Leon Day: The 1945 G.I. World Series
Back in the late 1980’s, I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of Leon Day. The old Negro Leaguer lived nearby me in Baltimore, and I would spend afternoons in his little second floor baseball room listening to his stories. I once asked him what was the best game he ever pitched, and instead of naming his Opening Day no-hitter or one of his record-setting strikeout games, Day told me about his Game 2 masterpiece in the 1945 G.I. World Series…
By 1943, Leon Day was one of the best pitchers in baseball. The ace of the Newark Eagles since 1935, Day had a collective Negro National League record of 45-8. During the ‘42 East-West All-Star Game, Day entered the game in the 7th inning and struck out out 5 of the first 7 batters, beating the great Satchel Paige. The next year Newark had a lousy team, hampered by players entering the service, and Day’s record fell to 4-5 before he too got the call from Uncle Sam.
Day shipped out to England with the 818th Amphibian Battalion and went ashore on Utah Beach on June 12th, 1944. Leon drove a DUKW, a six-wheeled amphibious vehicle, across France and Belgium throughout 1944 and ’45.
With Germany’s surrender in May of 1945, more than a million U.S. servicemen had nothing to do but wait around for their ticket home. To keep the idle soldiers occupied, the military higher-ups looked to America’s Pastime for help, and the “G.I. World Series” was born.
Three teams were selected to compete in a round robin playoff with the two top teams competing for the European Theater of Operations Championship – the “G.I. World Series.”
The 66th Division Panthers, featuring former big leaguers Walt Hilcher, Tom Pullig, Harvey Riebe and Calvin Chapman plus various minor leaguers, won the XVI Corps championship and then beat the Air Corps and Ground Forces Replacements teams for their spot in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, in Occupied Germany, Patton’s Third Army was represented by the 71st Division Red Circlers (named for their distinctive red circle shoulder patches) who pounded their way to the playoffs led by Cincinnati Reds ace Ewell Blackwell and St. Louis Cardinals All-Star Harry Walker. To ensure victory, Patton had seven additional former big leaguers transferred into the 71st just in time for the playoffs, making a total of nine major leaguers and 3 more who’d make their debuts right after the war. Patton’s men annihilated the 7th Army All-Stars for the number two berth in the playoffs.
The third spot went to one of the most unlikely and unusual teams in the European Theater: the OISE All-Stars.
Named after the region of Northern France where they were based, the OISE All-Stars represented Com-Z: the army command in charge of communication lines and logistics in liberated territory. Based in Reims, France, Com-Z ‘s athletic officer was “Subway Sam” Nahem, a former big league pitcher with the Dodgers, Cardinals and Phillies, now a sergeant. In April of 1945, Nahem was instructed to create a Com-Z baseball league. From a patch of French grass and three baseballs grew a thriving league that continually drew crowds of 10,000 GIs. Nahem’s own Theater Service Forces European Theater (TSFET) team won the right to represent Com-Z in the semi-finals.
Looking over the rosters of the other teams competing for a spot in the Playoffs, Nahem could see dozens of former big leaguers and many other professionals with experience in the high minors. Nahem decided to beef-up his club with the best players from the rest of the Com-Z units, but the problem was that, unlike the other commands, Com-Z didn’t have many professional players. Sgt. Nahem had to improvise and, in doing so, inadvertently created the first integrated baseball team in U.S. military history.
As an ammunition-carrying unit, Leon Day’s 818th Amphibian Battalion was part of Com-Z. Besides Day, the Com-Z command had another Blackball great, Willard Brown, the home run-hitting star of the Kansas City Monarchs. While most white fans of the game had never heard of Leon Day or Willard Brown, Com Z’s coach sure had. Nahem was, among many things, a staunch progressive when it came to civil rights. As a ballplayer he often presided over dugout discussions about the integration of professional baseball and, being from Brooklyn, most likely had seen Day and Brown first hand when their Negro League teams played the Brooklyn Bushwicks before the war.
Day and Brown joined a scrappy team of ballplayers who may have lacked big league experience but made up for it with perseverance and pluck.
