An Overshadowed Ace
By: Matt Kelly | @mattkellyMLB
Satchel Paige was the Negro Leagues’ most famous player and its most colorful personality, while Leon Day often let his pitching do the talking. Paige was the Negro Leagues’ first Hall of Fame inductee in 1971, while Day waited until March 8, 1995 – six days before his passing – to hear the Hall call his name.
But many Negro League stars who saw both pitchers in their prime claimed that Day was Paige’s equal. Some even said he was better.
Here are some key points to know about Day, one of the Negro Leagues’ great aces.
• Let’s start with the Paige comparison. Day and Paige matched up four times, and Day won three of those contests, according to contemporary records. Day would later recall that he and Paige were once locked in a scoreless duel until the ninth inning, when Day himself came up to the plate and homered to give himself a 1-0 victory.
But while Paige was often the first to promote his triumphs, Day’s peers usually had to boast on his behalf.
“Leon was as good as Satchel Paige, as good as any pitcher who ever lived,” said fellow Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, a former teammate of Day. “But he never made any noise. Leon was never the promoter Satch was.”
Added Larry Doby, another Hall of Famer, “You talk about Satchel … I didn’t see anyone better than Day.”
• Day was born outside Washington, D.C. in 1916, and he made the Negro National League’s Baltimore Black Sox when he was just 17 years old. The following year, Day moved over to the Brooklyn (later Newark) Eagles, where he would develop into a star. He threw a one-hitter in his first year in Brooklyn and earned the first of his record seven All-Star selections.
By 1942, when Pittsburgh Pirates president Bill Benswanger asked Pittsburgh Courier writer Wendell Smith to suggest candidates for a Major League tryout, Day was on Smith’s short list alongside stars like Josh Gibson and Willie Wells.
• Nineteen-forty two was also the year for three of Day’s most memorable performances. In July, Day struck out a Negro National League record 18 hitters in a one-hit victory over the Baltimore Elie Giants. The next month, Day entered the East-West All-Star Game out of the bullpen and shut down a rally by the West, retiring their last seven hitters in order – including five via strikeout.
Then, Day found himself at the center of a controversy in Game 4 of the Negro League World Series. Homestead Grays owner Cumberland Posey signed Day (alongside several other star position players) prior to the game to pitch for his club, and Day outdueled Paige once again, striking out 12 in a breezy 4-1 victory over the Kansas City Monarchs. But the Monarchs protested Posey’s additions and threatened to cancel the rest of the series. Kansas City’s protest was upheld and Game 4 was disallowed, and the Monarchs won the next contest to sweep the series.
• Those who were unfamiliar with Day’s style might have mistaken him for a position player pitching the first time they saw him. That’s because Day famously short-armed his delivery, releasing the ball up close to his ear instead of employing a traditional windup.
“When I threw overhand, it would hurt my shoulder,” he said, “but from here [motioning to his ear], I’d feel nothing. I threw my fastball straight up. I couldn’t throw overhand, so I jerked it at them. It fooled a lot of hitters.”
• Day was also an accomplished hitter and fielder when he wasn’t starring on the mound. Contemporary records list him as a career .311 hitter, and he hit .379 across 65 plate appearances during his final season with Newark in 1946.
• Day’s Negro Leagues career was put on hold when the Army drafted him into service during World War II, and he helped land supplies on Utah Beach six days after the Battle of Normandy took place on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Though he was in the military, Day still found a way to show off his talent. He was recruited to play for the integrated Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All-Star team and found himself on the mound for Game 2 of the 1945 ETO World Series in front of a crowd of more than 50,000 in Nuremberg, Germany. Day outdueled Ewell Blackwell, a future six-time All-Star pitcher for the Reds, by striking out 10 and allowing four hits in a 2-1 victory.
Rust was not a factor for Day when he returned to the Negro National League from wartime on May 5, 1946. That was Opening Day for the Eagles, and their ace promptly no-hit the Stars, setting the tone for Newark’s lone championship season. Day pitched in two games in that year’s Negro League World Series, and also made a game-saving catch as an outfielder as part of Newark’s seven-game triumph over the Monarchs.
• Day was often used as utility player once he finally got his shot in organized Minor League Baseball. His last flash of excellence on the mound came with the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs in 1951, when he recorded a 1.58 ERA across 14 games (13 of them out of the bullpen).
• Day’s stardom extended beyond the United States; he also played six seasons of winter ball in Puerto Rico, and he pitched in Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and Canada, too. He was elected to the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993, two years before his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.