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Negro League star Leon Day waits for fame

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ida May Bolden saw her younger brother play baseball on the sandlots of Mount Winans in Southwest Baltimore every Sunday when he was a boy. She saw him strike out 18 batters at Baltimore's Bugle Field and pitch a no-hitter at Newark's Ruppert Stadium when he was the star pitcher for the Negro National League's Newark Eagles.

Her brother is Leon Day. He is 78, suffers from gout, diabetes and a bad heart and has spent most of last week in a bed at St. Agnes Hospital. Tuesday he is up for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It might be Mr. Day's last chance to see himself get elected.

"I almost think if Leon gets in the Hall of Fame he'll get better, because that is all he's thought about all his life," Ms. Bolden said from the West Baltimore home that she shares with her brother and his wife. "That has been his greatest ambition."

A pitcher, outfielder and second baseman who spent the bulk of his career with the Negro National League's Newark Eagles, Mr. Day cannot be judged by statistics, which are incomplete, but only by the memories of those who played with and against him.

"He's always been the best pitcher of every team he's ever played," said Monte Irvin, a member of the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee and Mr. Day's former Eagles teammate. "He played center field as good as or better than our starting center fielder did. The center fielder at that time was me."

Mr. Day was a good hitter and fielder, but he was best known as a pitcher. He appeared in a record seven Negro League all-star games, and he defeated the legendary Kansas City Monarchs pitcher Satchel Paige in three of their four recorded meetings. But unlike the flamboyant Mr. Paige, Mr. Day is a quiet, soft-spoken man who does not brag about his accomplishments. Many historians and former players say that's why Mr. Day has not yet been elected to the Hall of Fame.

That was his only fault," said Mr. Irvin, a Hall of Famer. "But he was never worried about money, he was always the best pitcher, and he was one of the most talented people who ever played, all around."

According to Mr. Irvin, this is Mr. Day's year.

The Hall of Fame has adjusted its rules to enable the Veterans Committee to elect more Negro Leaguers. And with Mr. Irvin and Kansas City Monarchs first baseman Buck O'Neill on the committee, Mr. Day has two major advocates. Mr. O'Neill, who is not in the Hall of Fame, said that Mr. Day is the last living Negro Leaguer deserving the honor.

"He's the only living candidate," said Mr. O'Neill, the star of Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary. "He's the only one left. That's my opinion."

Born in 1916

Born in Alexandria, Va., on Oct. 30, 1916, Mr. Day was the second youngest of six children. The family came to Baltimore when he was about 6 months old.

His father, Ellis, got a job in a glass factory in Westport. He made $30 a week, but his salary was cut back to $16 or $17 during the Depression.

Only white people lived in Westport, so Mr. Day's family settled in Mount Winans, a poor, rural and all-black community wedged in between the Baltimore and Ohio railroad tracks in Southwest Baltimore.

Leon Day grew up in a house on Pierpont Street with no electricity and no running water. There was a large cooking range and big, round belly stove downstairs, but no heat upstairs. Outside, there was a garden, some hogs and an outhouse.

"We were poor, but we were never hungry or raggedy," Ms. Bolden said. "Never."

Leon always had baseball.

He would regularly make the 2-to-2 1/2 -mile walk from Mount Winans to Maryland Baseball Park in Westport so he could watch the Baltimore Black Sox, a Negro League baseball team.

Anything to get into games

He would do anything to get into the games.

"I had to go over the fence, under the fence," Mr. Day said. "I got in there some kind of way."

Mr. Day also made himself into a ballplayer. When he was 12 or 13, he began playing with the local men's team, the Mount Winans Athletic Club. It was a community event.

"We had to go through a neck of woods. That is where they played ball," Ms. Bolden said. "Everybody had to go to church on Sundays. You changed clothes, ate and went down to the ballgame, old and young."

Mr. Day was young and restless. Against his mother's wishes, he left Douglass High School after two years because the school did not have a baseball team. He joined a semipro club, the Silver Moons. Midway through that summer, former Black Sox star Rap Dixon asked Mr. Day to join his professional team, called the Black Sox, which played out of Chester, Pa.

Mr. Dixon offered Mr. Day $60 a month and promised his family to look after him.

It was 1934. Mr. Day was 17.

