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Negro League legend was man of faith

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–It was said of Buck Leonard, one of the greatest 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 organizations.

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, no different than their white counterparts, black players “were saints and sinners, college professors and illiterates, serious men and clowns, teetotalers and Saturday night drunks,” as Negro Leagues historian Robert Peterson put it.

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: a respected Christian gentleman.

Leonard’s legacy extends to the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the person of his grandnephew, Kevin Smith, an assistant professor of church history.

Smith, who will earn his Ph.D. this spring from the Kentucky seminary, vividly recalls the content of Leonard’s character from the family reunions he attended as a child 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.

In the Negro Leagues, Leonard was known as “the black Lou Gehrig” as a left-handed hitting first baseman and for the integrity that 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 faith in Christ boiled over in his induction speech into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 when Homestead Grays teammate Gibson also was 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.”
Jeff Robison is director of news and information at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

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  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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