A sunny November day in Rocky Mount.
I apologize greatly that I once again left this blog fallow for an extended period of time. I was temporarily employed by a local New Orleans TV station on a big investigative project, and, well, it paid really, really well.
Plus I still seem to be at a personal and career crossroads, the same one that’s stymied me for well more than a year now. I’ve flopped around like a fish on the floor of a boat, gasping for air and desperately trying to hop my way to water and security. I just can’t figure out which way to flop, professionally speaking.
What I have been doing is trying to write longer-form pieces, and, for my return to the Interweb is the first part of a narrative about the time I met the great Buck Leonard. I’m hoping to post a new part each week, fingers crossed. I hope you like it.
On Sept. 5, 1997, former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge of North Carolina read into the Congressional Record a tribute to Walter Fenner “Buck” Leonard, the Hall of Fame first baseman who would be celebrating his 90th birthday three days later.
Etheridge explained that he regretted he couldn’t be there in person — the Congressman’s district included much of Edgecombe County and the eastern side of the city of Rocky Mount, Buck’s hometown and lifelong residence — but that he wished the Negro Leagues legend all the best on Leonard’s big day. Read the Congressman:
“I only wish that the whole world could have seen the talents of Buck Leonard in the major leagues. Although that national recognition came too late for Buck Leonard, he is enshrined today in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. There is no player more deserving of that great honor than Rocky Mount’s own Buck Leonard.
“Though Buck was forced to leave Rocky Mount to pursue his professional career, he never forgot his beloved hometown. It is only fitting that today, the city of Rocky Mount honors Buck Leonard not merely for his many baseball talents and accomplishments, but also for what he has done for this fine community.
“Buck, I wish you a happy birthday. Though I missed this celebration, reserve me a seat for your 100th birthday celebration.”
(As a side note, Etheridge, a seven-term Democrat, flamed out three or so years later, after a dust-up with a “gotcha” style journalist followed by an upset loss in his 2010 re-election campaign. He subsequently and unsuccessfully ran for governor.)
That centennial birthday bash never came. Buck Leonard died less than three months after Etheridge honored him in Congress, on Nov. 27, 1997. Upon his death, his hometown paper, the Rocky Mount Telegram — for which I had briefly worked a couple years earlier — dedicated the majority of its front page to his passing, and to what he meant to the city. Under a large-font headline stating, “‘Buck’ Leonard dies at 90,” ran a three-column photo of Buck with his wife, Lugenia, at the 90th birthday fete thrown for him. In the photo he was wearing a Homestead Grays cap. He might have been a Rocky Mount native, but Buck was also a Homesteader until the end.
Wrote Telegram sports reporter Bill Barnhart in the paper’s Dec. 2, 1997, issue:
“Buck paved the way for other athletes of color by playing with class on and off the field, not letting small-minded people affect his play or love for the game. Everyone I’ve ever talked to about Leonard uses the same words to describe him: class, dignity, grace. …
“His passing isn’t really a ‘sports story,’ although he truly was a great sportsman. It’s more of a people story. Buck gained his fame with his prowess on the baseball diamond, but he was an even better person off the field as he was on it. And that’s really saying something.”
Such glowing eulogies flowed forth from eastern North Carolina newspaper, penned by white men who had met Buck and come away impressed by a man who, despite his speech patterns and mobility severely impacted by a stroke suffered years earlier, exuded a mix of enthusiasm, humility and wisdom that drew people to him, almost if by a magic spell.
Then-Rocky Mount Telegram editor Mark Aumann (for whom I’d briefly worked as a high school sports reporter) declared that Buck “gained his fame for the most part playing in the same stadiums as the major leaguers but enjoying none of the widespread adulation. … But Leonard’s indefatigable attitude and outstanding ability forced whites … to notice the talents of black ballplayers.”
Ben Casey, sports columnist for the Graphic of Nashville, N.C. (a town located about a dozen miles west of Rocky Mount), recounted his encounter with Buck, a photography session that allowed Casey to meet the legend. After lamenting what he viewed as the arrogance and greed of modern-day players, Casey regaled his readers with his impressions of Leonard, a man, Casey said, embodied the strengths and grace that such current players sadly lacked.
Casey explained how, back in the days of Jim Crow, Negro Leaguers like Buck faced not just racial bigotry, but severe and stark economics and dire financial straits:
“A man that can survive that kind of failure off the field, a man that can survive exclusion on the basis of skin color … a man that can survive that while maintaining a gentle manner … that man is a major league human being … whether he ever played in the major leagues or not.”
I learned about the baseball legend’s passing while sitting in my spartan apartment in Holyoke, Mass., where I was the editor of the weekly Holyoke Sun newspaper. From what I recall I was sitting in what was more or less my living room — it consisted of a cushioned wood chair and a TV on a table — watching SportsCenter, when a news flash about Buck’s death appeared on the scroll at the bottom of the screen.
It seemingly came out of nowhere, amidst ESPN talking heads’ braying about that week’s NFL games and Plays of the Day. I have no doubt that the vast majority of ESPN viewers had no idea who Buck Leonard was, even though the crawl at the bottom of the screen noted that he was a Hall of Famer. For most of the TV audience, it was surely just more noise and babble they could easily tune out.
But for me … For me, it was a dispiriting gut punch, a shock to the system that instantly cloaked my evening with a disheartening pall that covered my mind for a week.
Because, like those journalists in North Carolina — and like hundreds, if not thousands of adoring Negro Leagues fans and awestruck little kids in the state for whom Buck was a near-mythic figure of inspiration — I had met Buck Leonard. I sat in his den, a room crammed from floor to ceiling with memorabilia, mementos and personal treasures from not just his playing days, but from his entire life.
I witnessed him struggle to walk without a wheelchair. I’d struggled through a conversation between a severe stutterer (me) and a man coping with the effects of a stroke (Buck) that, while labored at times, was a thrill of a lifetime.
As a journalist, I had gone to Buck’s house to interview him for a prospective article. I’d recorded our talk, I’d taken copious notes from the encounter.
But I subsequently decided to abandon the idea of an article. I just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right to exploit such an extraordinary moment by selling a story about it. When I got home, I placed the tapes and notebooks on a shelf and have since lost them. Actually, I lost them many years ago.
And although I’ve regaled many people about my visit with a baseball legend, I’ve never written about, at least not beyond the occasional email or text. I’ve never written about it, choosing instead to preserve the spellbinding experience in my mind for more than 20 years.
But I write about it now.
When I arrived in Rocky Mount, N.C., in May of 1995, I was, in certain ways, a broken man, and I was only 22.
After three and a half extremely successful and rewarding years at Indiana University, I had placed myself in an enviable position poised on the verge of a rosy future. I was editor in chief of the Indiana Daily Student, an award-winning campus paper, and, having wrapped up my undergraduate work a semester early, I was already enrolled in a couple graduate courses.
In addition, I was ramping up for a summer copy-editing internship at the Louisville Courier Journal, an endeavor that could very well have launched a decent career in the troubled newspaper business.
But in February 1995, just a week after my 22nd birthday, I suffered a nervous breakdown triggered by the development of severe obsessive-compulsive disorder augmented by the onset of clinical depression.
After a week in a psychiatric hospital, I learned I had lost my editorship of the Daily Student, and I decided to withdraw from the courses I had been taking. But I still had my internship to look forward to, and I’d already earned my bachelor’s degree, so I plunged ahead after receiving what I thought was sufficient treatment to overcome the psychological collapse.
But a second breakdown less than two months later scuttled any hope I had left — my internship evaporated, leaving me with nothing on the horizon, nothing on which to pin any optimism for the future, professionally or personally.
I had nothing left.
Except for one thing.
One strand of optimism on which to cling.
I had an encounter with an octogenarian Baseball Hall of Famer.
Part Two (hopefully) next week!