The left-handed half of the homestead Gray’s power tandem, Buck Leonard paired with Josh Gibson to lead Cum Posey’s Grays to nine consecutive Negro National League championships during their halcyon years, 1937-45.
While Josh was slugging tape-measure home runs, Buck was hitting screaming line drives off the walls and over the walls. Trying to sneak a fastball past him was like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster. Batting fourth in the lineup of the Grays’ murderers’ row,” the 5’11″, 185 lb pull hitter displayed a powerful stroke.
Possessing a smooth swing at the plate, he was equally smooth in the field. Sure-handed, with a strong and accurate arm and acknowledged as a smart ballplayer who always made the right play, Buck was a team-man all the way. Respected by his teammates, his consistency and dependability were a steadying influence on the Grays.
So great were his contributions to the team’s success that even in the years when Gibson was in Mexico, the Grays continued to win pennants. With Josh rejoining Buck in the Gray’s lineup, the team won back-to-back World Series in 1943-44, featuring Buck’s torrid .500 batting average in the latter series. The home run duo had finished the regular season tied for the league lead in home runs and followed in 1945 with another one-two finish in that category, with Buck pounding out a .375 batting average as well, to lead the Grays to another flag.
After a two-year absence from the Negro World Series, the Grays, under Buck’s inspirational leadership, became World Series champs again in 1948, coinciding with the last great year of the black baseball leagues. That year, following a .410 batting average the previous year, Buck won his third batting title with a .395 average and tied for the league lead in home runs as well.
Over a 17-year career in the Negro National League, his lifetime stats show a .341 average in league play and a .382 average in exhibition games against major leaguers.
Leonard began his baseball career as a semi-pro star in his hometown of Rocky Mount, North Carolina but in 1933 he was forced by the depression to leave home to pursue a professional career. That season he played successively for the Portsmouth Black Revels, and the Baltimore Stars, and the Brooklyn Royal Giants, where he played in the outfield. Smokey Joe Williams saw him playing with the Royals and connected him with the Homestead Grays for the 1934 season and Leonard remained with the Grays through the 1950 season. During his tenure in the Gray’s flannels, he quickly gained the respect and appreciation of inside baseball men. He was also a favorite of the fans, and became a fixture in the annual East-West All-Star classic. As usual, in 1948 Buck was selected to the East squad’s starting lineup, marking his 11th game, an All-Star record. In this star studded competition, he compiled a .317 average and banged out three home runs to establish another All-Star game record.
When the opportunity finally came to play in the major leagues, Buck’s age, legs and good sense told him that the opportunity had come too late. Fortunately, although national recognition of his great talent also came late, it was not too late, for Buck was still able to smell the roses when he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame along with Josh Gibson in 1972.
Brooklyn Royal Giants, Homestead Grays
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Buck Leonard: The Black Lou Gehrig , Buck Leonard and James A. Riley