson's struggle but to stand by his side, waking up one morning with him in an Atlanta house where a cross had been set afire in the front yard, having to push open a loose plank in a wooden fence and climb through when they were barred from walking through the "white" entrance to a ballpark, and writing almost daily about Robinson's incredible ordeal.

"The thing is," Lacy was saying yesterday, "not all the Negro League players were happy with me. Some of them wanted to play in the big leagues, yeah. Leon Day was bitter that he never got the chance. But a lot of them just rode with the tide all those years. They knew integration wasn't likely, so they made the best of what they had.

"But some of them got a little upset with me when I campaigned for desegregation. They blamed me for the disintegration of Negro League baseball. Some said I helped destroy an institution. Once we were in the big leagues, people stopped going to the Negro League games.

"I said, well, maybe it was an institution, but the institution was a symbol of separate and unequal. Some said I destroyed over 800 jobs in black baseball. I said, well, Abraham Lincoln took away 4 million jobs, but it was slavery, so I'll settle for that kind of destruction."

For those like Leon Day, the integration of baseball marked the beginning of the end. The Negro League was gone within a generation, and with its death many of the old stars went into complete oblivion. Day was one of them.

Only in recent years, with baseball attempting to right some old wrongs, have a handful such as Day begun to be rediscovered. Too bad it's so late in the game. Too bad Leon Day had only six days remaining to savor his honor.

And so we circulate little scraps of information about him, and leave it to those like Sam Lacy, who was there, to fill in a few blanks. Leon Day: Zip on the fastball. Wicked curve. And he wasn't one of those carousers.

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