Besides Nahem, the only other player on the squad with big league experience was Russ Bauers, a starting pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates since 1936 whose best years were behind him. The rest of the mound corps consisted of Bob Keane and Marvin Gluckson, both formerly with the Brooklyn Bushwicks, probably the finest semi-pro club in existence. Catching was Michael Haiday of the Rochester Red Wings, backed up by Robert Matthews who caught for the Kansas City Blues in 1939 and 1940, Kentucky semi-pro Louis Richardson, and Philly sandlotter Joseph Marzeo. Former Minnesota Big Ten Basketball star Tony Jaros held down first base, and second was manned by Jack Cronin of the 1933 Durham Bulls and Penn State’s Harry High. Shortstop featured All-American Long Island University basketball star Ben Newman and Pittsburgh semi-pro Frank Smoyda, while third was shared by Roy Marion from the minor league Nashville Vols and brother of Cardinals All-Star Marty Marion with Arkansas semi-pro Victor Jordan as his understudy. Outfield had minor league journeyman Emmet Altenburg, Nick Macone of the Sydney Mines Ramblers in the Canadian-American League and semi-pro Joe Herman from the St. Louis sandlots.
With their roster filled out by Leon Day and Willard Brown, the OISE All-Stars defeated a Navy All-Star team to earn the third spot in the World Series playoff.
The three-team playoff for the G.I. World Series was held in Nuremberg Stadium. The colossal Romanesque stadium was built to showcase Hitler’s annual party rallies and was known around the world through Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films shot there before the war. While the city of Nuremburg lay in ruins, somehow Hitler’s showpiece stadium escaped Allied bombing. Now renamed “Soldiers’ Field,” the stadium‘s massive field and 120,000 capacity seating bowl was made ready for the G.I. World Series by a team of fifty German POW’s.
The 66th Division drew a bye, so on the afternoon of August 31, the OISE All-Stars faced the heavily favored 71st Red Circlers in the first round. As expected, Patton’s men crushed OISE, 10-6. The next afternoon the 66th were to play the Red Circlers, but rain forced a doubleheader for the following day. Again, Patton’s men dominated, Pirates ace Ken Heintzelman kept the Panthers to a single run while his Pittsburgh teammates Johnny Wyrostek and Maurice Van Robays each got three hits in the 8-1 slaughter. The second game was between the 66th and OISE to decide who would face the Red Circlers in the World Series.
The 66th took an early 4-1 lead, but a collision between the second baseman and shortstop let in three runs to tie it up. The two teams battled it out into extra innings. Subway Sam, who was 3 for 4 at the plate and had pitched every inning, started the bottom of the 11th off with another single. Nahem was forced out by the next batter, but Roy Marion singled. Willard Brown, who’d gone 3 for 3 so far, drew an intentional walk to load the bases for OISE. Panther’s pitcher Tom Pullig struck out Tony Jaros for the second out, but Nick Macone hit a Texas Leaguer, giving OISE the game.
The G.I. World Series shaped up to be a real David and Goliath story: Patton’s mighty 3rd Army and his squad against Subway Sam and his game band of minor leaguers, semi-pro and little-known Blackball stars.
Newspaper correspondents from Stars and Strips as well as all the major civilian news bureaus packed into Nuremberg Stadium’s state of the art press booth, originally built for Hitler’s propaganda machine covering the party rallies. Armed Forces Radio set up their equipment behind one of the dugouts to broadcast the games to millions of servicemen around the world, and army supply units worked round the clock to truck in 30,000 cases of beer needed for each game.
Game One was held on September 2nd, 1945. Over 50,000 GI’s packed Nuremberg Stadium to see the opening game of the best of 5 series. As expected, the Red Circlers’ beat up on Bobby Keane, former Brooklyn Bushwicks semi-pro hurler, and won handily 9-2.
The next day was Labor Day in America, and in Nuremberg 45,000 filled the stands of Hitler’s former stadium expecting to watch another one-sided contest. In a move that surprised most of the GI’s in the stadium, Leon Day took the mound for OISE. What coach Nahem knew was that facing major league talent was nothing new for Day, a veteran of the Negro National League who had had pitched against white all-star teams in Puerto Rico and had out-dueled the great Satchel Paige on numerous occasions. The Red Circlers may have had more marquee players than the OISE All-Stars, but that didn’t mean Leon Day couldn’t handle them.
