Who is Leon Day?

The 1939 Newark Eagles; Day is bottom left. (Courtesy Dr. Bob Hieronimus)

It came pretty easy for Leon Day, rolling out of bed to play baseball for a living. At least, as easy as they made it for black ball players in the 1930s amd ’40s, an era defined by segregation in a country still slow to leave it behind.

But when Day was on the field — starting at age 17 for the Baltimore Black Sox, and for 17 years after with the Newark Eagles, Baltimore Elite Giants, and any team that would have him, from Brooklyn to Edmonton to Mexico City — he made everything about it look easy.

The positions came easy; he played almost every one of them. At the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, statues of nine legendary players are cast in bronze and placed at all the positions on the diamond. Day is in right, but they could’ve put him anywhere, at home as he was with dirt or grass or mound under his beat-up cleats. Just not at catcher–he could never stop himself from closing his eyes when the batters swung.

The defense came easy. With lightning speed and a powerful arm, he could get anywhere he needed to make a play. Buck O’Neil learned this in the 1946 Negro League World Series, when he watched a home run ball sail toward the fence, only for Day to make a flying leap and snatch the runs right back off the scoreboard.

The pitching came easy. With a heater and a curve, he beat Satchel Paige in three of their four meetings and he didn’t even use a wind-up. At Bugle Field in Baltimore, he set the Negro Leagues record for strikeouts in a game, putting down 18 hitters, pitching from the stretch. The 1942 Negro League All-Star Game saw him set down seven straight hitters. When he entered World War II in 1943, Day left behind a 45-8 record.

They even say he could sing.

It all came pretty easy for Leon Day. But buried under his country’s chronic racism, outshone by his more gregarious peers like Paige, and ignored by archivists who either didn’t find him worthy or else didn’t care who he was, Leon Day and his supporters have learned, that in baseball, the easiest thing to do is be forgotten.

The Leon Day Foundation is made up of eight people, and four of them are in this room. It’s a meeting space in the basement of a Baltimore library, and they have to be out by 7:30.

The treasurer, Dick Fairbanks, has a garage full of baseball equipment he’s trying to give away from years of coaching aboriginal children in Australia. He’s leaving a little early tonight because he’s got choir practice is at his church, and he’s the only baritone.

“I’m almost 80,” he says. “I’m not bragging. I’m complaining.”

Michael Rosenband is the historian. He coaches baseball at Carver Vocational-Technical High School, a school that does not have a baseball field. He’s used Leon Day as a figure for his players to mythologize, idolize, and aspire to.

“To have a hero, and to figure out how you can connect that hero to kids today, I think that’s what some of these Negro League ball players, especially from Baltimore, you have an opportunity to do that with,” Rosenband says.

Mark Miazga is Rosenband’s writing partner. He coaches baseball as well, having been at City College High School since 2001. He got wrapped up in Leon Day’s narrative years ago, finding parallels between his story and “Fences” by August Wilson, a play he teaches to his ninth-grade class every year.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“I saw that sort of motif of a man who was a great baseball player who didn’t get the recognition or assets he deserved,” Miazga says.

President Michelle Freeman sits at the head of the table, drove the farthest to be here, and brought all the snacks. Freeman, a senior economist, volunteers at the Babe Ruth Museum, where in 2016, she hosted a celebration of what would have been Leon Day’s 100th birthday. She’s tired, not just from driving, but from having to remind Baltimore media outlets that Leon Day should be in every conversation about the city’s biggest sports stars.

“I’m very left-brained,” she says, “so doing stuff like this is my struggle. I would rather do equations and math and derivatives. But I love baseball, my grandfather taught me everything I know about baseball, so this gives me the opportunity to put everything I like into one purview.”

Geraldine Day, in a crisp Orioles hoodie, is the last to arrive, and everyone stands when she enters for another conversation about her husband. She’s a little late, sending a wave of worry through the group, which knows she just got out of the hospital again.

