Friday, May 27, 2011

#36 Buck Leonard

Walter "Buck" Leonard was born in 1907 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He was unable to attend high school as black were not allowed to in the South at that time. His father, John, died in the influenza epidemic, and Buck was forced to go to work to support his family. He went to work in a textile mill and later as a railroad station shoeshine boy. He played some semi-pro baseball at this time, but when he lost his railroad job, he signed with the Brooklyn Royal Giants in the Negro Leagues. From there, he moved to the legendary Homestead Grays where he became the greatest first baseman in the Negro Leagues. He was a teammate of Josh Gibson, and the two sluggers were dubbed "The Thunder Twins" and were compared to their white Yankee contemporaries, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. During World War 2, Leonard lead the Grays to four-consecutive Black World Series appearances.
In the years before Jackie Robinson's days with the Dodgers, Leonard, along with Gibson, was approached by Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith about signing with the AL team. Griffith wound up getting cold feet about being the first team to sign black players, and relented. Shortly after Robinson's debut with Brooklyn, St Louis owner Bill Veeck offered a contract to Leonard, but at 40 years of age, Leonard turned him down, claiming he was to old to play in the Major Leagues.
After the Grays disbanded, Leonard played from 1951-55 in the Mexican League, interrupted by a brief appearance with Portsmouth in the Piedmont League. This stint was Leonard's only appearance in organized baseball. (The Negro Leagues, with its haphazard scheduling and record keeping, is not recognized by professional baseball as "organized").
After Leonard's final game in Mexico at 48 years of age, he returned to Rocky Mount, where he worked as a truant officer and later a gym teacher. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1972. Leonard suffered a stroke in 1986, and he was forced to learn to write with his other hand. He was a regular fixture at Negro League events through the 1980's and 90's, and enjoyed years of recognition and adulation (including being the honorary captain for the NL in the 1994 All-Star Game) before dying in 1997 at the age of 90.
The Autograph: This is a good example of his post-stroke autograph. Pre-stroke autographs are not hard to find, but they are definitely not as common as the later versions. He did a lot of card shows over the years, and also was very generous in his through-the-mail habits.

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