Facing off against minor leaguer Walter “Ole” Olson, Day was simply magnificent, holding the big league sluggers to just 4 hits and not allowing a single run for the first 8 innings. However, Olson was also throwing a great game, putting up zeros despite being hit hard by the All-Stars. OISE’s first baseman Tony Jaros, a 6′-3″ giant and Big Ten basketball player for Minnesota before the war, belted out 3 doubles in the game and Subway Sam added two doubles of his own to the mix. Finally, in the sixth with no one out, St. Louis semi-pro Joe Herman singled followed by a walk to Roy Marion. That brought up Kansas City Monarch All-Star Willard Brown, who banged out an RBI single scoring Herman. Jaros came up next but went down swinging. Nick Macone popped out, and then Olson fanned Ty Richardson to get out of the inning. The next inning the All-Stars jumped on Olson again, Emmet Altenburg tripled to right-center field followed by Coach Nahem’s double to the same place, pushing across a run.
The next inning, Patton’s men came to life and finally tapped Day for a run. With two outs, St. Louis Cardinals All-Star Harry “The Hat” Walker got a double off of Day and then Cincinnati Reds’ second baseman Benny Zientara doubled him home. With the tying run on second and the go-ahead run at the plate in the form of Pittsburgh Pirate Johnny Wyrostek, Leon Day, proving that the previous two years driving ammo trucks across Europe didn’t hamper his pitching, struck him out to end the inning and the game.
It was a resounding upset and Day proved to 50,000 witnesses that he could more than hold his own against white major league talent. All told, Day had struck out 10 of Patton’s finest and walked only 2 as the series was evened at 1 game apiece.
The series then shifted to OISE’s home base in Reims, France. On September 5, Subway Sam penciled himself in to face Ewell Blackwell. In a classic pitcher’s duel, both starters threw masterpieces. Nahem gave up only four hits and three walks, striking out six while Blackwell threw a three hitter, struck out eight and gave up only one run. Unfortunately for Patton’s men, it was errors that decided the game with OISE prevailing 2-1.
Two days later it was Leon’s turn again in Game 4. Things got off to a bad start when the Cardinals outfielder Harry Walker hit a two run homer. Two more Red Circlers crossed the plate before Day was sent to the showers after lasting just 3 2/3 innings. Russ Bauers took over and held the 71st to just one more run, but Bill Ayers threw the game of his life. Ayers, formerly with the Atlanta Crackers, held OISE just five scattered hits and no runs. Final score: 5-0 and the G.I. World Series was tied up.
The fifth and deciding game moved back to Nuremburg and proved to be another nail biter. Sam Nahem again took the mound for OISE to face his opponent from Game 3, Ewell Blackwell. 50,000 watched as the two moundsmen fought to a 1-1 tie. The Red Circlers loaded up the bases in their half of the 4th with only one out, but Bob Keane came out of the bullpen to shut Patton’s men down. The Brooklyn semi-pro upheld the 1-1 pitcher’s duel going into the 9th inning when an error by Blackwell put an OISE runner in scoring position. Kentucky semi-pro Lew Richardson hit a single off Blackwell to win the game and G.I. Championship.
Back in Reims, the victorious All-Stars were honored at a special steak and champagne banquet given by Brigadier General Charles Thrasher. One of the most interesting facets of the victory banquet was that Leon Day and Willard Brown were permitted to eat with their white teammates, a right that would be denied them in many places back home in the United States.
As the European Theater champions, OISE was scheduled to travel to Italy to play a best-of-five series against the champions of the Mediterranean but, unfortunately, things got fouled up. Not content with being the losing team, many of the major league players on Patton’s team finagled transfers to the OISE All-Stars. This influx of big name major league talent meant that many of the unknown semi-pros who were the heart and soul of the scrappy team were left behind in Reims.
Decades later, Leon Day was still bitter as he recounted how the big leaguers wangled their way onto their team. However, even with the marquee players on board, Leon Day kept his place in the team’s starting rotation. The hybrid OISE team climbed aboard three B-17 bombers and flew to Leghorn, Italy to face the 92nd Division for the Inter-Theater Championship.