This isn’t their first meeting. Mrs. Day has come to speak to 300 of Miazga’s ninth graders, and Miazga and his kids have raised money to help cover some of Mrs. Day’s medical expenses. She’s no stranger at Camden Yards, either, as Miazga learned when he attended an O’s game as her guest. Mrs. Day had directed him past “No Trespassing” signs until a security guard had stopped their car.

“You can’t–” he’d started. Then he’d spotted the passenger. “Oh, hello, Mrs. Day. C’mon through.”

They’d parked in the VIP lot and gone in a side entrance.

“You want to meet Boog Powell?” Mrs. Day asked. Moments later, Miazga had the Orioles legend’s autograph. They proceeded down to their seats–close to the action, but not too close; Mrs. Day doesn’t like all the steps–and Orioles center fielder Adam Jones trotted over to pay his respects.

Mrs. Day has a lot of fans, and four of them are in this room. They all stand to greet her and she reaches into her purse, pulling out a baseball wrapped in a black plastic bag. Miazga takes it, thanking her, and discovers it’s covered in autographs.

For a room full of baseball enthusiasts, it’s like she’s just tossed them an unusually welcome hand grenade.

Miazga examines each name: Rickey Henderson. Tim Raines. Kirby Puckett. Another one he can’t quite make out.

“Is that a ‘B’?” he asks.

“Lemme see,” says Mrs. Day. She takes a quick glance. “Johnny Bench.”

Oooooooo,” the room explodes.

The Leon Day Foundation’s mission is twofold: support youth baseball programs across the city, and  attempt to keep Leon Day in the lexicon of Baltimore sports and baseball at large. Freeman, Rosenband, and Miazga have been commissioned by SABR to write a book about their foundation’s namesake, to which Mrs. Day’s contributions have been invaluable.

Their victories have been pebbles tossed into the forceful current of history. There’s a street sign outside Camden Yards with Day’s name on it, a mural on Greenmount Avenue with his face on it, and at one point, there was talk of a city holiday in his honor. Yet, Leon Day has faded from the city’s consciousness, a yellowed afterthought behind footage of Cal Ripken jogging around the diamond and Ray Lewis screaming at the sky.

A baseball card Gary Cieradkowski created to send to local media outlets as part of Dr. Bob’s Hall of Fame campaign for Day. (Courtesy of Gary Cieradkowski )

If only today’s Baltimore sports fans could see him in his prime, witness him set down seven straight hitters in the Negro League All-Star Game. If they’d witnessed what he’d gone through overseas for his country, watching his squadmates lose limbs in booby traps and beg to be shot to death. If they could have been spectators for his masterful performance against General Patton’s 3rd Army squad in Game Two of the 1945 G.I. World Series in Nuremberg Stadium, where American soldiers used baseball as a literal pastime while they waited for their rides home from World War II. If they’d had a ticket when he’d come back from his deployment to hell on earth in 1946 with a head full of nightmares and thrown a no-hitter on opening day stateside. If they’d shaken the hand of a man lauded for his kindness and selflessness, to whom helping himself first never seemed to occur.

You can’t meet a dead man. But Mrs. Day knows how to bring her husband to life.

She declines offers of snacks and cranberry ginger ale and sits down.

“All right,” she says, “I’m ready when y’all are.”

They met at a Newark bar. She was in the neighborhood visiting her grandparents, who lived upstairs. He was working behind the counter. All they shared was some eye contact, and she didn’t come back around until three or four months later with a girlfriend. “I didn’t go up to see my grandparents that time.”

They ordered some Knotty Head gin, and “he gave us an extra drink,” says Mrs. Day. “My girlfriend said, ‘That bartender keeps looking at you.’ I said, ‘That man is too old.’”

The third time she went into his bar, she went alone.

“It was kinda crowded,” she tells. “And he jumped down to me. And we kept saying things we wouldn’t say when we were sober. I said, ‘Why you keep looking at me? Why don’t we just go and get it on?’”

If Geraldine Day– “Gerry,” back then–had been a pitcher, Satchel Paige may have had a harder time talking over her than he did her husband. Leon played the other way, barely saying a word.

“You couldn’t even tell he was on the team, he was so quiet. It was two years before I knew he was a baseball player,” Mrs. Day says. “But give him a little Johnnie Walker Red, and you’d get him talking.”

