Although Buck Leonard, who played for the Washington Homestead Grays in the 1930s and '40s, accumulated a career batting average of .355 against black teams and .382 against whites, he never climbed the wall of racial intolerance to break into the major leagues.
The professional acceptance he couldn't win with his bat, Leonard now claims with his memories. He recently was part of the Smithsonain Institute's Fourth of July baseball celebration.
Leonard, 73, is a legendary black baseball player whose ability to consistently hit fast balls earned him the title "the black Lou Gehrig." In 1976, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown along with the late Josh Gibson, Leonard's friend and teammate. Leonard also is in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
Leonard said the den in his comfortable brick home in Rocky Mount -- a rural town of 39,000 where tobacco reigns as king -- is full of baseball memorabilia. The memories are happy, with no bitterness, he said.
He loved baseball and spent 23 years on the road because "I didn't want to work," he said, laughing. "I worked for the railroad nine years as an air brake mechanic helper, making $3.92 a day. I didn't want to go back."
He almost quit baseball, too, "but I loved the game. I loved hitting the ball and the fellowship with the players. They spoke my language."
Gehrig was his idol. "I first saw him play in 1927. I tried to play like Lou Gehrig."
Induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame remains his greatest honor. Monte Irvin, now an assistant in the baseball commissioner's office, asked Leonard to come to New York to help select the nominees.
Once there, Irvin guided Leonard into a conference room at the Americana Hotel to hear Commissioner Bowie Kuhn make an announcement to the press: Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard would be placed in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
"Everybody said, 'Buck, say something, say something,'" Leonard said. "I was dumbfounded. I didn't know I was going to be selected."
The honor was temporarily tarnished. Cooperstown officials said the black major leaguers would be put in another room. Ted Williams, Jesse Owens and others met at Howard University to protest the decision and ask Leonard and Gibson's son to refuse the awards. They agreed. Two days later the Cooperstown officials reversed their decision.
At the Smithsonian, Leonard was a major attraction.
For four days, the still spry and agile slugger greeted newfound fans and feasted on the attention.
"Here's how I regret not going to the majors," he said in an interview. "Of course it would have been more money, but other than that I'd have been playing better baseball 'cause the conditions would have been better. We'd have been staying in better hotels. We'd have been eating better meals. The training and coaching, like that, would have been better.
"And I had to play with some ailments in the Negro leagues that I wouldn't have had to play with in the major leagues."
He pointed to a dark spot on the inside of his left leg, a few inches above the ankle. He cut the leg playing ball. "I needed three stitches in it . . . they wouldn't do it," he said. In those days, every man played daily. Only 17 players traveled with the team, compared to 25 in the big leagues. And games were played in a different town each day.
The spot still troubles him, he said. His biggest regret about missing the big leagues is the lost opportunities. The Negro leagues had no farm system to develop players. No is regarded as one of the greatest black ballplayers of his time, and, with Gibson, he brought nine consecutive pennants to the Grays between 1937 and 1945. Yet Leonard says he never fully realized his potential.
Throughout the four-day Smithsonian celebration, Leonard sat on panels with people like Enos Slaughter and Irvin, who made the jump from the black leagues to the white leagues, to talk about barnstorming.
His face would light up as he spoke in a rich, gravelly voice. Sitting at his feet, children with bright eyes hung on every word while their fathers and other men bobbed their heads excitedly as their own faded memories were revived by Leonard's reminiscences.
The Grays played more than 200 games a year, he said, and attracted crowds of 20,000 or more at Griffith Stadium when the Senators were on the road. They barnstormed in Hollywood, in the '30s and '40s, with the white All-Stars until Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis put a stop to it, finding it unseemly that black baseball teams would defeat whites.
As Irvin remembers it, Leonard was one of the best of either league.
"The thing that impressed me was the power," Irvin said of Leonard's ability. "He hit left-handers as well as right-handers . . . This man was truly a great baseball player.It's a crime he never made any money.
"What I like about him is he kept a level head. When it would have been easy to turn to the bottle he has remained a decent man all these years. Everwhere he goes people like him and have a lot of respect for him."
In 1934, his second year playing, pay in the black leagues was $1.25 a month for a 4 1/2-month season and 60 cents a day for meals, Leonard said.
"When they raised the eating money from 60 cents to a dollar and a half, I opened a savings account." His best payday came a decade later. He earned $4,500 a season, plus room and board at home and on the road. He was 37. He quit baseball in 1955.
Leonard was the oldest boy among six children. His father died when Leonard was 11. He helped his mother raise the family and acquired the name Buck (his real name is Walter) when his brother Herman, unable to say "Buddy" like the rest of the family, dubbed him Buck.
But the greatest satisfaction of his career, he said, was getting married. "I was busy planning baseball and didn't have time to get married." Besides, ballplayers were notorious womanizers, he said. The Grays even had a motto, "We let every town furnish its own women."
Yet, he was able to convince Sarah, a widowed schoolteacher three years his senior, of his sincerity. They were married in 1937. Throughout the years, he said her coworkers would ask her when Buck was going to "stop wearing that monkey uniform playing baseball" and get a job.
Sarah remained his defender and occasionally came to Washington to see him play. She died in 1966. They had no children. And only one of Leonard's sisters remains of his family.