On September 24, Leon Day was given the honor of starting Game 1 and he did not disappoint. The former Newark Eagle struck out nine in seven innings, scattering six hits as OISE crushed their MTO opponents 19-6.
Despite being an unknown semi-pro, pitcher Bob Keane also remained with OISE, and he was chosen to start Game 2. Keane emerged the winner, benefitting from OISE’s 20 run, 19-hit onslaught led by Harry Walker and Maurice Van Robays.
Ewell Blackwell took the mound for Game 3, and while not as big a blowout as the first two, OISE clinched the Inter-Theater Championship in a 13-3 seven-inning game.
Though the war in Europe had been over for five months, and Japan had surrendered in August, there was still a huge glut of idle U.S. servicemen needing to be entertained. The two teams were flown to Nice, France where they were joined by many other ballplayers who remained behind in Europe. Besides the former major leaguers, several Blackball players were selected to join the all-star aggregation being collected in Nice. Joining Leon Day and Willard Brown was Joe Greene, Satchel Paige’s catcher on the Monarchs, Bub Barbee of the Baltimore Elite Giants, and Johnny Hundley of the Cleveland Buckeyes.
Since the MTO champs put up a such poor showing in Italy, several OISE players were loaned out to even the playing field, among them was Leon Day, Willard Brown and OISE’s own manager, Sam Nahem.
The three-game series was dubbed the “Spam Series” with Game 1 being played on October 2. Leon Day was chosen to start for the MTO team, facing Pittsburgh Pirates ace Ken Heintzelman. The MTO bats jumped on Heintzelman for 13 hits with Willard Brown going 4 for 5 with three doubles. Day shutout his former teammates on four hits and 10 strikeouts.
The OISE All-Stars easily won the final two games to win the Spam Series. By now it was the second week in October, and the logjam of US-bound servicemen was beginning to move. Baseball gave way to football as Leon Day was shipped back to America, given his honorable discharge and returned to civilian life.
Day re-joined the Newark Eagles for the 1946 season and promptly pitched an Opening Day no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars. Despite nursing a sore arm, Day went 14-6 to lead the Eagles to their sole Negro National League pennant. Newark met the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro World Series. Day was chosen to start Game 1 and he held the Monarchs to a single run before giving way in the 7th with a sore arm. Though he made another appearance later in the series, his arm problems kept him on the bench as Newark beat KC in seven games.
With Jackie Robinson now playing in the Dodgers organization, the ‘46 Negro World Series was something of a talent showcase for big league scouts – no less than 15 of the players would be given professional contracts. Although he eventually made it to the minor leagues in the early 1950’s, Day’s sore arm kept him from showing his stuff to the major league scouts.
The ace of the OISE All-Stars continued on in the Negro Leagues, first with the Eagles and then with the Baltimore Elite Giants, where he won another Negro League World Championship in 1949. Day played in the minor leagues until 1955 when he retired to tend bar in Newark, then returned to his native Baltimore to work as a security guard.
While his modesty and soft-spoken nature kept him from being as revered as Satchel Paige, Leon Day was shown the ultimate tribute when a panel of his peers elected him to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995. Day passed away a few days after receiving the news in his hospital bed.
Notes on the drawing: There’s a well-known photo of the OISE All-Stars, so re-creating the basics of Leon’s uniform was relatively easy. There was, however, the matter of figuring out what patch the team wore on their left sleeve. After some digging in my library, I found that Com-Z troops were entitled to wear the patch of the “Advance Section, Communications Zone”, European Theater of Operations, United States Army” or “ADSEC” for short. Luckily, the patch was one of the cooler-looking shoulder sleeve insignias produced during the war, and it made for a great graphic detail in my drawing. The other item of note in my drawing of Leon is the background. I tried my best to locate photos of Nuremberg Stadium right after the occupation, and was fortunate to find a color slide taken by a serviceman in the summer of ’45. Of particular interest to me was that the Americans had painted “SOLDIERS’ FIELD” in big blue Art Deco letters right below the reviewing stand that once held Hitler and his henchmen during their party rallies. Seeing this, I knew I had to incorporate this neat element into the drawing.
It’s the little details that always make the difference!