Leon Day: A Hero Down Neck and Overseas

By Christopher Warner

Stretching along Wilson Avenue between L and K in The Ironbound, Ruppert Stadium was home to the Newark Eagles from 1936 to 1948. The ballpark (later demolished in 1967) showcased some of the greatest talent in Negro League history, including Hall of Fame pitcher Leon Day. Heralded for his deceptive, no wind-up delivery and well-rounded athleticism, Day would also make headlines some 4,000 miles away from Down Neck.

Shortly after the end of WWII in Europe, an armed services ‘World Series’ took place in Nuremberg, Germany, on the site of former Nazi parade grounds. The match-up saw the heavily favored 71st Infantry Division “Red Circlers” — a team loaded with Major Leaguers — take on the clunky-named Overseas Invasion Service Expedition All-Stars (OISE), a ragtag team comprised mainly of semi-pros and minor leaguers. However, the squad also featured a pair of formidable weapons: Newark’s Day and fellow Negro League standout (and future Hall of Famer), Willard “Home Run” Brown. 

In an effort to keep up morale, American soldiers of all ranks played on makeshift fields throughout the war. The odd mix included Brooklyn’s “Subway Sam” Nahem, an ex-big league pitcher who also held a law degree and actively campaigned for social justice. As a Jewish intellectual with far-left political views, Nahem could be found reading the likes of Balzac and Shakespeare in the dugout and was once described by The Sporting News as “An Attorney Who Abstains Injunctions Against Batters.” After enlisting in the Army, Nahem eventually landed in Reims, France, where he managed and played for OISE. But, more importantly, his integrated roster would serve as a precursor to the game’s future two years before Jackie Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn.  

Both Day and Brown had been drafted into military service in 1943 and assigned to segregated units. Shortly after D-Day, the star hurler landed in Normandy with the 818th Amphibious Battalion, delivering much-needed supplies and ammunition at Utah Beach. “I was scared as hell,” Day later recalled. “I’ll never forget June 12. I lost a lot of good friends.” 

Before trading in his bat for a rifle, the muscular Brown roamed the outfield for the powerhouse Kansas City Monarchs, emerging as one of the premier home run hitters of his era. While playing winter ball in Mexico and the Caribbean, he was simply known as “Ese Hombre” (“That Man”), thrilling fans with his tape-measure blasts and vibrant personality. Contrastingly, the soft-spoken Day preferred to let his fastball do all the talking. In 1942, the Eagles’ ace established a Negro League record by striking out 18 batters in a game against the Baltimore Elite Giants. Like Brown, Day augmented his income by playing in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Venezuela. 

Day in 1943, from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

By the time Germany surrendered in May 1945, over three million American G.I.s had remained in Europe for clean-up duty. Military brass set up a series of baseball tournaments, culminating with the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) World Series. The “Red Circlers” (nick-named for the distinctive patch of the unit) boasted nine Major Leaguers, led by Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell, an imposing 6’6″ fireballer with a blistering side-armed delivery. As a member of the Cincinnati Reds, he later tossed a no-hitter and lead the National League in wins.  

The best-of-five series opener took place on September 2, 1945 at the newly converted ‘Soldier Field.’ Formerly known as Reichsparteitagsgelände, the stadium functioned as the centerpiece of a vast complex designed by Hitler’s personal architect, Albert Speer, and spanned seven square miles. But on a gloriously sunny day in Bavaria, the stars and stripes flew in place of swastikas as over 50,000 American troops enjoyed a game featuring two African Americans on the same field where Hitler had once propagandized his demented message of Aryan superiority.

As expected, Blackwell dominated game one, fanning nine batters in a 9-2 victory broadcasted live by Armed Forces Radio. Game two saw another stellar pitching gem — this time by Day, who recorded ten strikeouts while flashing his tremendous speed on the field. Throughout his career, he possessed a deep versatility that allowed him to play nearly any position and could run 100 yards in a world-class time of under 10 seconds while in his baseball uniform. 

With the series tied up one apiece, the teams traveled to the home field of OISE in France, where they split the next two games. A coin flip sent the finale back to Germany, where Sergeant Nahem took the mound against Blackwell in front of another packed crowd. With the score deadlocked 1-1 in the 7th inning, Day came in as a pinch-runner and proceeded to steal second and third before scoring the tying run. Two innings later, OISE took the lead for good to claim the title and ETO bragging rights. 

Upon returning to Reims, the victors received a heroes’ welcome. In his book, The Victory Season, author Robert Weintraub writes, “Back in France, the winners were feted by Brigadier Gen. Charles Thrasher. There was a parade and a banquet complete with steaks and champagne. Day and Brown, who would not be allowed to eat with their teammates in many major-league towns, celebrated alongside their fellow soldiers.” It’s also worth noting that no protests or calls for racial divide occurred during the series — just baseball. 

After pioneering his integrated Army team, Nahem practiced law and later moved his family to the San Francisco Bay area, spurred by McCarthy-era red-fear attacks. His outspoken beliefs and strong-willed convictions had made it difficult for him to find work. Nonetheless, he remained a vocal advocate for civil rights and became a union organizer, never losing his faith in humanity — or wry sense of humor. “I’ve been mentioned in the same breath as Koufax. The breath usually is, ‘Sam Nahem is no Sandy Koufax.'”

Despite Jackie Robinson’s historic debut in 1947, the road to the Major Leagues for non-White players remained treacherous, plagued by racist owners, hostile teammates, and unruly fans. Brown would play briefly with the hapless St. Louis Browns, becoming the first black player in the American League to hit a round-tripper. But the constant abuse and poor treatment eventually took their toll, leading to his release after only 21 games. However, the slugger soon rejoined the Monarchs — a team vastly superior to his previous employer. “The Browns couldn’t beat the Monarchs no kind of way, only if we were all asleep,” Brown said. “Major league team?’ They got to be kidding.”

Day never made the jump to the Bigs, viewed by scouts as too old and past his prime. So instead, the hard-throwing strikeout artist returned to Newark, where he opened the 1946 season with a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars. He continue to play for another decade at various levels, finally hanging up his spikes for good in 1955. Following his retirement from baseball, Day worked as a bartender in Newark before returning to his native Baltimore. Then in 1995, while in hospice, Day received word that he’d been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee. Sadly, he passed away six days later from diabetes and heart disease complications at age 78. 

Legendary outfielder Monte Irvin, one of seven Newark players enshrined at Cooperstown, had this to say about his former teammate: “If we had one game to win, we wanted Leon to pitch.”

Nuff said. 

Christopher Warner is an actor and freelance writer. He has written for several magazines and websites across multiple genres, including Military History, Portland Monthly, WWII Quarterly, International Living, Aviation History, and Irish America

Featured image by Christopher Warner