She knew Leon loved baseball. After they had been living together, he’d watch games on TV before his shifts at the bar when she was trying to watch her soap operas. One day, she finally asked him to explain the sport to her.

“Sit down; just sit right down,” Leon had replied, and expertly broke it down for her, creating a lifelong fan.

Leon eventually revealed his ball-playing past to her around 1963 by holding up a pair of tickets to Mexico, where he’d been invited to play in an old-timers game.

“Mexico?” she asked. “How are we gonna get there? Walk?”

“I was a ball player,” he explained.

Mrs. Day looked at him in disbelief. “You was what?!”

“I used to play professional baseball,” he calmly repeated.

Leon was in his mid-40s when they had first met, and his playing days were behind him, having retired professionally at 37 after a stint with the Brandon Greys of the Manitoba-Dakota League.

Mexico was the first time Mrs. Day saw her husband play the game they’d only ever watched on television together, the game that had held her spot in his heart before they’d first locked eyes across a crowded room.

“It was nice,” she says. “But you couldn’t walk half a block, it was so hot.”

The Days got married on November 1, 1980, and moved from New Jersey to Baltimore, having lived together for 19 years while her family disapproved because of the age gap. He took a dangerous job as a security guard, but Mrs. Day was hired as a forklift driver, loading and unloading trucks, and told her husband to retire the year before.

When she is able, Mrs. Day has stayed active in the Leon Day Foundation’s programs, and the group works to strengthen communities of young ball players with the sport her husband loved so much. She came out for the LDF’s “Sandlot Saturdays,” when they used the warmth of a mild winter to knock on kids’ doors for a pick-up game at Leon Day Field, supplying bats and balls and teaching them how to play.

In late July 1995, Mrs. Day was there when her husband was paved even more literally into Baltimore sports lore. Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke presided over a ceremony that renamed a street outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards “Leon Day Way.”

Mrs. Day pulled the cover off to reveal the sign, and Day’s sister, Ida May, almost fell to her knees. Frank Robinson was in the crowd, nodding solemnly. “The recognition that’s coming to Leon Day is coming a little late,” Robinson said, “but at least it’s coming now.”

And the next day, everybody went to Cooperstown.

It was March 1992, and the Baltimore Sun had killed Leon Day three years before he would die.

In a column discussing a recent Hall of Fame ballot, writer Jim Henneman had listed a group of names up for induction, including Leon Day’s, but closing with the summation that, “All are deceased.”

“Leon Day is alive,” read an aggressively-typed letter to the editor in the paper’s evening edition. “Leon Day is not deceased… The only drawback keeping Baltimorean Leon Day from enjoying the Blessing of Cooperstown while he is still in his physical body is his lack of name recognition.”

The letter’s author, Dr. Bob Hieronimus, was in the middle of advocating for his close friend Leon Day’s induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. That he had to briefly pause the campaign to remind the local paper that Day was even alive is a perfect indicator of how well things had been going.

Dr. Bob knows how to get to New York. He’s headed up there from Baltimore this coming February, when he will drive a bus leading a caravan to Woodstock to commemorate the music festival’s 50th anniversary. And if you know Dr. Bob, then you know that if he’s working on something, it gets worked on with all of his being.

“I’m 75 now,” he says. “None of us are in good health at the age of 75. I have seven doctors. One for my hand, one for my heart, one for my liver, one for my throat, one for my eyes, etc., etc. All artists run into this problem at some time: You overuse your body, because it’s all you have.”

Getting to New York is one thing. But getting to Cooperstown takes more than a bus.

It takes elite talent, it takes the favor of the BBWAA, it takes time, and money; it takes a toll on your body and soul. And if you’re not a well known figure, if you never pitched an inning in the major leagues, regardless of your statistics, it’s going to take a lot longer. It’s going to take interviews on Larry King and the backing of Al Gore, as Leon Day received. It’s going to take someone like Dr. Bob and his associates battling bureaucrats, making angry phone calls, and pushing back against ignorance, apathy, and silence.

