The Negro Leagues' Lou Gehrig
By: Manny Randhawa | @MannyOnMLB
The legendary Josh Gibson is widely considered the greatest power hitter in Negro Leagues history, launching prodigious blasts that earned him the nickname “the Black Babe Ruth.” But there was another great slugger behind him in the Homestead Grays’ lineup, hitting cleanup and being dubbed “the Black Lou Gehrig.”
Walter Fenner “Buck” Leonard played a Negro Leagues-record 17 seasons for the same club, the Grays, from 1934-50. He was one of the most prolific hitters in Negro Leagues history while playing stellar defense at first base. He played in a record 12 East-West All-Star Games and, along with Gibson, helped lead the Grays to four consecutive Negro World Series from 1942-45, winning in '43 and '44. The “Thunder Twins” also helped the Grays win a record nine consecutive Negro National League championships from 1937-45.
Here are some key points to know about Leonard, who joined Gibson to become the first Negro Leagues position players inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
• Leonard began working full-time at age 16 because his hometown of Rocky Mount, N.C. did not have a high school at the time, and his parents weren’t able to afford sending him out of town for school (he later went back to school and earned his high school diploma when he was 52). He played semi-pro baseball when he could, but he became a full-time player after he was laid off during the Great Depression. When former Homestead ace Smokey Joe Williams saw Leonard play, he recruited the 26-year-old to join the Grays in 1934.
• If Gibson hit long, towering home runs, Leonard followed by ripping the ball all over the ballpark, into the gaps and over the wall. He was called “the Black Lou Gehrig,” but according to those who watched Leonard play, he might have been the superior defensive player when compared with the Iron Horse.
Leonard was also a tremendous fastball hitter. Giants great Monte Irvin once said that “trying to sneak a fastball past him was like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.”
• In 1948, at age 40, Leonard led the league with a .395 batting average and tied for the home run crown with 42. He helped lead the club to an unprecedented third Negro World Series title by defeating Willie Mays and the Birmingham Black Barons. Following that season, Leonard was offered the chance to play in the Majors for the St. Louis Browns, but declined due to his age. The Grays disbanded in 1950, as Negro Leagues clubs struggled to attract fans following the 1947 Major League debut of Jackie Robinson. Leonard continued playing, however, in the Mexican League from 1951-52, in the Piedmont League in '53 and back in Mexico in '55.
• Negro Leagues statistics vary according to source, and many databases are incomplete. But based on stats we do have from a special Baseball Hall of Fame project, Leonard hit .320 and slugged .527 over 1,427 recorded at-bats, with 471 hits, 60 home runs, 73 doubles, 26 triples, 257 walks, 352 runs scored and 275 RBIs. That is only a partial account of Leonard’s career, of course – according to author Jim Riley, Leonard averaged 43 homers from 1944-50, and hit .382 in exhibition games against Major League players during his career.
• Leonard, who died at the age of 90 on Nov. 27, 1997, is considered one of the greatest players in baseball history even though he never played in the Major Leagues. According to the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Leonard was the best first baseman in Negro Leagues history, as well as the 65th-best player in baseball history. In 1999, The Sporting News ranked Leonard as the 47th-best player of the 20th century.