(b. 30 October 1916 in Alexandria, Virginia; d. 13 March 1995 in Baltimore, Maryland), baseball pitcher in the Negro Leagues who is regarded by some as the best all-around player and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995.
Day was one of two children born to Ellis Day, a glass factory worker, and Hattie Lee. Shortly after Leon’s birth, the family moved to Mount Winans, Maryland, where Day grew up watching the Black Sox of the Negro Leagues play. At the age of twelve he played sandlot baseball for the Mount Winans Athletic Club. Then he joined a semiprofessional team, the Silver Moons, playing second base and pitching.
After one year of high school in Mount Winans, the five-foot, nine-inch, 175-pound Day dropped out in 1931 to play baseball. In 1934 one of Day’s teammates on the Silver Moons told the Black Sox manager, Rap Dixon, about him. After seeing Day play, Dixon immediately offered him $50 a month to play for the team. Day readily accepted. He distinguished himself on the mound by establishing a right-handed, no-windup delivery to the plate, and he became known for his fastball. Famed for his quiet demeanor, he was called “the gentleman of the box” by his teammates. When he was not called on to pitch, he sometimes played either second base or a position in the outfield. However, the Black Sox failed to pay him the agreed-upon salary, and Day joined the Brooklyn Eagles in New York for the 1935 season. With the Eagles he received the first of seven invitations to play in the Negro Leagues All-Star East-West Game.
At the end of the 1935 season Day, like many other Negro Leagues players, traveled to Puerto Rico to play winter ball. He hit .307 from the right side of the plate. In 1936 Day returned to the Eagles, which during the off-season had left Brooklyn for New Jersey to become the Newark Eagles. Day continued to play for the Eagles until he injured his arm playing in the winter league in Cuba and had to miss the 1938 season. He returned to the Eagles in 1939 and was selected again to play in the all-star game. On 17 July 1939 Day married Helen Elizabeth Johnson. They had one daughter. Shortly after her birth in 1952, the couple separated, but their divorce was not finalized until the early 1970s.
In 1940 Day and his Newark Eagles teammate Ray Dandridge played in the Mexican league, but Day returned for the 1941, 1942, and 1943 seasons with the Eagles. Day finished the 1941 season with a .331 batting average, and in 1942 he set a Negro Leagues record of eighteen strikeouts in one game. He was elected to play in the 1942 all-star game and pitched against Satchel Paige, defeating Paige 5 to 2. At the end of the season Day was picked up by the Homestead Grays to pitch against the Kansas City Monarchs in the World Series. Day faced Paige once again and won 4 to 1. Day struck out twelve batters and surrendered only one walk and five hits in the game. The owners of the Monarchs protested the Grays’ use of Day’s pitching arm. The victory was disallowed, and Day was sent home.
Midway through the 1943 season Day was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served in the segregated 818th Amphibious Battalion that landed in Normandy, six days after D Day. At the conclusion of the war, Day was a pitcher with his army unit baseball team, which defeated General George Patton’s Third Army team for the European theater of operations baseball championship. The two teams played in Nürnberg before a crowd of more than 100,000. Day’s unit then played the Mediterranean theater champs and soundly defeated them also.
Returning to the United States in 1946, Day picked up the ball for the Newark Eagles and immediately hurled a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars. He played in twenty-two games and batted an impressive .385. Unfortunately, Day injured his arm again at the end of the season. Nevertheless, the Eagles defeated the Kansas City Monarchs for the Negro Leagues championship that year. Dandridge convinced him to return to Mexico, and Day spent the 1947 and 1948 seasons playing in the Mexican baseball league for the Mexico City Reds.
Day returned to the United States in 1949 and joined the Baltimore Elite Giants, who won the pennant that year. Day played in fifty-seven games, the most of any season of his career, and finished the season with a respectable .271 batting average. He declined to play for the team a second year and signed with the Winnipeg Buffalos in the Canadian league. The following year he pitched for Toronto in the International League, and in 1952 he played for Scranton of the Eastern League, a farm team of the Boston Red Sox. He batted .314 and compiled a thirteen-to-nine pitching record for 1952. In 1953 Day returned to Canada to play for the Edmonton Eskimos in the AAA Western International League that season and the next. He finished his career with Brandon of the same Canadian league in the 1955 season.
After he retired, Day settled in Newark and managed a bar called Hodes. In 1970 he moved to Baltimore, where he took a position as a security guard with a transfer company. He retired from that position in 1979 and remained in Baltimore the rest of his life. In November 1980 he married Geraldine Ingram.
In 1993 Day was inducted into the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame. On 30 July 1995 Day learned of his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, before his induction ceremony, he died at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore from complications associated with heart disease and diabetes. Day is buried in Arbutus Memorial Park in Baltimore. Posthumously, in 1998, he was elected to the New Jersey Sports Hall of Fame.
Day was one of the Negro Leagues’ greatest pitchers. Some have compared his abilities to Paige, while others have argued that Day’s talent surpassed those of Paige. Day’s performance on the field may be debated, but the impact of segregation on and off the field during the era in which he played is not. The color line in baseball prevented Day from showcasing his pitching talent before a wider audience. Later, when baseball was integrated, his age prevented Day from moving on to the major leagues. Day’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame validated his contributions not only to Negro Leagues baseball but to the entire sport.
A file of biographical clippings is in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The Baseball Encyclopedia (1996) has a section on Negro Leagues players that lists Day’s baseball statistics by year. James A. Riley, Dandy, Day, and the Devil (1987), and John B. Holway, Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers (1988), each devote an entire chapter to Day’s baseball career. Frazier “Slow” Robinson, Day’s teammate on the Baltimore Elite Giants, discussed Day’s performance as a player in Catching Dreams (1999). The Baltimore Sun (24 Sept. 1992) features an article about Day’s experiences in the Negro Leagues. Articles regarding his death and his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame are in the Baltimore Evening Sun (14 Mar. 1995) and the New York Times (14 Mar. 1995). In addition to the above materials, the present article is based on the author’s interview with Day’s daughter, Barbara Jean Hart.
Jon E. Taylor