Dr. Bob is a muralist, a radio host, a trained occultist, a former seminarian, and a Negro Leagues historian, to do a light sweep of his various occupations. Give him your astrological sign and he’ll tell you, “You’re in trouble now; I know all about you.”

But more than anything, he’s a presence. At no point did he make himself more known than when he was needling Cooperstown to get Leon Day into the Hall of Fame. And if he’s going to relive “one of the longest and most costly projects that myself and my wife have ever gotten involved in,” he’s going to need a drink.

“Hello, Meg?” Dr. Bob calls to his assistant. “Give me a shot of whiskey here; I can drink it out of this Pellegrino bottle.”

The first mural Dr. Bob ever painted back in the ’60s was in an undergrad building at Johns Hopkins University. Originally planned to be on one wall, “The Apocalypse” spiraled into a massive reflection on history’s tendency to repeat itself, spanning four walls and reaching the ceiling. Dr. Bob took up residence in the building, telling Baltimore Magazine that he’d “lived on 22-ounce cups of coffee and tuna fish sandwiches.” As he was finishing up, a disgruntled student threw a bucket of blue paint on it and added six months to the job.

As an artist, Dr. Bob has struggled with overseers to display his vision as purely as he’s conceived it. He’s also struggled to get paid. Both applied to the mural that can be seen over Greenmount Avenue in Baltimore, entitled “A Little Help from our Friends,” a portrayal of symbols and figures whom Dr. Bob holds dear, including, on the far right, Leon Day.

“A Little Help from Our Friends” mural. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Bob Hieronimus)

The mural’s commission had included the same type of struggles he was used to, including censorship and finances. Nobody showed up with a bucket of blue paint, but somebody did steal all the scaffolding after the first day of work. The wall that served as the canvas takes a particular beating from the sun, and the mural has been restored twice since its completion in 1996. And yet, alongside Bob, Ziggy, and Stephen Marley, a yellow submarine, Martin Luther King, Jr., an extraterrestrial, the Liberty Bell, a bald eagle, and others, on the far right, Dr. Bob’s dear friend, Leon Day, keeps coming back.

“I wanted him to be seen as people are riding down Greenmount Avenue toward the inner part of the city, so that he’s one of the first things that they see in the top right,” explains Dr. Bob. “I wanted to make sure people realize that even though he may be dead, we still have his image. You probably already know how kind of a person he was, so I don’t want to bore you with this, but I’ve never seen any adult be as kind to children.”

(Photo courtesy Justin Klugh)

No one feels the need to talk about Day’s character. It is simply assumed that if you know Leon Day’s name, then you know of his kindness, his patience, his gentleness bordering on silence.

Dr. Bob works with the Negro Leagues Ballplayers Association, the mission of which is to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of Negro Leagues players. The NLBA has been invited to the White House on occasion, depending on the baseball fandom of who was living in it. The players didn’t hesitate to make themselves at home in George H.W. Bush’s office.

“One of the funniest pictures I’ve ever seen is one of these baseball players sitting at the presidential desk with his feet up on top of the desk like a big shot,” Dr. Bob says. “And Bush saw it, and he laughed his balls off, as everybody else was going, ‘You can’t let him do that!’”

When he’s with the former players in the NLBA, Dr. Bob is finally with a group that doesn’t need to be reminded who Leon Day is or what his legacy deserves.

“They all thought the world of Leon,” Dr. Bob says. “Every one of them always told me look if you can do any good to get this guy in the Hall of Fame, this guy is even better than Satchel Paige.”

Leon Day’s longtime absence from the Hall was another indication of its broken procedures. Each year, the release of the Hall of Fame ballot, and each writer’s subsequent votes, as well as those of the separate committees, devolves into a cantankerous scrum because players of Leon Day’s caliber aren’t yet voted in.

“This process is not a very fair process,” Dr. Bob says. “Since Leon was small and black, and since he never talked big about himself, most people didn’t realize how important he was. And that’s why we had to speak out for him.”

