‘The Black Lou Gehrig’ from North Carolina is finally recognized in the MLB record books

They called him “The Black Lou Gehrig,” a quiet left-hander from Rocky Mount who clubbed the ball so hard and reliably that he racked up a .345 lifetime batting average in the Negro Leagues — higher than the legendary Ted Williams.

All his life, Walter “Buck” Leonard lived with the hard truth that his numbers didn’t count as much. As a Black star, his statistics topped a separate list, even when he joined the Baseball Hall of Fame as an elderly man.

But on Wednesday, Major League Baseball issued an updated set of all-time records, this one including Negro League stars barred from playing alongside their white contemporaries.

And now, Leonard’s .345 average stands at No. 8 — one point and two slots higher than Williams.

‘We played like no other world existed’

“We didn’t think of playing in the major leagues very much,” Leonard told The N&O in 1997, not long before he died. “The majors were for the white guys. But we didn’t hold any anger for them. We didn’t even think about them. We had our own league, like another world, and we played like no other world existed.”

Major League Baseball overturned its hallowed record books so fans will hear the names and smack their foreheads at the heights reached by Black players who came before Jackie Robinson integrated the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Now Josh Gibson, Leonard’s teammate on the Homestead Grays’ “Murderers’ Row,” tops the all-time hitting list with a .372 average.

“Their accomplishments on the field will be a gateway to broader learning about this triumph in American history and the path that led to Jackie Robinson’s 1947 Dodger debut,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a news release.

Buck Leonard in Rocky Mount in 1997.
Buck Leonard in Rocky Mount in 1997.

But in Rocky Mount, Leonard reached folklore status decades before he and Gibson made the Hall of Fame in 1972, turning down a job in Major League Baseball to stay in his hometown of Rocky Mount, where among other vocations, he rounded up wayward youth as a truant officer with a gray Jeep.

“We were all afraid of Mr. Leonard,” Antonio Lawrence, a Rocky Mount lawyer, told The N&O in 2006. “He was a towering figure, and we had so much respect for him. We had heard about Lou Gehrig, but not about Mr. Leonard. So when they compared [Gehrig] with Mr. Leonard, we were in awe. That was the kind of fear that made him larger than life for us.”

From Rocky Mount Black Swans to Homestead Grays

Born in 1907, Leonard was forced to drop out of elementary school in Rocky Mount at age 14 when his father died and left him the family’s bread-winner. He took a job in a hosiery factory, then a railroad, playing semipro ball with the Rocky Mount Black Swans.

Then when the Great Depression took his railroad job, he turned to baseball as a profession, landing the first-base job on the Homestead Grays alongside Gibson. On that dominant squad, he helped win nine pennants.

Years later, at a ceremony in Rocky Mount honoring his 90th birthday, Leonard recalled a Negro League life spent on rickety buses, sometimes playing four games a day, getting turned away from hotels and diners.

“Some days you ate good and were treated like kings,” he told The N&O. “The next town, the next day, we might have to high-tail it out of town to save our skins.”

Members of the Buck Leonard Baseball League of Rocky Mount turn to watch Walter “Buck” Leonard’s family as they enter Saint James Baptist Church for the funeral of the baseball legend.
Members of the Buck Leonard Baseball League of Rocky Mount turn to watch Walter “Buck” Leonard’s family as they enter Saint James Baptist Church for the funeral of the baseball legend.

Around the time Leonard turned 90, slowed by a stroke, Rocky Mount dedicated a park in his honor on Grace Street, and luminaries from his era recalled his hitting prowess like feats from a tall tale. One veteran of the rival Pittsburgh Crawfords said Leonard hit a ball so hard and far it cleared the fence and struck a water tower.

“It hit that ol’ water tower so hard it rained on that town for five weeks,” said Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe.

‘One of the greatest who ever lived’

But Leonard, who spent his later years working in real estate around Rocky Mount, along with serving as vice president and hitting instructor for the Rocky Mount Leafs, never felt bitterness about his segregated career — a point echoed at his 1997 funeral.

“Buck’s song was not sung for a long time, until they put him in the Hall,” said Buck O’Neil, another Negro League star, speaking of Leonard’s passing. “I’ll cry tonight. But not because of Buck’s passing. I’ll cry for the people who didn’t get to see him and know of his great things. He was one of the greatest who ever lived. ...

“I’m sure there’s a great ball club in Heaven,” he continued. “Saint Peter probably asked God ‘What about Lou Gehrig at first base?’ But God said, ‘Lou Gehrig’s on the other team.’ “