By In Baseball

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

* * *

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.’”

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29 Responses to No. 76: Buck Leonard

  1. Chris K. says:

    Wonderful Joe..

  2. Cuban X Senators says:

    My first autograph. Mr. Leonard was at the Smithsonian as part of some 100 Years of Baseball weekend in 1977 (someone got a good idea a year late). That was when I became a baseball fan, not so much from games, but from stories. Explains a lot really.

  3. Andrew says:

    Should we start taking bets on who will be #1? My imaginary odds:

    Babe Ruth – 5 to 2 against (The most commonly considered GOAT)
    Willie Mays – 3 to 1 against (Probably the best all-around player)
    Satchel Paige – 10 to 1 against (Largely unquantifiable but almost limitless potential in the mind)
    Ted Williams – 10 to 1 against (Consensus best hitter of all time)
    Barry Bonds – 25 to 1 against (Based purely on onfield performance, has an argument for best ever. But this would probably cause a riot.)

    Wild Cards: Stan Musial, Walter Johnson, Henry Aaron, Duane Kuiper (just kidding)

    • Rudy Gamble says:

      I’d put even odds on Ruth, 3 to 2 on Mays, 19 to 1 on Bonds, 19 to 1 on the field.

    • You are right about Bonds…. But if you ignore the PED usage, as Joe does, Bonds could be the number 1. Wow, that’s going to be a comment free for all!

      • Richard says:

        When you include the fact that for about three years, Ruth was the best left-handed pitcher in the game, and then add on top of that how much *fun* Ruth seemed to have playing the game and just being The Babe…. there really cannot be any other choice – ever – for the #1 spot.

        • In the All-Time WAR chart, the Sultan of Swat has a 15 point lead over #2, who nobody above mentioned: Cy Young. Young has a 3 WAR lead over #3, who nobody above mentioned, Walter Johnson. Johnson has a 3 WAR lead over #4, Barry Bonds, and Mays is Fifth, then Cobb. Ted Williams is down the list, but he missed pretty much all of five seasons to two wars. If you give him the average of 1942 and 1946 for 1943-45, and then add in the extra for the two years he missed most of for Korea, he probably sneaks into third place (maybe second, but if so not by much, and 1942’s numbers are probably mildly inflated by the ball players already in the military) still about 15-18 points of WAR behind the Bambino. Williams at least faced some integrated competition, he wrote perhaps the best book on how to hit ever, and he was an amazing hitting coach. We haven’t seen any off the field things pushing rankings much (yet) but it could happen.

          This is a tough call for me. I’d go with the Babe, who was establishing a HOF worthy career as a pitcher before folks realized just how well he could hit, but Ruth never had to face night games or integrated rosters. But there is really only one major award in professional sports named after an athlete: the Cy Young (and yes, I’m cherry picking: Lord Stanley’s cup isn’t the Gretzky cup, the Heisman Trophy isn’t professional). So I’d pick the Babe as 50:50, Cy Young and Ted Williams as 2:1 each, and then the odds drop a lot.

    • John Gale says:

      Having read enough of Joe (and just the conventional thinking) I would be legitimately shocked if anyone other than Ruth gets the top spot. While I certainly could be wrong, this post of Joe’s seems to give us some insight into his–and mine and probably the majority’s–thinking on the subject ( Because Ruth was an All-Star level pitcher–and arguably the best pitcher in 1916–as well as arguably the best hitter of all time, I think that trumps everything. Oh, and I wouldn’t say Williams is the “consensus” best hitter of all time. He certainly has a case, especially when factoring in the years he missed due to war, but many (including Joe, though he did it with some reservation–it is possible that he may change his mind on the subject when the time comes) would still put Ruth at the top of that list:

    • Rick R says:

      Given Joe’s respect for Negro League players, there’s a chance it could be Oscar Charleston, who was considered by many to be like Willie Mays, only better.

  4. Chad Meisgeier says:

    Tough last paragraph. The injustice is tough to fathom.

    My No. 76 is underrated Phil Niekro.

  5. Ian says:

    Good article, Joe. Good to shine a light on some of these great Negro league players. I admit, I had no idea who Buck Leonard was.

  6. I’d like to hear more, when discussing the Negro leagues, about the games they barnstormed against the major league players… which happened a fair amount… and is the closest to an apples to apples comparison that you can get. Those that want to count a lack of integration against Babe Ruth would probably be interested to know that he did barnstorm in games against Negro league players, despite being told not to (he did it quite often anyways). So, there is some track record there. According to the source I used, in documented games, Ruth was 25-54 with 11 HRs against negro leaguers. I’d be very interested in hearing how Buck Leonard, Josh Gibson and others did. I presume they were amazing. Amazing players are amazing players no matter the competition.

    • 18thstreet says:

      I’d like to know more, when discussing the segregated Major Leagues, how the white players did against the Negro Leaguers.

