National Leon Day brings back memories of one of the Negro Leagues’ best pitchers
As one of the Negro leagues’ top hurlers – he was a seven-time All-Star – it turned out any day he was pitching could be Leon’s day.
“People don’t know what a great pitcher he was! In my opinion, he was as good or better than Bob Gibson,” said Monte Irvin, who played with Day on the Newark Eagles. “When he pitched against Satchel, Satchel didn’t have any edge.”
Another former teammate in Newark, Larry Doby, concurred with Irvin but went a step higher.
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“I didn’t see anybody in the major leagues that was better than Leon Day. … You talk about Satchel; I didn’t see any better than Day,” he claimed.
It is possible – had he had the opportunity – Day could have been among the best pitchers in the major leagues. The Pittsburgh Courier named Day to its All-American team for the Negro Leagues in 1942, and on Aug. 20, 1942, the Associated Press reported the Pittsburgh Pirates’ president, Bill Benswanger, asked Courier writer Wendell Smith which Negro Leaguers could be considered for a tryout. Day was among Smith’s responses, as were Josh Gibson, Sam Bankhead, and Willie Wells.
Drafted into the Army in the middle of World War II, where he served with the segregated 818th Amphibious Battalion, Day nevertheless proved war could not prevent the best matchups baseball had to offer. Sam Nahem, who pitched for the Phillies before joining the military, recruited Day to play for the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition (OISE) All Stars, an integrated club, in August 1945. The OISE All-Stars were to play the 71st Infantry Division’s team in the 1945 ETO World Series in Nürnberg, Germany.
In Game 2 of the best-of-five series, Day struck out 10 and allowed four hits in a 2-1 victory. Though he could not reprise the effort in Game 4, the OISE All-Stars clinched the upset in five games.
Matt Rothenberg is the manager of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum