Day's fastball dominated 'black baseball'
Seven-time Negro League All-Star ranks No. 5 among pitchers
In the wake of "The Year of the Pitcher" and in a salute to Black History Month, MLB.com posed the following question to a panel of 19 of the most respected authorities on "black baseball," a term that includes the period before Rube Foster founded the Negro Leagues in 1920. Who were the top five black pitchers prior to the integration of the Major Leagues? Based on a compilation of their rankings, the countdown toward No. 1 begins with Leon Day, checking in at No. 5.
|Bob Kendrick: Former marketing director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and an authority of black baseball.|
|Raymond Doswell: Interim president of the museum, a historian with a PhD and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|Don Motley: Co-founder and former executive director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, long-time youth baseball coach in Kansas City area.|
|Larry Lester: Author, historian, SABR member and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|Dick Clark: Author, historian, SABR member and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|Robert Ruck: Senior lecturer in history at Pitt, author and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|Leslie Heaphy: History professor at Kent State, author, SABR member and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|Brian Carroll: History professor at Berry College, SABR member and an authority of black baseball.|
|John Overmyer: SABR member, author and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|James A. Riley: Author of Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues (seminal work in this area) and authority on black baseball.|
|Phil S. Dixon: Author and an authority on black baseball.|
|John Thorn: Author, SABR member and an authority on black baseball.|
|Isaac Brooks: SABR member and an active member of the Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference.|
|John Klima: Journalist and baseball authority.|
|Craig Tomarkin: SABR member, baseball statistician and an expert on black baseball.|
|Paul E. Doutrich: History professor at York College, SABR member and an expert on baseball.|
|Chris Murray: Sportswriter with an expertise in black baseball|
|Chuck Johnson: Writes a column for MLB.com.|
|Charles Alexander: History professor emeritus, SABR member and an authority on baseball.|
World War II had ended, and Leon Day was ready to trade his Army khakis for a flannel uniform of the Newark Eagles. On Opening Day of the 1946 season, he duplicated a feat Bob Feller had accomplished six years earlier with the Cleveland Indians: Day pitched a no-hitter. He didn't allow the Philadelphia Stars to advance a runner past first base.
"To come back after the war and be performing at the same level of excellence, I think to a lot of folks, this is a guy who really was on the elite level," said Adrian Burgos, a history professor at the University of Illinois and an authority on black baseball. "This was not a fluke; this is who he always was."
When Day left for the military after the 1943 season, he took the title of "the best pitcher in colored baseball" with him. Considering the talent the Negro Leagues boasted, such a title was high praise.
But Day had earned it.
In a career that ran from 1934-50, Day proved to be a complete pitcher. Though just 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, he possessed a high-octane fastball that overpowered hitters. He had a sharp curveball, pinpoint control and a change of pace that kept a hitter off-balance.
Using no windup, Day had the full complement of skills that defined greatness, which explains why experts consider him to be among the five best pitchers in Negro League history.
"There's no question -- from his record and from all the things you heard guys say about him -- he was the real deal," said Bob Kendrick, former marketing director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. "I don't think you can talk about great Negro League pitchers without Day being in the conversation."
The discussion of Day centers as much on his overall athleticism as it does on his cannon arm. He might have been one of the fastest men to play baseball during his era. He might have been one of the finest hitters ever, and he was definitely one of the game's most versatile and most respected players.
During his career in the Negro Leagues, Day appeared seven times in the East-West All-Star Game, the signature summer event and social gathering for fans who followed the Negro Leagues.
In his 1942 All-Star appearance, Day faced seven batters and struck out five without giving up a hit.
Earlier that year, he established a Negro National League record for strikeouts in a game when he fanned 18 batters in a one-hit performance against the Baltimore Elite Giants.
Yet as brilliant as that outing was, it was merely typical of how Day pitched throughout his career. He proved to be a workhorse, and like the more heralded Satchel Paige, Day took his right arm wherever a paycheck could be earned. His performances outside the United States made Day's star shine even brighter.
Pitching year-round, he played for teams in Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. He struck out a record 19 batters in 1941 for a team in Puerto Rico. A year earlier, he pitched Vargas to a championship in the Venezuelan League.
In some respects, Day's Hall of Fame career mirrored Feller's. For like Feller, Day was a star before and after the war.
Justice B. Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.