Leonard, Walter Fenner ("Buck")

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

LEONARD, Walter Fenner ("Buck")

(b. 8 September 1907 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina; d. 27 November 1997 in Rocky Mount), Negro Leagues first baseman and member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, who was compared to Lou Gehrig for his hard hitting and superb fielding.

Leonard was one of six children of John Leonard, a railroad fireman, and Emma Sesson Leonard, a homemaker. When his father died from influenza during the major 1919 outbreak, Leonard's formal education ended at the eighth grade. At the age of eleven, he helped to support the family by shining shoes. By the age of sixteen, he was working in the Atlantic Coastline railroad shop.

In 1921 Leonard, a left-handed batter and thrower, joined the semiprofessional Rocky Mount Elks, playing first base and managing the team. After Leonard lost his railroad job, he left home in 1933 to play baseball for Daughtry's Black Revels in Portsmouth, Virginia, earning $15 per week plus room and board. He also played with the Baltimore Stars, a barnstorming African-American team, and finished the season with the Brooklyn Royal Giants.

In 1934 Leonard joined the Homestead Grays, a club located in a blue-collar community across from Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River. The Grays, who joined the Negro National Leagues in 1935, were a dominant team in the league, and Leonard was the key to their success.

At five feet, eleven inches, and 185 pounds, Leonard, the league's finest defensive first baseman, hit for both average and power. Scorekeeping in the Negro Leagues was incomplete, and the many exhibition games made it difficult to compare statistics. The Baseball Encyclopedia and the National Baseball Hall of Fame record Leonard's career batting average as .324, while James A. Riley, a historian of the Negro Leagues, lists Leonard as a .341 career hitter. Leonard hit .410, the second highest average in the leagues in 1947, and in 1948 he led the league at .395 and tied for most home runs at forty-two. The Homestead Grays won nine straight pennants from 1937 to 1945.

After Jackie Robinson broke the color bar in Major League Baseball in 1947, the Negro Leagues declined, and the Negro National League failed after 1948. The Grays disbanded in 1950, ending Leonard's career in the Negro Leagues. From 1951 through 1955, he played in the Mexican League, including stints with Torreon (1951–1953), and Durango (1954–1955). He also played Mexican winter ball at Obregon (1951), and Xalapa (1952–1953). In 1953 he played a brief stint with the Portsmouth Merrimacs. Leonard retired from baseball at age forty-eight in 1955.

Life in the Negro Leagues was hard. Official league games usually numbered less than 50, but exhibition play stretched the season to about 200 games. Players often slept and ate on the team bus, as few hotels and restaurants served African Americans at that time. Although many players spent their leisure time on the road gambling, Leonard worked crossword puzzles and read the Bible. During the Great Depression, Leonard earned $125 per month for the four-and-a-half-month season, an income insufficient for himself and Sarah Wooten, the first-grade teacher he married on 31 December 1937. Thirteen times Leonard supplemented his Negro Leagues salary by playing winter ball in Latin America, the Caribbean, or barnstorming with other Negro Leagues stars. During World War II, Leonard's salary jumped from $425 per month to $1,100, surpassed only by the salaries of pitcher Satchel Paige and teammate Josh Gibson. Leonard and Gibson were a powerful duo known as the "Thunder Twins" and were hailed as the "[Babe] Ruth and [Lou] Gehrig of black baseball." In 1948 Leonard's earnings reached $10,000 for the regular season and Cuban winter ball.

Although racial segregation was the rule, African-American teams often played exhibition games against white semiprofessional and, on occasion, All-Star teams of major leaguers. Leonard batted .382 against major league pitchers, including .500 in eight games with Satchel Paige's All-Stars in 1943. Clark Griffith, the Washington Senators' owner, approached Leonard and Gibson about playing for his team in 1938, but Leonard received his first real opportunity to join the major leagues in 1952, six years after Jackie Robinson broke the color bar. Bill Veeck, the St. Louis Browns owner, invited the forty-five-year-old Leonard to spring training, but he declined, believing his time was past.

After retiring from baseball in 1955, Leonard returned to Rocky Mount, working as a truant officer and athletic assistant for the Rocky Mount school district until 1970, and later as a real estate broker. He earned a high school diploma in 1959. Leonard's wife, Sarah, died in February 1966; they had no children. On 7 July 1986 Leonard married his second wife, Lugenia. From 1962 to 1975 Leonard served as vice president for the Rocky Mount Leafs baseball team in the Class-A Carolina League. On 7 August 1972 Leonard was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, one year after Satchel Paige became the first player from the Negro Leagues to be inducted. Leonard died in 1997 of complications related to a stroke he suffered in April 1986, and is buried at Gardens of Gethsemane in Rocky Mount.

Leonard, a member of the last generation of African-American players barred from Major League Baseball, played seventeen seasons in the Negro Leagues (1934–1950) with the Homestead Grays, contributing to the club's ten Negro National Leagues pennants (1937–1945, and 1948) and three Negro Leagues World Series championships (1943, 1944, and 1948). The hard-hitting, superb fielding first baseman played on twelve All-Star teams. Ironically, the racial integration of Major League Baseball in 1947 destroyed African-American professional baseball, which had been a significant cultural institution in black communities.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York, has a file on Leonard. His autobiography, Buck Leonard, The Black Lou Gehrig: The Hall of Famer ' s Story in His Own Words (1995) , written with James A. Riley, describes life in the Negro Leagues. James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (1994), includes an article on Leonard. Obituaries are in the New York Times (29 Nov. 1997), and the Washington Post (30 Nov. 1997). Incomplete statistics and the paucity of press coverage make oral history important to the study of Negro Leagues ballplayers. Three of the best conversations with Leonard are John Holway, Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues (1975), and Black Stars: Negro League Pioneers (1988); also Brent Kelley, Voices from the Negro Leagues: Conversations with 52 Baseball Standouts of the Period 19241960 (1998).

Paul A. Frisch