There wasn't a whole lot Leon Day couldn't do on a baseball field. He played a smooth second base and a slick center field. He was a steady .300 hitter. But it was on the mound where he achieved real greatness as a ballplayer.
Mr. Day, raised in Southwest Baltimore from the time he was six months old, was a stand-out of the storied Negro Leagues, the ace of the Newark Eagles pitching staff. In a 1942 game at his home town's Bugle Field, he struck out 18 Baltimore Elite Giants, including catcher Roy Campanella three times. He won three of his four recorded confrontations with another renowned hurler, Satchel Paige. He pitched a no-hitter on Opening Day in 1946, his first game after returning from World War II, during which he had served as a member of the Normandy invasion force.
Negro Leagues alumni remember Leon Day as a charismatic man who was a ferocious competitor. Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, an Eagle teammate of Mr. Day's, recalled facing the Baltimorean when the two men played on different clubs in a Puerto Rican winter league.
"The first time I came to the plate, he knocked me down," Mr. Irvin said. "I said to him, 'I'm your teammate. I just got here and I'm hitting .250.' He said, 'I'm going to make sure you don't hit .251.' "
Sunday in ceremonies at Cooperstown, N.Y., Leon Day will join Monte Irvin in baseball's Hall of Fame. Sadly, though, Mr. Day will do so as the first person who died between his election to the gallery of baseball greats and his induction.
The word of his overdue invitation to Cooperstown came last March while he was laid up at St. Agnes Hospital. But six days after the good news, he succumbed to his various physical ills. His sister, Ida May Bolden, said she believed the 78-year-old Mr. Day fought off death just long enough to learn that he had made it into the Hall of Fame.
The 12th Negro Leaguer to be selected for induction at Cooperstown and the first in eight years, Baltimore's Leon Day is highly deserving of the honor. It confirms, for posterity, the splendor that he brought to the diamond during an era when many superb ballplayers toiled in the shadows of the national pastime.