“The Classiest First Baseman in Organized Baseball”
By Bruce Ebert, Museum Services Assistant, and Diane Cripps, Curator of History, Portsmouth Museums
Portsmouth got to see Buck Leonard twice.
In 1932, during the Great Depression, Walter Fenner Leonard had lost his job putting brake cylinders on boxcars at the railroad shop in his home town of Rocky Mount, N.C. He was 25 with only an eighth-grade education because there were no high schools for African Americans in Rocky Mount when he was young. Shaped by his youth on the sandlot, and urged by manager Doc Daughtry of the Portsmouth Black Revels, he turned to the game as a way to make a living, playing for $15 a week.
In 1953, at age 46, he came back and wore the uniform of the racially integrated Portsmouth Merrimacs of the Piedmont League. He played 10 games, got 11 hits in 33 at-bats for a .333 batting average and, after two years of Mexican baseball, retired. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, he was playing with a brace on his knee – but was still good enough to be voted Most Valuable Player in the Mexican Central League.
But with Buck Leonard, the real story was what he accomplished between his stints here in Portsmouth. Playing for the Pittsburgh-area Homestead Grays of the Negro National League he became known as “the Lou Gehrig of the Negro Leagues,” though, true to his modest and gentlemanly manner, said, “I didn’t think I ever measured up” to the comparison.
Still, the late baseball historian Ralph Berger said, as men of dignity and worthiness of personal respect “Gehrig and Leonard are, in essence, twins.”
In a 1981 Smithsonian News Service article (“The Negro Leagues: Gone, But Not Forgotten”), Leonard described the grueling pace teams endured to keep the underfinanced Black leagues afloat, playing almost every day during the season, and traveling constantly:
One year we played 210 ball games and travelled 30,000 miles by bus and train…Sometimes we played three times in one day. We’d play a doubleheader against a Black team at Yankee Stadium on a Sunday afternoon; then on Sunday night, we’d go out on Long Island and play a semi-pro white team.
Leonard was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 and was later a finalist in the judging for Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team, even though the Negro Leagues at the time were not considered on equal footing with the National and American leagues. His 15 years with the Grays were the longest any player in the Negro Leagues had spent with any single team.
Statistically, analysts give the nod to Gehrig, whose lifetime batting average was .340 to Leonard’s .328 and whose slugging average was .632 compared to Leonard’s .532. “He probably was a better first-baseman” than Gehrig, Berger said.
Together with Homestead Grays, teammates Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard were called the “Thunder Twins” for the crashing sounds their bats sounded when crushing other teams’ pitches.
But for the prevailing fears and prejudices dominant in baseball in the early 1940s, Leonard and Gibson might have been in the majors. Both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Senators reputedly made vague offers that were substantiated with specific terms. On what would have been, Leonard said, “I think they believed we could play major league baseball but everyone hated to be the first.”
Buck Leonard would have been much different from Jackie Robinson, who ultimately broke the color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He told a writer he would have been happy to play ball but as for socializing with white players and insisting on rooming in the same hotels on the road, he didn’t see himself as an “agitator.”
After baseball, Leonard returned to the anonymity of Rocky Mount, working in a garage and finishing his high school diploma. According to the Smithsonian article, a few days before he attended a White House luncheon for those elected to the Hall of Fame, he said, “I never thought I would be honored like this.” He died in in 1997 at age 90.