If there was a Mount Rushmore of Negro League baseball players, Leon Day would likely be among the four faces you would see.
In hindsight, his contributions to the game are much more obvious than they were while he was playing. That might also be a factor as to why it didn’t seem like that big of a deal when Day made his way to Alberta.
While he was into the final few innings of his professional baseball career, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound hurler was picked up by the Edmonton Eskimos baseball club for the 1953 season.
Not one to toot his own horn, Day’s previous experience and even his own age seemed to be mysteries to the local media when he set foot on the Renfrew Park field.
And as it turned out, his time in the provincial capital would come to an end almost as quietly as when he entered.
A STORIED CAREER
It is easy to forgive Alberta baseball fans for not knowing a lot about Leon Day prior to his arrival. Not only was information not as readily available at your fingertips then like it is now, but the Negro Leagues didn’t get a lot of media coverage either.
It wasn’t until years later that many were able to fully grasp what he brought to the table, with the statistics speaking for themselves.
He owned a 33-16 record in 56 games, including three shutouts, 31 complete games and 237 strikeouts. He played for a handful of teams, most notably the Newark Eagles.
Day also had a trademark no wind-up delivery and his arsenal of pitches included a deceptive fastball and sharp curveball. The all star, who was born in Alexandria, Virginia but raised in Baltimore, held several Negro league records including most strikeouts in one game. In that game, he whiffed 18 batters in a one-hitter win over his hometown Baltimore Elite Giants.
Not only was he great on the mound, but he was used during his “off-days” as an infielder or outfielder as well.
“People don’t know what a great pitcher Leon Day was,” fellow National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum inductee Monte Irvin famously recalled. “He was as good or better than Bob Gibson. He was a better fielder, a better hitter, could run like a deer. When pitched against Satchel (Paige), Satchel didn’t have an edge. You thought Don Newcombe could pitch. You should have seen Day! One of the best complete athletes I’ve ever seen.”
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He even bested Paige as a member of the Homestead Grays in a controversial game during the 1942 Negro League World Series.
His baseball career was put on hold during World War II, as he was drafted into military service in September 1943 and served during the Normandy invasion.
The @nlbmprez will commemorate the 75th Anniversary of D-Day with a salute to Leon Day & Willard Brown, both part of troops who invaded Normandy. President Bob Kendrick on the legacy of both men. Worth a listen. pic.twitter.com/yzIxixHIxU
— Harold R. Kuntz (@HaroldRKuntz3) June 5, 2019
He didn’t put his glove and bat completely away during his military time though, as he played on the integrated Overseas Invasion Service Expedition All Star Baseball team, competing against teams from other units.
Day returned to the United States in 1946 and rejoined the Newark Eagles, throwing an Opening Day no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars.
The following year, Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in baseball, paving the way for Negro League players to play professionally.
Over the next few years, Day followed the money to play baseball in Mexico and Cuba, before coming to Canada for stops in Winnipeg in 1950 and Toronto in 1951.
In 1952, he led the Scranton Miners of the Eastern League with a 13-9 record and a 3.41 ERA. The following February, he headed north of the border again.
“Edmonton’s baseball Eskimos have purchased Negro pitcher Leon Day from the St. Louis Browns organization,” general manager John Ducey told the Edmonton Journal on February 20, 1953.
Day was considered a “limited service ball player” as he had less than three years of experience in “organized baseball.” Ducey admitted the team would still have to negotiate a contract with Day, saying a contract had been mailed to him.
Interestingly, the Journal article alludes to Day being a “29-year-old righthander.” In reality, Day would have been 37.
The Eskimos, who were entering their first year back in the Western International League, were hoping Day could add some depth to their pitching rotation.
Some bad news came in early-April, as it was announced Day hadn’t been in contact with the team and hadn’t signed a contract. With the season expected to start later that month, the club had to hold its breath. Nearly a week after they hit the field for the first time, they finally announced they had come to terms with Day. A relieved Ducey was pleased to have Day in the Eskimo dugout in early May.
It would take a little while for Day to get into game shape, but with the Eskimos on the road for the first 14 games of the season, they didn’t seem to be in a big rush.
On Saturday, May 9th, he finally made his debut in a relief appearance. He gave up a run as the Eskimos fell 10-7 to the Wenatchee Chiefs. Over the next couple of weeks, he would come out of the bullpen a total of six times.
In the May 21st edition of the Edmonton Journal, it was said he was “almost caught up in conditioning to inherit a starting role.”
Edmonton baseball fans finally got to see that come to fruition on May 30th.
