Buck Leonard

Buck Leonard

Buck Leonard

  • Bats left, Throws left
  • Height 5' 10", Weight 185 lb.
  • Born:September 8, 1907 in Rocky Mount, NC USA
  • Died: November 27 , 1997 in Rocky Mount, NC USA

Inducted into Hall of Fame in 1972

Buck Leonard Biography 

Widely considered to be the greatest first baseman in Negro League history, Buck Leonard was one of black baseball's premier players.  Often compared to Lou Gehrig as a hitter, and to George Sisler as a fielder, the lefthanded-hitting Leonard teamed up with Josh Gibson to lead the Homestead Grays to nine consecutive Negro National League championships from 1937 to 1945.  During their time together, Gibson and Leonard gave the Grays baseball's most prolific offensive tandem, with Gibson frequently being referred to as "The Black Babe Ruth," and Leonard often being called "The Black Lou Gehrig."  Yet former Negro League Hall of Fame player Monte Irvin once suggested, "Buck Leonard was the equal of any first baseman who ever lived.  If he'd gotten the chance to play in the Major Leagues, they might have called Lou Gehrig 'The White Buck Leonard.'"
Walter Fenner "Buck" Leonard was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina on September 8, 1907, the son of a railroad fireman and the oldest of six children.  After his father died during the 1919 flu epidemic, the 12-year-old Leonard helped support his family by working after school in a hosiery mill making stockings and as a shoeshine boy at a railroad station.  He left school at the age of 14 since no high school education was available for blacks in his hometown.  Leonard began working full time at 16, installing brake cylinders on boxcars for a railroad shop.
Leonard developed an interest in baseball watching the local minor-league team play at a ballpark near his home.  Before long, Leonard found himself playing semipro ball part-time, until the national pastime became his full-time profession when he lost his regular job as a result of the Depression.  Leonard spent the next few years splitting his time between the Portsmouth Firefighters, the Baltimore Stars, and the Brooklyn Royal Giants, before finally joining the Negro National League's Homestead Grays in 1934 after being recruited by former Homestead pitching ace Smokey Joe Williams.
Leonard soon became former Negro League star first baseman Ben Taylor's prized pupil with the Grays.  Taylor taught the young first sacker everything he knew about playing the position, and Leonard quickly developed into an outstanding fielder.  Known for his smooth style of play around the bag, Leonard became extremely adept at digging throws out of the dirt, charging bunts, and tossing out baserunners with his strong and accurate throwing arm.  Eastern booking agent Eddie Gottlieb stated, "Buck Leonard was as smooth a first baseman as I ever saw.  In those days, the first baseman on a team in the Negro Leagues often played the clown.  They had a funny way of catching the ball so the fans would laugh, but Leonard was strictly baseball: a great glove, a hell of a hitter, and drove in runs."        
An outstanding hitter from the time he first joined the Grays, Leonard usually batted fourth in the team's starting lineup, immediately behind Josh Gibson.  The hitting styles of the two men eventually prompted followers of the sport to compare them to the New York Yankees' dynamic tandem of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.  Like Ruth, Gibson tended to hit long, towering home runs, well beyond the outfield fences.  On the other hand, Leonard's style at the plate more closely resembled that of Gehrig, who drove the ball with power to all parts of the field.  The 5'10", 190-pound Leonard wasn't particularly big, but he was solidly-built, and he had powerful arms and legs that enabled him to drive the bat through the hitting zone at warp speed.  Monte Irvin suggested, "Trying to sneak a fastball past him (Leonard) was like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster."
Fellow Negro Leaguer Dave Barnhill claimed, "You could put a fastball in a shotgun and you couldn't shoot it by him."
Roy Campanella competed against Leonard during the second half of the latter's career.  Campanella later discussed Leonard's hitting prowess: "If Leonard batted fourth, behind Gibson, we could pitch around him and make him hit an outside pitch.  He had a real quick bat, and you couldn't get a fastball by him.  He was strictly a pull hitter with tremendous power."
With Leonard and Gibson leading the way, Homestead captured nine straight Negro National League championships between 1937 and 1945.  The more colorful and charismatic Gibson generally received far more recognition than his even-tempered and modest teammate.  Nevertheless, Leonard, who was admired and respected by everyone on the Grays, was considered to be the backbone of the team, serving as its captain until it disbanded at the conclusion of the 1950 season.  The first baseman played in a record 11 East-West All-Star games, and he led his team to four consecutive appearances in the Black World Series, including back-to-back championships in 1943 and 1944. 
Leonard won his first batting title in 1940, with a mark of .383.  He finished second in the league to Gibson in home runs in 1942, with a total of 42 round-trippers.  Leonard then tied his teammate for the NNL home run title in 1944, before batting .500 in the Black World Series, to lead his team to its second straight championship.  He posted a .375 batting average the following year, finishing second to his teammate again in the home-run race.  Then, at the age of 40 in 1948, Leonard won his second batting title with a mark of .395.  He also hit 42 homers, to tie teammate Luke Easter for the league lead in that category.  The Grays captured an unprecedented third Negro World Series championship at the end of the year.
Leonard ended his career with a lifetime .341 batting average in the Negro National League, and with a .382 mark in exhibition games against major leaguers.  After the Negro Leagues folded at the conclusion of the 1950 campaign, Leonard played in Mexico from 1951 to 1955, before finally retiring from the game at age 48.  He subsequently worked as a truant officer, a physical education instructor, and as the vice-president of a minor league baseball team in Rocky Mount.  Leonard was selected by the Negro Leagues Committee for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, along with his former teammate Josh Gibson.           
Quiet, humble, and easy-going, Buck Leonard remained one of Negro League baseball's foremost ambassadors until his death on November 27, 1997, from complications of a stroke suffered more than a decade earlier.  Perhaps Leonard's lone regret was that he never had an opportunity to display his considerable talents at the major league level.  Still, he came extremely close to fulfilling his dream on more than one occasion. 
Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith met with both Leonard and Josh Gibson in 1938 to discuss the possibility of the two men joining his team.  However, Griffith eventually decided not to disturb the status quo.
Ten years later, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey considered giving Leonard a shot with his team, but nothing ever came of that either.
Finally, Bill Veeck offered Leonard a chance to play with his St. Louis Browns in
1952.  However, realing that he was well past his prime at age 44, Leonard declined Veeck's offer, saying he "didn't want to embarrass anyone or hurt the chances of those who might follow."
A story related by one-time Dodgers scout Elwood Parsons reveals the inner sorrow Leonard kept hidden behind his calm demeanor.  Parsons once noted, "I was talking about Robinson, Campy, and Newk making it with Brooklyn.  I'll never forget Buck's eyes filling with tears when he said, 'But it's too late for me.'"


