Baseball history is full of truly fine one-two punches. There’s Ruth and Gehrig. There’s Aaron and Matthews. There’s Mays and McCovey. There is also Leonard and Gibson. This is the story of Buck Leonard, generally considered the greatest of all Negro League first basemen.
Walter Leonard was born in North Carolina in 1907. By 1924 he was playing and managing (yes, managing at age 17) a local black semi-pro team. He also worked for the Atlantic Coastline Railroad in their repair shop. He lost his job in 1932 during the Great Depression. His only means of employment being baseball, he signed with Portsmouth Black Revels for $15 a month. In 1933 he and his brother Charlie (a pitcher) signed with the Baltimore Stars, a barnstorming team that promptly went bankrupt (but not from signing the Leonard brothers). Buck Leonard had already caught the eye of other Negro League teams and was scooped up by Brooklyn Royal Giants. In 1934 Cum Posey signed him for $125 a month (and 60 cents meal money daily) to play with the Homestead Grays. There he teamed with Gibson, Jud Wilson, Vic Harris, and Howard Easterling to win consecutive Negro National League pennants from 1937 through 1945 inclusive. After a two-year hiatus, they won again in 1948 when Leonard was 40 (and Gibson was dead). His salary had changed. He was now earning about $10,000 a year.
With the collapse of the Negro National League and the Grays, Leonard continued to play baseball in the Latin Winter Leagues and the Mexican League as late as 1955. Too old to play in the Majors after the color line was broken in 1946, Leonard did play 10 games in the Piedmont League in 1953. He hit .333.
In retirement Leonard worked a number of jobs, truant officer, physical education teacher, ran a realty company, and in 1962 served as vice president of the Carolina League team in Rocky Mount. In 1972 Leonard was elected to the Hall of Fame. He died in 1986.
There are limited statistics available to help us determine just how good Leonard was as a player. Baseball Reference.com shows him playing 412 games for the Grays between 1934 and 1948, an average of 27.5 a year. In those games he hit .320 and slugged 527. There is no on base percentage listed, but if you add his hits (471) and walks (257) you get a preliminary OBP of .495. Obviously that leaves out catcher’s interference and hit by pitch stats, but, frankly, how many of them could there be over 412 games? Anyway, that gives a preliminary OPS of 1022. He had 1427 hits, 275 RBIs, scored 351 runs, and had 60 home runs. Baseball Reference.com gives a 162 game average for the available stats, which works out to 138 runs, 185 hits, 108 RBIs, 101 walks, and 24 home runs per 162 games. There are no strikeout numbers listed and manages only 25 stolen bases for his career. His highest single season average is .533 but is for only 11 games in 1947. His highest home run total is eight in both 1940 and 1941 (44 and 36 games). His highest RBI number is 44 in 1940 (again the 44 games). His highest hit total is 60, also in 1940. In 55 games in 1943 he scores 55 runs, his highest run total.
Obviously, Leonard was very good. He is, unquestionably, a Hall of Famer. He is generally compared to Lou Gehrig. I don’t think he was that good, but he was very close.