Leonard never played in Major League Baseball (MLB); he declined a 1952 offer of an MLB contract because he felt he was too old. Late in life, Leonard worked as a physical education instructor and was the vice-president of a minor league baseball team. He and Gibson were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. In 1999, he was ranked number 47 on the 100 Greatest Baseball Players list by The Sporting News.
Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Leonard's father worked as a railroad fireman while his mother was a homemaker who cared for the six Leonard children. Leonard's parents called him "Buddy", but his younger brother began mispronouncing it "Bucky". Family members began calling him "Buck", a name which stuck with him throughout his life. When Leonard was about seven years old, he would sneak over to the baseball field of the local white team and watch games through the fence. Local police even once arrested Leonard and his friends when they were caught peeking through the fence at the segregated field.
Leonard's father died when he was eleven and Leonard picked up jobs after school to help his family. There was no black high school in Rocky Mount, so Leonard finished the eighth grade and went to work shining shoes for a rail station. He also worked in a hosiery mill and for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. He later earned a GED by correspondence. He began playing semiprofessional baseball while working for the railroad, then decided to pursue his living with the sport.
He began his Negro league career in 1933 with the Brooklyn Royal Giants, then moved to the legendary Homestead Grays in 1934, the team he played for until his retirement in 1950. The Grays of the late 1930s through the mid-1940s are considered one of the greatest teams of any race ever assembled. The team won nine league pennants in a row during that time.
Leonard batted fourth in their lineup behind Josh Gibson. He led the Negro leagues in batting average in 1948 with a mark of .395, and usually either led the league in home runs or finished second in homers to teammate Gibson. Since Gibson was known as the "Black Babe Ruth" and Leonard was a first baseman, Buck Leonard was inevitably called the "Black Lou Gehrig." Together, the pair was colloquially known as the "Thunder Twins" or "Dynamite Twins". In fact, Negro league star Monte Irvin said that if Leonard had been allowed in the major leagues, baseball fans "might have called Lou Gehrig the white Buck Leonard. He was that good." The Monarchs disbanded after 1950.
Beginning in 1951, Leonard went to the Mexican League. Teams played three games per week in this league, a pace that worked well for the aging player. Leonard said that he got sick from the water every year that he returned to Mexico, but he otherwise enjoyed the league. For much of his time in Mexico, he was managed by Cuban baseball star Martín Dihigo. Leonard was impressed by Dihigo's baseball knowledge. In 1952, Leonard was offered a major league contract, but he believed that at age 45 he was too old and might embarrass himself and hurt the cause of integration. He stayed in Mexico through 1955, playing for teams in Torreón, Xalapa, Durango and Obregón.
After retiring as a player, Leonard worked as a truant officer, served as a physical education instructor and started a realty company. He was vice president of the Rocky Mount Leafs, a minor league baseball team. In the 1970s, the Leafs were a Class A farm team for the Detroit Tigers.
Leonard was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 along with Gibson. At his induction ceremony on August 7 of that year, Leonard said, "We in the Negro leagues felt like we were contributing something to baseball, too, when we were playing. We played with a round ball and we played with a round bat. And we wore baseball shoes and wore baseball uniforms and we thought we were making a contribution to baseball. We loved the game and we liked to play it. If we didn't, we wouldn't have played because there wasn't any money in it."
Leonard was also inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1974. He suffered a stroke in the 1980s. In 1994, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game was held in Pittsburgh, hometown of the Grays, and the 88-year-old Leonard was named an honorary captain. He appeared wearing a model of a Grays uniform. Shortly before his death in 1997, Leonard was the subject of a North Carolina General Assembly proclamation recognizing his contributions to baseball. His death late that year stemmed from complications of his earlier stroke.
In 1999, he ranked Number 47 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, one of five players so honored who played all or most of their careers in the Negro leagues, and was nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
Leonard's contemporaries, including catcher Roy Campanella and pitcher Dave Barnhill, cited his quick bat as one of his greatest strengths. "You could put a fastball in a shotgun and you couldn't shoot it by him," Barnhill said. Negro league pitcher Leon Day said that he would have rather pitched against Gibson than Leonard. Grays owner Cumberland Posey described Leonard as one of the most talented clutch hitters in the Negro leagues.
The first official statistics for the Negro leagues were compiled as part of a statistical study sponsored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and supervised by Larry Lester and Dick Clark; a research team collected statistics from thousands of boxscores of league-sanctioned games. The first results from this study were the statistics for Negro league Hall of Famers elected prior to 2006, which were published in Shades of Glory by Lawrence D. Hogan. These statistics include the official Negro league statistics for Buck Leonard.
Source:Career statistics and player information from Baseball-Reference (Minors)