“Today’s day-night doubleheader will mark the debut of Leon Day, a veteran Negro righthander, as an Eskimo starter,” the Journal said. “Day has turned in several sound relief chores after reporting late to the Edmontonians, without benefit of any conditioning.”
He didn’t show any signs of rust as he pitched in the evening matchup against the Lewiston Broncs, going the distance in a 7-5 victory.
“Sure, ah’m ready to start, but ah’m not saying about the route,” Day drawled ahead of the contest.
He threw an eight-hitter, striking out seven Broncs hitters and walking six.
“My arm felt good and strong out there tonight,” Day said afterwards. “Just a little wild in spots, that’s all.”
Day’s second start would come against the Eskimos’ Alberta rivals, the Calgary Stampeders, on June 5th. He struck out seven more batters and walked another five in a 4-3 win.
Four days later, he suffered his first loss as a starter, this time at Renfrew Park.
“Still not cottoning to home cooking, the Esks came home from their latest scintillating jaunt only to lay another large egg before their own clientele,” Journal scribe Don Fleming wrote. “Leon Day, suffering his first defeat in a starting role for the Esks, couldn’t get a man out in the top of the seventh and was derricked after yielding four straight singles.”
Over the next few weeks, Day continued to live up to his billing. He threw a gem on June 18th, a five-hitter against the Victoria Tyees and had been described as “popular” by writers. His spot in the rotation seemed untouchable.
The first blip on the radar for Day happened on June 23rd, when he was shelled in a four-run fourth inning against Victoria.
He bounced back six days later when he went the distance in an 8-4 win over Calgary.
“The veteran Negro righthander fore-armed the Stamps silly for eight frames and survived a good deal of ninth inning trouble to keep his club’s win streak going,” the Journal said. “Day had a three-hit shutout going into the ninth, but all at once he lost his touch and it was as if he was pitching batting practice.”
At that point, Day had a 4-2 record as a starter, but it must have been cause for concern for Ducey, who was always tinkering with his lineup. He had brought in some other pitchers to add some depth.
In July, Day came on in relief several times, including an extended appearance against Tri-City on July 15th after Pat Utley struggled in the first inning.
“Leon Day pitched canny ball for eight innings and in the top of the ninth, Edmonton went ahead 5-4,” the Journal said. “But in the bottom half, Leon weakened and Tri-City had the tying run in before Jack Conant took over with one out. Two hits off Day did the damage.”
The Eskimos would lose that contest 6-5 in 14 innings.
Day continued pitching in relief while also playing second base from time to time, picking up another win on July 30th against Calgary.
Things started to really unravel in August, culminating with two consecutive starts.
Day took a 5-1 loss in a rain-shortened game against Lewiston on August 9th, where he was “in trouble in every inning and was fortunate to have been on the scene as long as he was.”
August 14th would mark his final appearance in an Eskimo uniform, as the squad fell 10-5 to Calgary.
“Leon Day had his troubles on the hillock once again and finally he took his leave in the seventh with none out,” described the Journal article. “Eskimos general manager John Ducey was in an ill mood as he watched his pitching get shot up for ten runs for the second evening in a row.”
SO LONG, LEON
No stranger to making moves to get his team back on track, Ducey was quick to part ways with Day.
“He’s carrying too big a salary for us to carry him the rest of the season, when he hasn’t been helping us on the hill at all,” Ducey told the Edmonton Journal.
Day’s final line with the Eskimos shows a 5-5 record in 23 games, including ten starts and a 4.84 earned run average. He also sported a .229 batting average with six doubles and a triple.
“The veteran Negro pulled up stakes for his hometown Baltimore, though he indicated he would stop off at Winnipeg for a few days,” the Journal article concluded.
It would be the last of Day that Alberta baseball fans would see.
He returned to Canada in 1954 and 1955, where he would play for Winnipeg and Brandon of the semi-pro ManDak League.
After retiring from baseball, he first lived in Newark and then to Baltimore.
On March 9th, 1995, Day received word he was finally being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, becoming the 12th Negro League representative and first since 1987.
There are hundreds of talented ballplayers who, due to baseball’s segregation, never played in MLB, but arguably one of the greatest was Leon Day. Day set many Negro League pitching records, but also excelled at other positions. He was born #OTD in 1916. https://t.co/5olSZeVLjo pic.twitter.com/wCz7dLQWuA
— National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum ⚾ (@baseballhall) October 30, 2019
Just five days later, he passed away from a heart attack.
His legacy lives on through the Leon Day Foundation, an organization aimed at connecting kids to baseball in Baltimore. Day is also memorialized at the Owings Mills Library in Baltimore County.