“It comes down to people being lazy,” says Gary Cieradkowksi, an artist and writer who helped Dr. Bob with the campaign. “They didn’t want to have to work for that. If you want to look that stuff up, it was in bound books of yellowing newspaper and you had to sit there with a little pad and paper–this was before cell phones, so you couldn’t take pictures of this stuff, you had to just sit there and tabulate it and hope you got it right. And they just ignored him; they would look at him like he doesn’t exist, like you were talking about aliens or something like that.”

Cieradkowkski’s path intersected with Dr. Bob in 1991, when he was doing graphic design work for the Orioles’ future home at Camden Yards and Dr. Bob was hosting a local television show. Having grown up in Newark, he had heard stories of Leon Day and the Newark Eagles, and been thrilled as a preteen baseball fan to discover the archived newspapers detailing the team’s exploits at his local library. Through Dr. Bob, he got to actually meet and become good friends with Day, a man who had only existed to him between column inches, and Cieradkowksi found himself as an art student invited to the meet-ups of former Negro Leagues players, bonding with them over a love of jazz music from the 1940s and ‘50s.

Cieradkowkski willfully entered the fight to get Day into the Hall of Fame, illustrating baseball cards of Day with his statistics on the back to send to local journalists and media outlets and spread awareness of his friend’s accomplishments on the diamond. Throughout the campaign,

“The two things that were against Leon Day were that he was so soft-spoken, and that back in the late eighties, early nineties, the big thing against the Negro Leagues was that people would say, ‘Oh there’s no statistics, nobody knows how good these guys are.’ They published statistics in box scores just like the white leagues; if you went to the Baltimore Afro-American archives and went through them, they had box scores for pretty much most games from the late thirties up until 1946. You just have to dig harder. They didn’t want to work for a story that should have been told. Bob was fighting that like crazy.”

In 1993, Day was set to be voted in, finally, by the veterans committee. But committee member Roy Campanella, who had voted for Day every year he had been on the committee, had grown ill and wasn’t able to attend. The Hall of Fame wouldn’t let him submit an absentee ballot, and Day missed his induction out by a solitary vote.

A phone rang angrily in Cooperstown that day.

“Boy, did I give the Hall of Fame hell for that,” Dr. Bob says. “But they played hard ball with him and they rejected it, and that’s when Leon said, ‘No more. You guys talk about how I deserve to be in, and it never works out. And I don’t want to do this.’”

It wasn’t until 1994 that a Hall of Fame representative finally called Dr. Bob with the news he’d been waiting to hear: They were ready to vote Leon Day into the Hall of Fame, they just had to vote Phil Rizzuto in first. The following year, it would be Day’s turn.

By this point, Leon’s health was deteriorating, his patience was eroding, and the promise of induction after one more trip around the sun just wasn’t enough.

So Day and Dr. Bob made a deal. “‘This is what’s going to happen,” Dr. Bob relates his friend’s request: “‘When you find out whether I get in or not, I want you to be the the person to tell me that I did it. Because I want to look you in the eye.’ He was tough when it came to this kind of stuff. He didn’t want bull shit.”

The next year, they wheeled Day out of the operating room to deliver the news to a 78-year-old man with a failing heart and trouble in his kidneys.

“Where’s Dr. Hieronimus?” Day demanded.

“He’s NEVER called me Dr. Hieronimus,” says Dr. Bob. “Ever. It’s always Bob. Dr. Bob. Hieronimus was never used by him until then, and I understood what that meant: ‘You tell me. You face the music.’ We told him what happened, and the first thing he said was, ‘No shit?’”

“He did not believe it. He almost cried, right then. And as you know, five days later, he was gone.”

When you ask, “Who is Leon Day?” you get a plethora of answers: A man of quiet persistence and unquestionable skill, a World Series champion and a veteran of a World War, a Baltimore native and now, a Hall of Famer. There’s a reason why he’s on street signs and murals, why former mayors have instituted city holidays in his honor, why four people gather in a library basement in hopes that his story can go further, and allow his love of baseball to flow into the communities in which he lived.