The team was run on a shoe-string budget, and Mr. Day was lucky to get $2 or $3 a week. Mr. Dixon's team folded, and the following year Mr. Dixon went to play for the Brooklyn Eagles. He took Mr. Day with him.

In 1936, the Eagles moved to Newark under new ownership. That's when Mr. Day began getting paid regularly and began sending money home every week. He left specific instructions to give some of it to his older sister.

"I remember the first bathing suit that I owned, I bought it with money that Leon sent me," Ms. Bolden said.

18 strikeouts

Mr. Day's homecoming in 1942 was a sweet one. In a night game against the Baltimore Elite Giants, he struck out 18 batters, which historians regard as the Negro National League record.

At the time, Bob Feller held the American League record of 18 strikeouts in a game and Dizzy Dean held the National League mark of 17. Ms. Bolden took the streetcar to the Elites' Bugle Field at Federal Street and Edison Highway to see her brother play. That was a night, surrounded by friends and family, that she will never forget.

"I remember we went crazy," Ms. Bolden said. "The park went wild. There was a lot written up about him in the papers."

Dick Powell, the longtime promoter of the Elites, was the scorekeeper that night and laughs when he thinks about it.

"The reason why I'm laughing is because Felton Snow, who was the manager of the team at that time, said the lights were dim," Mr. Powell said. "Naturally, fellas want some kind of excuse when they look so bad."

A fastball pitcher

Mr. Day made a lot of people look bad. He was primarily a fastball pitcher, but he also had a good curve and a change of pace. Hitters could not figure out his deceptive no-windup delivery. Mr. Day threw the ball from his ear, like the infielder he had been, playing in Mount Winans. The hitters called it short-arming.

"He threw that ball more or less from his hip," said Gene Benson, an infielder with the Philadelphia Stars. "He didn't rear back and come right over his shoulder. He came right from his thigh, but he would whistle that ball and make it move. He could bring it."

After the 1943 season, Mr. Day went to war. He fought the white supremacy of Nazi Germany in a segregated Army unit. After participating in the Normandy invasion, Mr. Day played against some white major leaguers before 100,000 servicemen at Nuremberg Stadium. He pitched a four-hitter and defeated the major leaguers, 2-1.

No longer the same

Mr. Day returned to the States in 1946 just in time for spring training with the Eagles. Although only 30 years old, Mr. Day admits he was past his prime as a pitcher.

The war years had taken a lot out of him physically. Maybe he hurt his arm pitching in postwar exhibitions. Maybe something happened to him during the war.

Mr. Day knew his arm didn't feel right.

"It wasn't the same no more," he said.

But he still had one terrific performance left in him.

It came on opening day against Mr. Benson and the Philadelphia Stars.

The stands were packed at Newark's Ruppert Stadium. Ms. Bolden had taken the bus up from Baltimore with her husband. She had not seen her brother since he had returned from the war. Mr. Day pitched a no-hitter.

"We were just amazed at the strength he had gained when he was in the Army," Ms. Bolden said.

Mr. Day's performance that day belied his physical condition. In the fifth or sixth inning, he fielded a swinging bunt and permanently injured his arm. He says he faked it the rest of the afternoon. His teammates carried him off the field on their shoulders.

He spent a few more years playing in the Negro Leagues, and in Mexico and Canada, but that moment was his last hurrah.

The last one unless he can get his day at Cooperstown.

One vote shy

In 1993, he was one vote shy of the necessary 75 percent needed for election from the Veterans Committee. But Roy Campanella, a former catcher for the Baltimore Elite Giants, was ill that day and could not cast the deciding vote.

This year, the Hall of Fame has created special ballots for Negro League and 19th-century players. The committee is able to elect one player off each ballot for the next five years.

The rule changes, combined with Mr. Irvin's and Mr. O'Neill's presence on the committee, should get Mr. Day elected.

'The best chance'

"He's got the best chance he's had for a long time," Mr. Irvin said. "I have been plugging very hard the last five or six years, ever since Ray Dandridge got in."

Mr. Dandridge, a third baseman with the Eagles, was the last Negro Leaguer elected by the Veterans Committee -- in 1987. He died last year.

Like Mr. Dandridge, Mr. Day says he hopes to get into the Hall of Fame when it still means something to him.

"It would mean an awful lot. It's too bad they waited so long, God almighty," Mr. Day said from his hospital bed. "They could have done it when I could have enjoyed it more."

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