"We just came along too soon."
Buck Leonard never made more than $1,100 a month during a 23-year career that brought him to baseball's Hall of Fame with a lifetime batting average of .342 and 42 homers one season.
Leonard came along in the 1930s when baseball was as segregated as the rest of American life. He barnstormed around the country with the Homestead Grays of the Negro League, riding buses, sometimes playing three games on a single Sunday, taking on any opponents, white or black.
"I got $125 a month for the first 4 1/2 months," Leonard recalled yesterday as talk turned to baseball salaries today. Dave Winfield, for instance, earns almost $9,000 a game playing left field for the New York Yankees.
There were three Hall of Famers -- Leonard, Monte Irvin, and Judy Johnson -- among the former black players who came for yesterday's opening of the Smithsonian's new exhibit, "Black Baseball: Life in the Negro Leagues." In the two display cases with old uniforms, cleated shoes and caps were three baseballs signed by Leonard, Pat Patterson's sliding pads, and Chet Brewer's glove.
Leonard, the left-handed slugger, was a great one. At first base for the Homestead Grays, he came to be known as the Lou Gehrig of black baseball. The husky shoulders that propelled the ball over the fence are still there, with a little added weight around the middle as befitting a solid citizen who is into real estate in Rocky Mount, N.C. Leonard played out his baseball career in the Mexican League in 1955.
"We always believed we could have made the major league if baseball hadn't been segregated. I'm not bitter. But it was too late for me. When Jackie Robinson came along, I was 40 years old," Leonard said.
They were asking for his autograph again. One of those there to talk about the glory days of the Negro Baseball Leagues was Al Bumbry, who came along at the right time. Today he patrols centerfield for the Baltimore Orioles.
"Hey, the White Sox had batting practice with you guys," Judy Johnson joshed Bumbry, bringing up the painful subject of the 18-5 pasting administered to the Orioles in Chicago Thursday.
Johnson, who still sports a Phillies tie clasp, helped Philadelphia's Hilldale team win three pennants in a row (1923-'25) as a wide-ranging third baseman and reliable clutch hitter. He was the most valuable player in the first Negro World Series in 1924.
In their heyday, black teams often played in major league parks while the home teams were on the road. The talented black players could draw bigger crowds than the major leaguers. Leonard remembers playing before a crowd of 30,000 in old Griffith Stadium in the mid-'40s.
It wasn't until 1947 that Jackie Robinson joined the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first black man to play on a major league team. The next year Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the American League with the Cleveland Indians.
"Negro baseball may have represented the highest achievement of black enterprise during segregation," says Donn Rogosin, a baseball fan who also happens to be a cultural historian at the Smithsonian. "The leagues were multimillion-dollar operations. Monies rippled through the black community as boarding houses, restaurants, and taverns benefited."
Missing from the lineup at the Smithsonian yesterday was Satchel Paige, the pitcher with the ageless arm who finally got a chance to go to the mound for a major league team at an age when other players are comfortably retired. He has been ill in Kansas City, Rogosin reported. He didn't know whether it was the fried foods that Satchel once warned against because they "dispute the stomach."
Paige, perhaps the best-known of all black ballplayers, pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs, who pioneered night baseball by lighting the field with power supplied from a generator housed in the team bus.
At one of the Smithsonian display cases yesterday, a 10-year-old named Richie Stark looked puzzled at a baseball autographed in 1930 by Sam Streeter, a terrific left-hander for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, known as the best black baseball team money could buy.
"Who the heck was Sam Streeter?" he asked.