Negro Leagues Career Statistics

Year Team League G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB BA SLG
1934 Homestead Grays NNL 20 79 16 28 4 0 5 14 0 3 .354 .595
1935 Homestead Grays NNL 36 147 26 50 10 1 3 10 3 15 .340 .483
1936 Homestead Grays NNL 17 62 15 15 1 1 2 3 1 12 .242 .387
1937 Homestead Grays NNL 28 105 39 39 8 1 7 17 1 20 .371 .667
1938 Homestead Grays NNL 27 99 21 33 0 0 3 8 0 11 .333 .424
1939 Homestead Grays NNL 22 72 23 30 5 0 5 23 2 17 .417 .694
1940 Homestead Grays NNL 44 152 40 60 12 3 8 44 4 32 .395 .671
1941 Homestead Grays NNL 36 123 40 36 4 5 8 29 6 30 .293 .602
1942 Homestead Grays NNL 26 87 10 18 3 0 0 10 1 14 .207 .241
1943 Homestead Grays NNL 55 200 55 59 11 7 4 41 2 38 .295 .480
1944 Homestead Grays NNL 34 121 30 34 8 5 5 27 1 18 .281 .554
1945 Homestead Grays NNL 16 59 7 17 1 2 0 7 0 7 .288 .373
1946 Homestead Grays NNL 30 102 18 27 3 1 3 26 3 24 .265 .402
1947 Homestead Grays NNL 11 30 7 16 0 0 4 8 1 8 .533 .933
1948 Homestead Grays NNL 10 34 5 9 3 0 3 8 0 8 .265 .618
Totals 15 seasons 412 1472 351 471 73 26 60 275 25 257 .320 .527
' Per 162 g 2.54 162 579 138 185 29 10 24 108 10 101 .320 .527

