Eddie Leonard’s Loving Cup for John McGraw
After dropping off his dentures for repair, the 70-year-old Leonard wandered the streets of midtown Manhattan. Fatigued by the sweltering heat and stifling humidity, he eventually found himself in front of the Hotel Imperial at Broadway and West 31st—a place he knew well.
Back in his heyday, when Leonard was heralded as the greatest minstrel singer and black-face comedian of his time, the hotel had been his home. But now his days as a vaudeville headliner were long in the past. Unrecognized by the hotel staff, he checked in for $3, headed up to a sixth floor bedroom, folded his clothes neatly on a chair, lay down in bed, and died.
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Born Lemuel Golden “Dots” Toney in Richmond, Virginia, in 1870, Leonard spent his teenage years working in iron mills, singing and dancing on local minstrel stages, and playing baseball. The man who later took the stage name of Eddie Leonard never grew tired of telling stories of his days on the ball field. A particular favorite was the story of how he abandoned baseball for a life in the theater.
“I remember way back when,” said Leonard in a 1923 interview with the San Francisco Examiner. “I was in the old Virginia State League then. Back in 1897 it was. John McGraw was with the Baltimore Orioles then “He gave me a chance to break into the big time of baseball. I got my tryout, but I didn’t make the grade. Soon after that McGraw met George Primrose of Primrose and West, famous minstrels in New York, and told him something like this: ‘I’ve got a ballplayer that, as an infielder, is a fine singer and dancer. Better give him a job with your company. He’ll never make a ballplayer.’”
The stars on the bill that evening included entertainer extraordinaire George M. Cohan, celebrated singer/actress Lillian Russell, former heavyweight boxing champion James J. Corbett, and Leonard.
Two years later, Leonard parlayed his connections with McGraw into a role on the diamond, taking part in practices with the Giants prior to New York’s 1913 World Series matchup against the Philadelphia Athletics. But the vaudeville star was unable to attend the Fall Classic as he was booked at Baltimore’s Maryland Theatre along with Jack Norworth, the singer-songwriter who penned the lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in 1908. Fortunately, as reported in the Baltimore Sun, “When [Leonard] heard that the world's series results will be announced daily from the stage of the Maryland he was like a schoolboy told that he might have a week’s vacation.”
Some seven years later, when Leonard failed to return home that hot summer evening in 1941, his wife Mabel reported him missing. She told the police that her husband of 32 years could be identified by a lifetime pass to the Polo Grounds that he kept with him at all times, a gift from his good friend John McGraw.
The next day, Leonard’s lifeless body was discovered in his hotel room. Newspapers reported that the pass was found clutched in his hand.
In death, as in life, Eddie Leonard held fast to his love for baseball and his cherished relationship with John McGraw.
Tom Shieber is the senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum