Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson are elected to the Hall of Fame

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Alex Coffey

When Walter “Buck” Leonard was 17 years old, he slipped away from his job working on the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad to catch a glimpse of the great Lou Gehrig. Leonard had heard the Yankees were coming to Washington D.C. to play the Senators, and wouldn’t miss the opportunity to see his hero at first base.

“I patterned myself after Gehrig in batting, fielding and everything else,” Leonard told The New York Times.

Little did Leonard know that one day he’d be referred to as the Lou Gehrig of the Negro Leagues – and would be immortalized alongside his fellow first baseman in Cooperstown.

But it was only fitting that Leonard be joined in the Class of 1972 by his former teammate on the Homestead Grays, and the other half of their power-hitting duo, Josh Gibson.

Together, they were the “heart of Murderers Row” for the Pittsburgh-based team, throughout the mid-1930s and 1940s. And together, they would enter the Hall of Fame.

On Feb. 8, 1972, the nine-man Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues elected Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard into the Hall of Fame. This made them the second and third Negro League players, behind Satchel Paige the year before, to be elected.

Gibson and Leonard led the Grays to four consecutive appearances in the Negro World Series, picking up titles in 1943 and 1944, in addition to nine consecutive Negro National League pennants from 1937-1945. A power-hitting left-handed batter, Leonard’s batting average ranged from the high-.300s to as high as .400 at times, with a career slugging percentage of .527. The first baseman played in a league-record 11 East-West All-Star games, and spent his entire 17-year career in Pittsburgh.

Similarly to Leonard, Gibson was quickly given an apt nickname of his own – the “black Babe Ruth” – and also drew comparisons to Ted Williams and Bill Dickey. Though record-keeping was informal at best in those days, Gibson was said to have hit as many as 623 home runs, with single-season totals as high as 84 and 75. The Sporting News reported that he hit a home-run of 580-feet at Yankee Stadium, a mere two feet from the top of the bleacher wall.

“Josh was the greatest hitter I ever pitched to,” Satchel Paige said to United Press International. “And I pitched to everybody. There’s been some great hitters – Williams, DiMaggio, Musial, Mays, Mantle. But none of them was as great as Josh.”

Josh Gibson (pictured above jogging to home plate) was estimated to have hit over 600 home runs during his time in the Negro Leagues. (National Baseball Hall of Fame)

His defensive prowess behind the plate was just as strong, with a powerful arm that held runners to their bases all over the Negro Leagues.

“Whenever I played on an All-Star team in the black leagues with Josh, he was the catcher. I played third base,” Roy Campanella told the Sporting News. “Everything I could do, Josh could do better.”

Buck Leonard was often referred to as the "Lou Gehrig" of the Negro Leagues for his defensive skill on first base. (National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Gibson didn’t live to see his induction, or even the integration of the major leagues, as he passed away at the age of 35 on Jan. 20, 1947. Jackie Robinson would make his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers just months later. But tales of Gibson’s power withstood the test of time. And his former teammate, Leonard, was there to express the honor of receiving national recognition for their time on the playing field.

“We felt we were contributing something to baseball,” Leonard said. “We used the same round ball, the same round bat. We loved the game. I never dreamed about gaining the Hall of Fame because it was so far from us. It was the greatest moment of my life.”


Alex Coffey was the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series