No. 76: Buck Leonard
“Trying to sneak a fastball past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.”
— Curt Simmons on Henry Aaron
“Throwing a fastball past Ted Williams is like trying to get a sunbeam past a rooster.”
— Bob Feller on Ted Williams
“Trying to sneak a fastball past him was like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.”
— Monte Irvin on Buck Leonard
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There were, of course, several fabulous candidates before Jackie Robinson to be the first black player in the modern Major Leagues. By “candidates” I do not only mean players with the baseball skills — there were many, many of those — I mean candidates who also had the fortitude the overcome the abuse, the deep character to play well with so much riding on it, the will to earn opponents’ respect and the generosity of spirit to make teammates respect him too. Buck O’Neil often used to say that Jackie Robinson was not the BEST player, but he was the RIGHT player.
In my view, before Jackie Robinson, Buck Leonard was the right player to break the color line.
Buck Leonard was a graceful first baseman from Rocky Mount, NC who always seemed taller to people than his 5-foot-10 frame. There was a way he carried himself. His father died when he was 12, he went to school until he was 14, which was as far as you could go as an African American in North Carolina at the time. Years and years later, he would graduate high school as an old man.
Leonard was the main support for his family after his father died. He worked in the hosiery mills for a while and then shined shoes at the local railroad station. He eventually found work in the railroad shop putting brake cylinders on cars. Like Joe Jackson, he made a few extra dollars playing for local mill teams. Like Joe Jackson, he did not expect much more than that.
When Leonard was 25 years old — 1932, right in the heart of the Depression — he lost his job at the railroad station. The Depression was hard on millions of Americans and particularly on African-Americans. There were no jobs and little hope. People of all races looked within to find any raw skill that they might use. It was the Depression that sparked a desperate boxer named James Braddock, entirely washed up, to find something inside himself and become heavyweight champion of the world.
Leonard had never thought of playing baseball for a living, but now he found this was his only marketable skill. He was offered $15 a week to play for the Portsmouth Firefighters. It was the only job he could find so he took it. Soon after, he picked up with the Baltimore Stars and then, briefly, the Brooklyn Royal Giants.
Interestingly enough it was Smokey Joe Williams who saw Leonard play and was blown away by his ability. He recommended Leonard to Cumberland Posey, a fascinating man and the owner of the Homestead Grays. Posey had played for the Grays when he was young (though he was perhaps better known as a basketball player at Duquesne where he played under the assumed named Charles Cumbert) and he was ultra competitive as a player, as an owner, as a scout, as anything. Nobody in either the Major Leagues or the Negro Leagues worked harder to find talent. Posey would build the Grays into one of the great teams in baseball history, white or black. The core of that team were his No. 3 and No. 4 hitters. He found that No. 3 hitter, Josh Gibson, playing in the Pittsburgh sandlots. He found his No. 4 hitter, Buck Leonard, when Smokey Joe Williams made his recommendation.
Gibson and Leonard were often compared Ruth and Gehrig, which was convenient but not particularly apt. Ruth and Gibson were nothing at all alike — not in personality, demeanor, style of play, even their handedness. The only thing the two shared was that they both hit long home runs.
But Gehrig and Leonard — yes, that was a match. They shared a certain aura as well as a style of play. Leonard readily admits he tried to copy Gehrig’s style when he became a professional — who better to copy? Gehrig hit with more power, surely, and Leonard was reportedly slicker defensively, but their similarities ran much deeper than their playing styles. They were both steady men without flash, without noticeable egos, with a driving consistency and certain quiet resolve that people around them could not help but admire. Everyone thought the world of Buck Leonard.
He loved hitting fastballs. Nobody knows who was the first hitter to inspire the sunrise-rooster quotes above, but it was likely Leonard. “You could put a fastball in a shotgun,” fellow Negro Leaguer Dave Barnhill said of Leonard, “and you couldn’t shoot it by him,” According to the available statistics, Leonard hit .320 and slugged .519 but this was only in recorded games. In all games, it is believed, he hit better than .400 year after year. Town teams would try to find the man in town who could throw baseballs the hardest and they would try to rush their best fastballs by Gibson and Leonard. Gibson would often send these fastballs sailing impossible distances. Leonard would hit line drives that could tear somebody’s head off.
In 1943. with the war going on, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith supposedly asked Leonard if he would want to play in the Major Leagues. He said yes, he wold like that very much, and Griffith said he was going to try try and make it happen. It was one of many false starts — owners and managers often took a couple of tentative steps toward integration, only to turn back when they realized what the cost would be. Leonard was already 35 years old but he believed he still had good years left in him then. Griffith, of course, never followed up.
The next time Leonard was approached by the big leagues was 1952 — five years after Jackie Robinson and others had crossed the line. Bill Veeck asked him to play for the St. Louis Browns. By then, Leonard realized it was too late for him. “I only wish I could have played in the big leagues when I was young enough to show what I could do,” he would say years later.
Instead, he went back in Rocky Mount, worked for the school district and helped out with the minor league team there. He was 65 years old when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In interviews, he would exhibit little bitterness over never playing in the majors but there’s a quote from Dodgers’ scout Elwood Parsons that breaks the heart. Parsons, according to the author Larry Lester, was a police court bailiff and a chemistry instructor when Branch Rickey made him the first black scout.
“I was talking about Robinson, Campy (Roy Campanella) and Newk (Don Newcombe) making it with Brooklyn,” Parsons said. “I’ll never forget Buck’s eyes filling with tears when he said, ‘But it’s too late for me.’”