Arguably the best pitcher in baseball's Negro Leagues in the 1930s and early 1940s, Leon Day notched one of the top percentages of games ever won in the history of baseball, whether segregated or integrated. Pitching for the Newark Eagles and several other clubs, he appeared in seven Negro League All-Star Games, once struck out 18 batters in one game, and emerged the winner in three of four head-to-head pitching duels with the famed pitcher and quipster Leroy "Satchel" Paige. "Leon was as good as Satchel Paige, as good as any pitcher who ever lived," Baseball Hall of Fame member Monte Irvin told the New York Times, after Paige's death in 1995. "But he never made any noise. Leon was never the promoter Satch was."
The fifth of six children, Day was born in Alexandria, Virginia, on October 30, 1916; his father, Ellis, worked in a glass factory. The family moved to the Mt. Winans neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland, when Day was a baby. As a child he climbed fences to see the games of the local Negro League team, the Baltimore Black Sox, and played with local semi-pro teams on Sundays after church. Family members recalled that the usually quiet youngster would become highly animated when he talked about becoming a baseball player, and when he was 17 he dropped out of Baltimore's Douglass High School to join the Black Sox.
Joined Brooklyn Eagles
After his mother's death in 1934, Day left Baltimore to join the Brooklyn Eagles for a salary of $50 a month. He stayed with the Eagles through their move to Newark, New Jersey, in 1936, and remained until the early 1940s. His fastball, delivered in a unique sidearm motion without a windup, quickly began to terrorize Negro League batters, and he was a strong hitter and bunter, as well as an effective outfielder or second baseman, on days when he did not pitch. Day notched a 9-2 record in a 50-game season in 1935, appearing in his first Negro League All-Star Game that year, and in 1937 he went undefeated with a 13-0 record and had a batting average of .320.
Day's win totals reflected only a part of his accomplishment, for black baseball teams of the day played many games beyond the official league schedule. Though Negro League baseball was well-loved among white Americans, its players were miserably compensated. "A lot of times we didn't have a hotel or a rooming house so we just slept on the bus," Day told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "We weren't eating right, and my corns would be killing my feet," he added in conversation with the Washington Post. "The only time I got rubbed down was by myself. You had to love it to go through it." Day had another banner year in 1942, when he struck out 18 players on July 23 and beat Paige 4-1 while pitching for the Washington Homestead Grays in the Negro League World Series.
In 1942 and 1943 the Pittsburgh Courier ranked Day ahead of Paige as the league's top pitcher, but Day's career was sidelined in 1944 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Day was part of a unit that landed on the Normandy coast of France six days after D-Day. "I was scared as hell," Day told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I'll never forget June 12. I lost a lot of good friends." Toward the end of the war, Day pitched in two integrated servicemen's games in Nuremberg, Germany, and Marseilles, France, besting white major-leaguers in front of huge crowds. He was discharged from the army in February of 1946 and worried that he had lost his touch as a pitcher. But he threw a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars on the first day of the 1946 season.
Played in Latin America
That year, though he struggled with a persistent injury to his pitching arm, he notched a 13-4 record and started two games in the Negro World Series, in which the Eagles beat the Kansas City Monarchs. He batted an impressive .469 in 1946 as well. The next year he followed other top players, both black and white, who left U.S. leagues for more financially rewarding Latin American baseball diamonds. Playing in Mexico in 1947, Day made his all-time best salary of $5,000. He played winters in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela as well, once notching 19 strikeouts in a game in the Puerto Rico Winter League. During several seasons he played baseball for nearly 12 months of the year.
Day returned to the Newark Eagles in 1949 in the wake of Jackie Robinson's courageous initial season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and by that time the color line in the major leagues was well on its way to breaking down completely. Robinson and other players had extended feelers to Day in 1946 about signing with the Dodgers, but he was already under contract to the Newark team, and a loss in his first outing in the 1946 series directed the attention of major league scouts elsewhere. But in 1951, clearly in the twilight of his career, Day was signed to Toronto, Canada's team in the International League, one step below the major leagues. He had a 1-1 record that year, with an earned-run-average of 1.58.
After playing for several more years in Canada and with the Scranton, Pennsylvania, farm team of the Boston Red Sox, Day retired in 1955. His winning percentage has been estimated at .698 and .708--Negro League statistics were often sketchy, but either figure would place Day ahead of any other pitcher in baseball's Hall of Fame. Day returned home to Baltimore, got married, and worked as a bartender, security guard, and a janitor at a Holiday Inn. His characteristic modesty showed in his relationship with his wife Geraldine, from whom he hid his illustrious background. "I think we were living together two years before I found out he played," she told the Buffalo News. "I think I heard him talking on the phone and that's how I found out."
Radio Host Championed Hall Induction
Day emerged into the limelight occasionally in his later years, appearing on radio's Larry King Show and visiting the White House twice (he met President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore). He exemplified two linked problems: the destitute economic state of many former Negro League players, and the underrepresentation of Negro Leaguers in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Baltimore talk show host Bob Hieronimus was aware that Day had developed cancer, diabetes, and heart and kidney problems, along with their high medical costs, and he began to drum up support for Day's induction into the Hall of Fame, knowing that the former player would immediately begin to reap lucrative rewards from baseball card shows and other celebrity appearances after his induction.
For several years in the early 1990s, however, Day was passed over, and his condition worsened. "He'd say, 'I know what they're waiting for,'" his sister Ida Mae Bolden told the New York Daily News. "'They're waiting for me to die, but I ain't going nowhere.'" On March 7, 1995, Day was finally voted into the Hall. The elated ballplayer made plans to attend the induction ceremonies in Cooperstown the following July. "It's too bad they waited so long, God almighty," Day told the Chicago Sun-Times. "They could have done it when I could have enjoyed it more." He died in Baltimore on March 13, 1995, six days after being named to the Hall of Fame.
Selected: Played in seven Negro League All-Star Games, 1935-42; inducted into National Baseball Hall of Fame, 1995.