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Leon Day

Leon Day

Career: 1934-1950
Positions: p, 2b, of
Teams: Baltimore Black Sox (1934), Brooklyn Eagles (1935), Newark Eagles (1936-1939, 1941-1943, 1946), Venezuelan League (1940), Mexican League (1940, 1947-1948), military service (1944-1945), Baltimore Elite Giants (1949-1950), minor leagues (1950-1954)
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Height: 5' 9''   Weight: 170
Born: October 30, 1916, Alexandria, Virginia
Died: March 13, 1995, Baltimore, Maryland
National Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee (1995)

The most consistently outstanding pitcher in the Negro National League during the late 1930s and 1940s, Leon Day was a heady pitcher whose money pitch was his fastball. The Newark Eagles' ace right-hander had a good curve and change of pace to complement his speed. A strikeout artist, he holds the strikeout record in the Negro National League, the Puerto Rican League, and the East-West All Star game.

Not only was Leon a great pitcher, but he was also a fast base runner (once running a 100-yard dash in 10 seconds in his baseball uniform) a good fielder (regarded as the best fielding pitcher in the league and who functioned as a fifth infielder), a good hitter (with averages of .320, .336, .274, .469, and .271 to show for the seasons of 1937, 1941, 1942, 1946, and 1949), and a recognized team leader (and one of the most respected and best-liked players on the club).

With the exception of catcher, the versatile athlete played every position well, and when not on the mound, often started at second base, in center field, or pinch-hit. In 1941 a publicity release described Day as "the most versatile and outstanding player on the team" and "the most desirable player on any club." Before the season was over, he lived up to the billing. On opening day he was the starting pitcher, but when the regular center fielder was drafted, he moved into the middle pasture for most of the reason. After returning to mound duty later in he season, an injury to an infielder required him to leave the rotation again to play second base, where he formed a double-play combination with Monte Irvin that was unchallenged.

His best season record came in 1937 when, backed by the Eagles' "million-dollar infield," he finished league play with a perfect 13-0 record, with his only loss coming in an exhibition game. However, his best performance year was in 1942. Appearing in a record seven East-West All Star games from 1935 to 1946, the Eagles' star hurler won his only decision and set an All Star record by striking out a total of 14 batters. In the 1942 game he struck out 5 of the 7 batters that he faced, without giving a hit.

Earlier that season he established the Negro National League strikeout record when he fanned 18 Baltimore Elite Giants while following only a bloop single over shortstop by the first batter in the game. In postseason play the Homestead Grays, after dropping the first three games to, the Kansas City Monarchs, added Day to their World Series roster to face the Monarchs' Satchel Paige. The tough little competitor responded with a five-hit victory over his more illustrious opponent.

Available records show a 7-1 ledger for Leon in league play for that season. Following another good year in 1943, when he was described by the press as "the best pitcher in colored baseball today," despite a 5-4 ledger, Day missed two prime years when he was drafted into the Army during World War II. After two and a half years in an amphibian unit that landed on Utah Beach during the Allied invasion of France, he was discharged in February 1946.

Returning to the Eagles, he picked up where he had left off., pitching an opening day no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars and not allowing a runner past first base. After the opening day no-hitter, Leon continued his pitching heroics, topping the league in strikeouts, innings pitched, and complete games, and finishing with a 13-4 record as the Eagles captured the pennant. Even though his arm was hurt, the veteran moundsman started two games in the World Series, and made a game-saving catch while playing center field in another game, as the Eagles edged the Kansas City Monarchs in seven games for the championship.

The hardworking competitor also played in Latin American leagues, including leagues in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Mexico. Beginning with his first trip in 1935 and an All Star team, Day played six winters in Puerto (1935-1936, 1939-1942, 1949-1950), establishing the league's single-game strikeout record in 1941 by fanning 19 batters in an extra-inning game. In another game, pitching with Aquadilla in January 1942, he struck out 15 in a nine-inning game and again earned the distinction as the leading pitcher in the winter league for the 1941-1942 season.

In 1940 he pitched in Venezuela with the Vargas team, carving out a 12-I record while pitching his team to the championship. After breaking up the Venezuelan League because of his dominance, Day signed with Veracruz in the Mexican League, where he logged a perfect 6-0 record, with a 3.79 ERA, and contributed a .298 batting average while annexing his second pennant of the season. He returned to Mexico again for two seasons in 1947-1948 with the Mexico City Reds and also played his second winter season in Cuba that year (having played before in 1937), finishing with a composite 8-4 Cuban record.

He began playing baseball as a youngster in Baltimore's Mount Winan's district, and after quitting school after the tenth grade, he played sandlot ball with the local athletic club. In 1934 he was playing second base for the semi-pro Silver Moons ballclub, but at midseason he made his first excursion into professional baseball with the Baltimore Black Sox, playing out of Chester, Pennsylvania, where he earned $60 a month. The next season he joined the Brooklyn Eagles, where manager "Candy Jar" Taylor converted him to a full-time pitcher and he recorded a 9-3 ledger for the season. His long association with the Newark Eagles began in 1936 when Abe Manley bought the Brooklyn Eagles' franchise and consolidated it with the Newark Dodgers to form the Newark Eagles. After his perfect record in 1937, he injured his arm in the winter and missed virtually all of the 1938 season. Through hard work and determination he rehabilitated the arm and was credited with 16 wins against only 4 losses in 1939.

The 1949 season, spent with the pennant winning Baltimore Elite Giants, was his last full season in the Negro Leagues, although he spent about a month in the spring of 1950 with the team. He left the Elites early in the season to play with manager Willie Wells' Winnipeg Buffaloes in the Mandak League. During the 1951 season he left the Canadian team and entered organized baseball at age thirty-five, pitching for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the AAA International League. In 1952 he played with the Scranton Miners of the Eastern League, and the next two seasons he was with the Edmonton Eskimos in the Western International League (1953) and the Brandon, Manitoba ballclub in the Mandak League (1954).

In contrast to the confidence he exuded in competition, off the field he maintained a modest demeanor, but both on and off the field, Day displayed a calm temperament. After closing out his baseball career, he worked as a security guard, a mail carrier, and as a bartender in ex-teammate Lennie Pearson's lounge before opting to enjoy the life of a retiree. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995.

Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Leon Day photo

Leon Day