Looking At The Career of Buck Leonard
by MIke Whiteman (continuing a series)
“Buck Leonard was the equal of any first baseman who ever lived. If he had gotten the chance to play in the Major Leagues, they might have called Lou Gehrig “the White Buck Leonard.” Hall of Famer Monte Irvin
In an earlier article, I profiled Josh Gibson, the iconic Negro League catcher, and one of the greatest baseball players of all time. In fact, Gibson has sometimes been called “the Black Babe Ruth”.
One really shouldn’t mention Gibson without his teammate Buck Leonard, sometimes referred to as “the Black Lou Gehrig”. The teammates, known as the “Thunder Twins” were the great enemies of Negro League pitchers in the 1930s and 1940s.
Leonard was a hard hitting, left-handed batting, first baseman. His bat was what drew the comparisons to Gehrig, but his glove was probably a bit more advanced than the Iron Horse’s. His defense at the time was compared favorably to that of George Sisler and Hal Chase, who were the standard bearers of the position at that time.
The North Carolina native worked full time as a train mechanic starting at age sixteen while playing for a black semipro baseball team. In 1933 Great Depression forced cutbacks at the shop and the then 25-year old Buck left home to make a living as a professional baseball player.
While playing for multiple Negro League teams in 1933, Leonard caught the eye of legendary pitcher Smokey Joe Williams, who steered him to the well regarded Homestead Grays. The team had regressed a bit since 1931, when they fielded one of the greatest teams in history, employing eight future Hall of Famers, including Gibson. By 1933, most of them had moved onto other teams and the Grays were barely a .500 team.
In 1934 Leonard batted .333 for the Grays, and in 1935 he was named to the first of twelve East-West games. In 1936, he was among Negro League leaders with a 1.051 OPS. During these years the Grays continued to field weak teams.
Things changed in 1937, as Gibson rejoined the Grays and formed the lethal combo with Leonard. Similar to their counterparts on the Yankees, Gibson batted third, and Leonard cleanup. During their first year as teammates, they combined for a .396/.476/.846 slash. The two were together with the Grays for eight seasons, helping to win six Negro National League II titles; two of those seasons claiming Negro League World Series championships. His tenure with the Grays lasted seventeen years, and places among all time franchise leaders in most offensive categories. He’s in the top-five in OPS and OPS+ of all Negro League batters.
Leonard was approached three times about playing in the major leagues. He and Gibson were offered tryouts with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1939, but they never materialized. In 1943 the teammates met with Washington Senators owner Clark Giffith. While both players expressed their desire to play, nothing came of the conversation. Lastly, Bill Veeck reached out to sign Leonard but at age 40 he declined as he knew he was past his prime.
The Negro National League II folded in 1948, and then the Grays hung on as an independent team for a couple of years. After the Grays folded, Leonard moved onto Mexican Leagues, finally finishing his career in 1955.
Unlike many Negro League stars, Leonard lived long enough to receive some of the accolades he deserved. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972 – along with his teammate Gibson (posthumously), the second and third Negro League legends – after Satchel Paige in 1971 – to be immortalized in Cooperstown.
A note on sources. This article, like my previous ones, was researched significantly.
My primary sources for the Negro Leagues are:
Shades of Glory by Lawrence Rogan
Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers by John Holway
The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues by James Riley
The Negro Leagues Book by Dick Clark and Larry Lester (SABR)
Only the Ball Was White by Robert Peterson
I highly recommend you take a look at some of these really interesting resources on the Negro Leagues. Enjoy!