“Leon was always a man by himself; a philosopher. He didn’t leap to conclusions, he was very fair, he didn’t talk negatively about anybody, he told funny jokes, and he never put people down.” Dr. Bob bursts out laughing. “And he just loved stepping out of Cadillacs.”

Leon Day’s plaque in Cooperstown. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Bob Hieronimus)

Leon Day went out knowing he’d pushed into Cooperstown, thanks to a little help from his friends.

It came pretty easy to Laymon Yokely; rolling out of bed to pitch nine innings for a living. So easily, in fact, he probably could have just stayed there: the massive, six-and-a-half-foot tall hurler could often be found snoozing under the bench between innings, to the point that some believed he suffered from narcolepsy.

The pitching came easy. With a cracking whip of an arm motion, Yokely’s delivery started with his hand low behind his back, a move they say gave him an extra bit of hellfire on every heater. It was good enough to flummox the likes of Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Hack Wilson, and all of the legendary white players Yokely would occasionally face as a Negro Leagues pitcher for the Baltimore Black Sox from 1926-31.

The pain came pretty easy, too; people liked to watch Yokely pitch, so the Black Sox kept pitching him. He threw a no-hitter in 1929 and won both games of a doubleheader–twice. By 1930, the fire in his arm had died down and he retired in the late thirties to start a ball club of his own called Yokely’s All-Stars.

“The Leon Day Foundation uses his likeness to teach kids how to stay off the streets and play baseball, just like Leon did on the streets of Baltimore in the 1920s.,” Cieradkowski says. “He was involved in a junior league team called Yokely’s All-Stars, run by this guy who was a local legend, Laymon Yokely. So it’s kind of like, now Leon’s name and his likeness and his memory is being used in the same way.”

You can still be legendary, even if nobody knows the legend.

When Michael Rosenband first got his baseball coaching job at Carver, the athletic director took him to Leon Day Field along Baltimore’s Gwynns Falls Trail, where Rosenband asked a question that many historians have not:

“Who is Leon Day?”

He learned. He liked what he learned. It was Leon Day who Rosenband was talking about in an alley while his kids played when someone walking by overheard him.

“Did you just say ‘Leon Day?’” the passerby asked.

She told him about an organization called the Leon Day Foundation that operated out of her office building.

“Let me put you in touch with the president,” offered the stranger.

Rosenband found an organization on its last legs that hadn’t assembled in months. The original goal had been to connect kids to baseball, but they were now operating at the mercy of their time and resource constraints. They asked Rosenband if he wanted to join. He accepted.

As a coach, Rosenband has invoked the image of Leon Day to his players and watched him become someone they admired, some of then incorporating his name into their social media handles. The programs instilled at the field that bears Day’s name, the foundation of which Rosenband is a part, and the example that he gets to use of a Baltimore-raised athlete who torched hitters wherever they’d let him play, has branched from a singular figure into bus after bus full of inspired young ball players.

“Seventy-five percent of my kids have never played before. We’re teaching rules of the game without even having a field,” Rosenband say. “Anytime I put a kid at third base, and he’s never played baseball before and he fields a ground ball and throws the guy out, it feels like a miracle, every time that happens.”

They may not reach Cooperstown, but they still benefit from playing the game.

“When I played sports in high school, and let’s say we lost a football game and somebody laughs on the bus ride home. There’s going to be hell to pay. I remember we would lose a game and I would wonder, why are they not upset about this? What I realized is the bus ride home, even after a loss, and let’s say it’s a 30 minute bus ride–that is such safe, sacred space. I have to think about how often do these kids ride a bus that’s theirs, because they take public transportation to get to school.”

His enthusiasm got Rosenband the role of historian with foundation. While going through a divorce, he spent a lot of time at the library, where he decided to take his job to heart, focusing on Day’s 1942 season. Squinting at birth dates, Rosenband was startled to realize one of Day’s strikeout victims, Art Pennington, was still alive. Which shouldn’t have been surprising about a player they called “Superman.”

