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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

Stars of the Negro Leagues

Mr. Consistency
Leonard was mainstay with Homestead Grays
By Brian Wilson/MLB.com


Buck Leonard played 17 years for the Homstead Grays.
Born: Sept. 8, 1907, Rocky Mount, N.C.
Died: Nov. 27, 1997, Rocky Mount, N.C.
Bats: Left
Throws: Left
Hall of Fame induction: 1972

It was only natural that the "Black Lou Gehrig" and the "Black Babe Ruth" would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame together in 1972.

Walter Fenner "Buck" Leonard, the cleanup hitter of the Negro National League's Homestead Grays, was always paired in the lineup with legendary power hitter Josh Gibson. They also nearly paired to break baseball's color line together as well -- a full eight years before Jackie Robinson eventually did.

The oldest of six children, the Rocky Mount, N.C. native had to work after school at age 12, when his father died during the 1919 flu epidemic. He began working full-time at 16, putting brake cylinders on boxcars for a railroad shop.

The local minor-league team played at a ballpark near his home, which helped pique his interest in baseball.

He began playing semipro as he worked until the Depression resulted in his layoff. A fulltime professional career was born, as Leonard left home to play for the Portsmouth Firefighters. He subsequently played for Baltimore Stars and Brooklyn Royal Giants before joining owner and manager Cumberland Posey and his Grays in 1934.

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Leonard went on to anchor first base for the Grays for the next 17 years. During that time, the left-handed line-drive hitter represented the Negro National League at 12 All-Star games, posted a .341 career batting average (according to the Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues), won three batting titles and averaged 34 homers per season from 1936 to 1943. Most importantly, the Grays -- who also boasted Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell -- won nine consecutive Negro National League titles from 1937 to 1945.

Buck proved to be a clutch performer, typified by his .500 batting average in the 1944 Negro World Series -- the second of consecutive titles for the Grays. The team returned to win the 1948 World Series by beating the Birmingham Black Barons, whose roster included a 17-year-old outfielder named Willie Mays.

Leonard also answered questions about the quality of Negro League play by batting .382 in exhibition games against Major Leaguers. But racism prevented him from competing against them on a regular basis.

In 1939, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith called Leonard and Gibson into his office and asked if they were interested in playing in the Major Leagues. But fans were ultimately robbed not only of their best opportunity to see these players perform on baseball's biggest stage, but to do so in their prime. Nothing came of the meeting, despite their interest. Knowing his better days were behind him, Buck turned down his only other opportunity at the Majors when Bill Veeck came calling 13 years later.

After that final World Series, the Majors began to raid the Negro Leagues of their young talent -- including Mays, the Indianapolis Clowns' Henry Aaron and the Cleveland Buckeyes' Sam Jethroe -- a trend that eventually lead to the leagues' demise.

The Grays closed up shop in 1950, but Leonard continued to play in the Mexican League until 1955, hitting .325 in '51 and .328 in '52 for Torreon. During this time, he also made a brief appearance in his only foray into the professional minor leagues, hitting .333 during a 10-game stint with Portsmouth. He concluded his career at age 48, hitting .312 with Durango with 13 homers in 62 games.

After his retirement, Leonard served as vice president of the Rocky Mount Leafs in the Class-A Carolina League, worked as an athletic director and truant officer for a school district, and ran the Buck Leonard Realty Agency.

Ultimately, Leonard was one of the first Negro Leaguers to be honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The Hall established a Negro Leagues Committee, and enshrined Satchel Paige as their first honoree in 1971. Buck and Gibson, fittingly, were next in line.

Brian Wilson is an editor/producer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.