Source: Shades of Glory, Hogan et al., pp. 392-393


A salary of $125 a month in the Depression year of 1933 was better than unemployment, but it did not excite a working man's visions of the finer things in life. It required a lot of skimping and a bit of conniving if you were performing in the Negro leagues that functioned in the eastern portion of the United States at that time. "The thing to do," recalled Leonard, was "to borrow enough from the club so you'd be in debt at the end of the season. Then you could be sure they'd have you back next season. But they got wise to that, too, so after a while it didn't work."

"I later patterned myself after Gehrig in batting, fileding and everything else."

"Some white newspapers told us they would run the scores in their paper if we mailed the scores in to them every night. But sometimes we weren't near a mailbox, so that idea never worked out."

"We'd come north from Florida and stopped in New Orleans at the Patterson Hotel. We used to call it a chinch parlor. A chinch is what we called bedbugs. As soon as the light would go out there, the chinches would come out. We used to get newspapers and spread them on the bed and sleep on top of them. The bedbugs couldn't crawl up on the paper. Then we'd leave the lights on all night".

In the course of a year, the Grays played 200-210 games. "We'd play a semipro team, say, in " Rockville, MD and then a league game at Griffith Stadium at night. Or we'd play semipro teams around Pittsburgh. We'd start around 6:30 and get in as many innings as we could before dark. The Grays would get $75-$100 a game. But weekends was when you were really expected to make enough money to pay off your players. These were the games you played in Forbes Field, Griffith Stadium or Yankee Stadium. They were called 'Getting-Out-of-the-Hole-Days'."

"We in the Negro Legues felt like we were contributing something to baseball, too, when we were playing. We played with a round ball and we played with a round bat. And we wore baseball uniforms and ... we loved the game and we liked to play it. But we thought we should have and could have made the Major Leagues, and all of us would have desired to play in the Major Leagues becase we felt and we knew that that was the greatest game".

"Buck Leonard was the equal of any first baseman who ever lived. If he'd gotten the chance to play in the Major Leagues, they might have called Lou Gehrig 'The White Buck Leonard'." - Monte Irvin

"Trying to sneak a fastball past him was like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster." — Monte Irvin

"You could put a fastball in a shotgun and you couldn't shoot it by him." - Dave Barnhill

While barnstorming with Leonard, Roy Campanella noted, "If Leonard batted fourth, behind Gibson, we could pitch around him and make him hit an outside pitch. He had a real quick bat, and you couldn't get a fastball by him. He was strictly a pull hitter with tremendous power."

"I was talking about Robinson, Campy and Newk making it with Brookyln. I'll never forget Buck's eyes filling with tears when he said, 'But it's too late for me'." -- Elwood Parsons, Dodgers scout

"Buck Leonard was as smooth a first baseman as I ever saw," reported Eastern booking agent Eddie Gottlieb. "In those days, the first baseman on a team in the Negro Leagues often played the clown. They had a funny way of catching the ball so the fans would laugh, but Leonard was strictly baseball: a great glove, a hell of a hitter, and he drove in runs."



By Bob_Cohen


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