“I tracked him down and within four days I was in Iowa on this guy’s living room floor,” Rosenband says. “In between that time, I connected with Dr. Bob, and it wound up [that Pennington was] one of his heroes in the Negro Leagues. He gave me all sorts of neat stuff to give to him when I went. I always think back to when I was in Art Pennington’s living room and I’m reading this letter to him, and for me it was really emotional and I was crying and he was probably like, ‘What the hell is this guy doing in my living room?’”

Rosenband left Iowa, and instead of returning home to Maryland, took a right turn somewhere around Missouri, embarking on an unplanned pilgrimage to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He saw the bronze statues with Leon Day in right field, he marveled at the depth and brand of baseball that existed before baseball had integrated. He was buying pennants for all the teams Leon Day had played for in the gift shop, babbling as he often did about the player that had brought him there, when a local Kansas City woman’s ears perked up behind him.

Michelle Freeman knew Satchel Paige and the Monarchs. But when Rosenband brought up Leon Day, she asked him the same question that had put him on a plane to Iowa:

“Who is Leon Day?”

A few months later, she was president of the Leon Day Foundation.

He’s a name, passed from person to person in a Baltimore alleyway, shouted during angry phone calls, or excitedly discussed in line at a museum gift shop. A face looking over Greenmount Avenue at a phantom hitter who is about to be back on the bench. A bartender whose face grew flushed when his future wife cut through the bullshit. And a figure who even in death, is still very much alive in Baltimore.

“Leon can act as a symbol,” says Dr. Bob, “for anyone who is thought of as nothing.”

Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.
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5 years ago

Great piece. Thank you.

5 years ago

Your article is an early Christmas present. Much appreciated. True that the stats for Negro League players are becoming available as researchers comb the archives – mostly newspapers published in the Black community. The stats that are most meaningful are those from head-to-head games played after (and sometimes – rarely – before or even during) the regular season between Black barnstorming teams and white all-star teams. These happened most every year during the Thirties and into the Forties. Leon Day excelled as much as any player in this competition. Only Babe Ruth would rival his two-way abilities as pitcher and hitter. [“Double-duty Radcliffe” would always have a special place as pitcher and catcher.] It is fun but also sad to use the comparative metrics to imagine what integrated baseball would have looked like. Buried beneath the Jackie Robinson story are all those aging Negro League stars like Leon Day who could have played for any MLB club in 1947. It was too little too late for them.

5 years ago

This is an excellent article, Justin. I look forward to more from you as you delve into Baltimore’s baseball culture. A small quibble, though – The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City is not a hall of fame, as noted under the Visit NLBM page on its website (http://nlbm.com/s/visit.htm):

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is NOT a Hall of Fame. Often the museum is referred to as the “Negro Leagues Hall of Fame” or “Black Baseball Hall of Fame” and various names. It is important to the museum that we not be referred to as such. The NLBM was conceived as a museum to tell the complete story of Negro Leagues Baseball, from the average players to the superstars. We feel VERY strongly that the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, NY, is the proper place for recognition baseball’s greatest players. The Negro Leagues existed in the face of segregation. Baseball’s shrines should not be segregated today. Therefore, the NLBM does not hold any special induction ceremonies for honorees. As space allows, we include information on every player, executive, and important figure. However, we do give special recognition in our exhibit to those Negro Leaguers who have been honored in Cooperstown.

5 years ago

The Ultramagnetic MCs put him in a song.


Jetsy Extrano
5 years ago

There is so much great in this article! Gosh, the story about Roy Campanella not getting to vote is heartbreaking.

> I said, ‘Why you keep looking at me? Why don’t we just go and get it on?’


5 years ago

Thanks for this. I’ve been wanting to learn more about Leon Day ever since I saw his name on the street sign north of Camden Yards some 15-20 years ago. I tried looking in some books about the Negro Leagues, but they mainly told of his exploits on the field and were missing the human dimension that this story has.

It’s unfortunate that his peak playing days were before the color line was broken. Had he been born just ten years later and gotten a chance to play in the majors, he probably would be much better known today so that no one would have to ask who he was.

Eric Robinson
5 years ago

Great article! I enjoyed how much I learned from this article and not just about Day himself but from the men and women working to keep a forgotten player’s legacy alive.