Logo courtesy of award-winning graphic artist and baseball historian Gary Cieradkowski
Editor’s note: On Oct. 30, Hall of Fame pitcher Leon Day would have been 100 years old, and I wanted to commemorate the landmark day in this blog somehow. I thought about what I could write or say, but then I decided to let you, my readers and the Negro Leagues community, to say it with your words, thoughts, feelings and memories.
Helping me was Michelle Freeman, who’s done a yeoman’s job with the Leon Day Foundation in Baltimore, which has striven to honor Day’s memory and promote his achievements and impact on the national pastime, including a series of upcoming events to mark Day’s centennial birthday.
So many thanks to Michelle and to everyone who contributed comments for this blog post. Without further ado, let’s get to honoring Leon! …
Mariposa de Canarsie:
Well, I heard of Leon Day as a fan of the Newark Bears, who had is name on the stadium’s Wall of Honor, but really did not know about his career with the team until meeting you, Michelle. So what he means to me is that through his legacy, we forged a friendship. And through the Jerry Malloy conference I became friends with Ryan, Rod, Leslie, Susan, Ted, Belinda, Larry and Jay. I have developed a deep appreciation for this league, especially the teams that played in New Jersey and New York.
Tod Bolton and I used to go to Leon’s house every year when the [Hall of Fame] Veterans Committee would meet. Monte Irvin, who was on the committee, was the driving force for Leon’s enshrinement. He would tell me he would call after the meeting to let us know of the committee’s decision. In 1994, [Day] didn’t make it, as we know, and I said to Leon, “You know they are just waiting for you to die,” and Leon said, “I’m going to stay alive just to piss them off.”
I loved Leon as he was a man with a great, dry sense of humor with the scratchiest voice. Another memory was when Leon was appearing at a card show with Joe DiMaggio and they took a picture together. Joe was asked in front of Leon if he ever faced Leon, and he said no, and Leon said he’s lucky he didn’t. I miss the man.
If I knew then what I know now …
In the early ’90s, I attended a gathering of former Negro League greats at the Pratt Library in Baltimore. Among those scheduled to appear was the great righthander Leon Day. Realizing that my friend, Steelton’s Paul Dixon, and Leon had been teammates on several teams in the ’30s, I made a mental note to discuss Paul with Leon.
Upon meeting, Leon could not have been more warm, friendly and open. In my scarce few minutes with the great pitcher, we discussed Paul, and he shared some adventures that they had had, and he gave me his phone number to pass along to my friend Paul.
Sadly, we did not discuss Rap Dixon, Paul’s older brother, much at all, although Leon did tell me that he never saw Rap play in his prime, and he added, almost as an afterthought, that Rap Dixon had been his first manager. Leon signed a baseball that already included Hall of Famers Buck Leonard and Monte Irvin, and a dozen others. We parted and went about participating in the wonderful event.
A few years later, my autographed baseball added a third Hall of Famer when on March 8, 1995, Leon Day received the call from the Hall informing and congratulating him upon his election. Sadly, Leon passed just a few days later and never made it to Cooperstown for his induction later that summer.
Years later, I received an answer to my unspoken question. In the intervening years and up to the present day, I remain convinced that Rap Dixon, my friend Paul’s brother, belongs alongside Leon Day in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I had always wondered what Leon really thought of Rap Dixon as a player. In 2001, William F. McNeil published a book entitled “Cool Papas & Double Duties: The All-Time Greats of the Negro Leagues,” in which he surveyed many former Negro League players about who they would select as an all-time starting nine. To my extreme pleasure, I found Leon Day was one of the players surveyed. I immediately went to Leon’s page and found he named the following players to his all-time lineup … the ninth player, in position No. 9, the right fielder, was, to my utter joy, Rap Dixon. In his all-time nine, [Leon] had named eight Hall of Famers (only five of which were so honored at the time) and Rap Dixon.
Photo courtesy James Tate
I met Mr. Day at the 1990 players’ reunion in Baltimore. He was a delightful man to speak with. I asked him about the ball players he enjoyed watching when he was kid, and it was through him that I first learned of players like Jud Wilson, Oliver Marcell, Rap Dixon, Pete Hill and Laymon Yokely and the Baltimore Black Sox. I knew I had to learn more about these players and this great team that he spoke so highly of! He signed a hat and some cards for me. After he made the Hall, his wife Geraldine added “HOF 95” to the hat for me at another Negro League event. I cherish it and still have it and wear it on a few occasions.
When you think of Leon Day, you think of the word COMPLETE. In today’s game, you have great pitchers, but perhaps they aren’t great fielders. You hear of pitchers who field their position well. Some today can even hit. With Leon Day, you think of being great everywhere! He could pitch (boy, could he pitch), he could hit, he could run. He played the infield, and he played the outfield! Who could do that today?
One word: Stud. He could do it all.
I was inspired by his spirit to want to continue to tell the stories of these incredible people.
I think Leslie’s brief but powerful comment is a good way to summarize and conclude this post about one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. Again, many thanks to everyone who contributed something, and if anyone else wants to add their thoughts or comments, add them below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, of course, Happy Birthday, Leon!