  7. Cathead says:

    I guess I’m having a bit of a problem getting context for the Negro League players, at least in terms of ranking them. Buck Leonard is the third or fourth one in Joe’s series, and probably the best known so far. I am going to disagree with Bellweather as to the ability to compare apples to apples with barnstorming games. These games were often, perhaps usually, exhibitions put on for entertainment of locals and to make money for the participants. There could be a certain seriousness to them where talent and competitiveness came out. But in terms of generating statistics? You have to be kidding. For one thing, the competition level is wildly inconsistent. You might get Babe Ruth and his Busting Babes one day, the House of David the next day, and the Lake Wobegon Whippets the day after that. Barnstorming games are great for story-telling, but let’s not try to kid ourselves about the record keeping. Even the Negro Leagues’ records are unreliable, especially compared to MLB after the dead ball era.

    That brings me back to these great Negro League players. I don’t know how to compare them. It’s hard enough comparing MLB players from one era to the next — that’s part of the fun of Joe’s series. But ranking these players seems random. If, as Joe notes, Buck Leonard’s closest comparison to a contemporary is Lou Gehrig, then we should expect to see Gehrig within the next five players Joe lists. For me, I would certainly rank Gehrig in the top 50, meaning that Leonard should be up there with him.

  8. Cathead, my point is that those that want to denigrate Ruth claimed he never played against Negro leaguers. The implicit argument is that Negro Leaguers were so good that Ruth’s numbers would have been much lower if he competed against them. My point was that he did play them when he barnstormed with them and dominated against them…. just as he dominated MLB as well & is quite possibly the Best Player Ever. That he was a singular talent should be patently obvious. Just pointing out that not much was different when the Babe played White or Black players. Those stats, as limited as they are, are all we have (that I’m aware of). Until you type them up and post them, there will continue to be those that don’t understand Ruth’s dominance at all.

  9. BTW Cathead: Gehrig was a two time MVP and had a 112 career WAR (18th best all time). That’s 13th for position players. In addition, he’s 3rd all time in Slugging, 5th in OBP, 3rd in OPS, 11th in Runs, 4th in Adj OPS+, etc. We’re a long way from seeing Gehrig on this list. Top 20 is more like it.

    • Cathead says:

      Bell – I agree with ranking Gehrig much higher. Based on Joe’s analysis, I would think Leonard would be there with him (which appears not to be the case). It goes to my point that slotting these players is rather arbitrary.

      • Well, absent a solid statistical record, what did you expect? Even if stats were available, as you previously pointed out, barnstorming games might be against town semi pro teams or other low levels of competition. So, we’re left with narratives from books and ex players, often given decades after the fact. Gehrig has a solid MLB resume, while Leonard does not…. Granting that most everyone presumes Leonard would have compiled solid, maybe even great stats if allowed to play against white MLB players.

        But how good was he? Very good like Steve Garvey? Solid HOFer like Ryne Sandberg? Top echelon like Mickey Mantle or Lou Gehrig? We just don’t know.

        And in the end, this is all Joe’s opinion. It’s not, however arbitrary. That would imply that Joe has no criteria and is pulling names out of a hat. I take issue with Joe from time to time, but I can’t see him spending all this time to put an arbitrary Top 100 list together.

        • Part of why I’m liking this series a lot (an awful lot) is that Joe is compromising between two completely valid and yet irreconcilable points of view. One is that, given the chance, from anecdotal evidence, the Negro League greats may have been even better than the MLBers who only faced them in exhibitions. The other is that in the absence of better record keeping, it’s hard to know just how good they really were. Memory doesn’t remember the seven inning three runs allowed outings; it remembers the shutouts, even though for probably every pitcher in the HOF there were a lot more seven inning games with three runs allowed.

          Thus, I am happy to see these fine players remembered or even introduced to a new group of fans. But I am even happier to see the tacit nod given to the superior record keeping, the certitude, that the very best players have to be considered actual MLBers, because their records are hard evidence to that extent.

          That said, I won’t be saddened to see Charleston crack the top ten (although from what I know if I had to pick a Negro League player it would be Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige). I *will* be saddened to see Duane Kuiper appear any time on this list. Say it ain’t so, Joe!

  10. Buck Leonard’s autobiography (co-written by James Riley) is an excellent book. Thought I had found an autographed copy at a thrift store once, but it turned out to be a fake signature. Still enjoyed the book, though.
    Excellent selection, Joe…though I might have rated Buck a little higher.
    Am really enjoying the series!

    • Cuban X Senators says:

      If you didn’t go to an expert, be aware that Buck Leonard has at least 2 different signatures – the change coming with a stroke.

  11. George says:

    Great read.

    My family hails from Rocky Mount and yet I’ve somehow never heard of Buck Leonard. Unfortunately my grandmother’s mind is nearly gone, as I’m curious to know what, if anything, she can recall about him.

  12. Wilbur says:

    I suspect that in these exhibition games Ruth played a few innings, signed some autographs, and then made haste for the nearest brothel.

  13. Phil says:

    “Trying to sneak a fastball by a great hitter is like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.”

    -Shia Labouf

  14. Cuban X Senators says:

    Also, feel the need to plug Beyond the Shadow of the Senators by Brad Snyder for more Buck Leonard (& Grays) info.

  15. […] 1940s. He played in eleven East-West All-Star games. Further reading on Leonard can be found here, here and […]

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