For every baseball team, there’s only one Opening Day. A holiday around the sport at all levels of the game, it marks the return of spring and provides hope and excitement for players of all ages.
Opening Day can also set the tone for the rest of the season. So imagine what it must be like for a pitcher to begin a new year by throwing a no-hitter.
As you might expect, it hasn’t happened often in baseball history. Some may recall that Bob Feller threw an Opening Day no-no for Cleveland on April 16, 1940, when he struck out eight White Sox and recorded an impressive victory. That remains the only Opening Day no-hitter in AL/NL history.
However, it isn’t the only Opening Day no-no in baseball history. There was also Leon Day.
A Baseball Hall of Famer who was a two-way star for 10 seasons in the Negro National League between 1934-46, Day was among the great pitchers of his era. Some put him on the level of another Negro Leagues ace of the time.
“Leon was as good as Satchel Paige, as good as any pitcher who ever lived,” Hall of Famer Monte Irvin once said.
While Day produced some stellar outings over his career, perhaps none were more memorable than his start on May 5, 1946.
It was Opening Day for the Newark Eagles, and it marked a return for Day. He had been drafted by the Army on Sept. 1, 1943, so he was away from baseball in 1944 and ’45.
The big question was: Would Day still be an All-Star-caliber pitcher upon his return? On May 5, 1946, he would find out.
“I was a little nervous, like I always was at the beginning of a game, but after I got started, everything was all right,” Day said, according to the book “Of Monarchs and Black Barons: Essays on Baseball’s Negro Leagues.”
Everything was more than all right. Day went the distance and faced only 29 Philadelphia Stars batters. He yielded only three baserunners, allowed no runs — and allowed zero hits. An Opening Day no-no was quite the start for what ended up being a terrific return season for the right-hander.
There was some controversy with the no-hitter, according to reports from the time. The Trenton Evening Times noted that the game was “almost called several times due to arguments with the umpires.” According to the book “Dandy, Day, and the Devil,” Philadelphia catcher Bill “Ready” Cash didn’t believe one of Newark’s errors should have been ruled as such. He was later ejected for arguing a play at the plate, as was Stars player/manager Homer “Goose” Curry.
But the calls stood, the Eagles began the season with a 2-0 win and Day accomplished one of the rarest feats in baseball history. He capped the outing by striking out pinch-hitter Henry McHenry on “three lightning-sharp pitches,” per the New York Amsterdam News.
Day went on to have a stellar final season in the Negro National League, further cementing his baseball legacy. And not only was he a strong pitcher throughout his career, but he also played infield and outfield on occasion, leaving those around him impressed.
“I would say he was the most complete ballplayer I’ve ever seen,” Irvin said, per Day’s Hall of Fame profile. “I’ve never seen a better athlete, never seen a better baseball player all-around.”