Nephew of Negro Leagues legend carrying legacy at SBTS

Communications Staff — March 11, 2009

It was said of Buck Leonard, one of the greatest professional baseball players of all-time, that trying to sneak a fastball past him was akin to sneaking a sunset past a rooster.

Leonard was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, but he never had an at-bat in the Major Leagues, that is, the “white” Major Leagues. Leonard starred in the Negro National League, the most prominent of the Jim Crow-era black professional baseball

Until Jackie Robinson’s monumental breakdown of baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Major League Baseball was lily-white; but in Buck Leonard’s league, only the ball was white. Like many of the citizens of pre-civil rights America, white and black men who played baseball for a living inhabited separate and decidedly unequal worlds.

Baseball historians widely agree that the skills of the top Negro Leagues players such as Leonard and Satchel Paige equaled those of the stars in the white Major Leagues.

And, like their white counterparts, black players ranged in character from Christians and educated solid citizens to ne’er do goods. As Negro Leagues historian Robert Peterson put it, “They were saints and sinners, college professors and illiterates, serious men and clowns, teetotalers and Saturday night drunks.”

Leonard was one of the saints. A devout follower of Christ, Leonard was to the Negro Leagues what Christy Mathewson had been to its white counterpart a generation earlier: an omni-respected Christian gentleman.

A part of Leonard’s legacy exists at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the person of his great nephew Kevin Smith, who serves as assistant professor of church history.

Smith, who will soon earn his Ph.D. from Southern, was a young child when he last spent time with Leonard, but recalls vividly the content of his character, character which bled through effusively when Smith attended family reunions at Leonard’s home in Rocky Mount, N.C.

“I remember how agile he was even though he was an older man,” Smith said. “It was easy to see how he would have been such a great athlete. He would always play with all of us kids. He was very gentle, very playful with the kids, the kind of man you were drawn to.

“Today, when I think of him, I think of the stability of his character. He left a great legacy as a man who loved the Lord, his family and his community. He is a great role model for African-American men, the kind of role model we desperately need.”

Smith still visits his aunt Lugenia, Leonard’s wife, each year in Rocky Mount. Leonard died in 1997 at the age of 90. The family possesses a considerable amount of memorabilia from Leonard’s playing career and labors to keep alive the memory of both the man and player, Smith said.

On both fronts it is a legacy that is deep as it is wide.

In the Negro Leagues, Leonard was known as “the
black Lou Gehrig,” because he was a left-handed hitting first baseman who could hit the ball into next time zone and because the deep integrity that served as the default setting of his life earned the respect of his peers.

Leonard was a stalwart for the famed Homestead Grays—the New York Yankees of black baseball. With a roster populated by such Negro Leagues legends as Leonard, Josh Gibson (known as “the black Babe Ruth” for his incredible power at the plate) and James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, the Grays won nine straight Negro National League championships from 1937 to 1945 and again in 1948.

Though Negro Leagues statistics are somewhat spotty, Leonard finished with an unofficial lifetime batting average of .324. He hit .419 over his career in NNL World Series games.

The same year Robinson joined the Major Leagues, Leonard got an opportunity to play in what black players called “The Show” when Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck offered him a contract. But by this time, Leonard was 40 and saw his skills beginning to erode; he turned down the offer, telling Veeck, “I am too old and I know it.”

“He didn’t want to shame his people by going to the big leagues and playing poorly,” Smith said. “He didn’t want to tarnish such a great opportunity and give a poor representation of black players. Other players and family members greatly respected him for making that difficult decision.”

Leonard was a devout churchman, who served for many years as a leader in his local Baptist congregation in Rocky Mount, Smith said.

Leonard’s deep faith in Christ boiled over in his induction speech into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. That year, Leonard and Homestead Grays teammate Gibson were rightly added to baseball’s pantheon of elite stars one year after the hall opened its doors to black baseball’s legends.

“My greatest thrill as a baseball player came from what somebody did for me,” he told the audience. “And that was select me for the Baseball Hall of Fame. I will do everything in my power to try and take care of this selection and this induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“Again I want to say this…It is nice to receive praise and honor from men, but the greatest praise and honor come from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

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