Me and Calvin
For this post/installment of my Buck Leonard series (a couple earlier installments here and here), I wanted to highlight how the subject of the Negro Leagues and their history is so infectious that enthusiasm for it spreads from person to person effortlessly, including on a especially personal level.
The following essay is written by my dear friend Calvin Adkins, whom I met in 1995, right after I graduated from IU and moved to eastern North Carolina. Calvin and I worked together for a couple years in Tarboro, N.C., where, as it happens, Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bill Foster lived for a couple decades after retirement.
When Foster was elected to the Hall in 1996, Calvin and I worked on a story about Foster’s connection to Tarboro for the Daily Southerner newspaper [which has, sadly, subsequently closed after nearly two centuries of publication]. As part of our reporting, we ventured to Rocky Mount to interview Buck Leonard about Foster and a host of other topics.
Below is a narrative penned by Calvin about that incredible day in which I passed on my love of the Negro Leagues to someone who has since become a lifelong, close friend. After his essay, I’ll add a few more notes about Tarboro:
When my good friend Ryan Whirty asked me to pen a column concerning our experiences in 1996 as journalists for The Daily Southerner assigned to write and photograph a feature story of Walter Fenner “Buck” Leonard, I immediately said, “That’s been so long ago that I can’t remember anything.”
Since 1996 many birthdays have come and gone and pushed my age to six years over half of 100. At times it seems like I have forgotten more than I can remember. But I do remember shaking the hands of Walter Fenner “Buck” Leonard.
I met Ryan when he was working at our rival paper, The Rocky Mount Telegram. Back then it was called the Evening Telegram. It was probably one of Ryan’s first full-time journalist jobs. [Editor’s note: It was indeed my first.]
More than likely, we met while covering the same story. All I can say is we became friends instantly. It wasn’t too long afterward that Ryan left The Telegram to work with us at The Southerner. I never understood why he left a paper with the circulation of about 30,000 to work for a paper with the circulation of about 10,000. I never asked him why, but just a little part of me would like to believe that he changed jobs because of our friendship.
Ryan was younger than I, but he was a gritty, intelligent, aggressive and thorough reporter. His investigative skills were like that of a veteran journalist. I covered cops and courts and was the main photographer for the Southerner. I also covered sports.
It was Ryan’s investigative skills and his love for the Negro League Baseball that led him to Mr. Leonard’s feature. Mr. Leonard lived in Rocky Mount on the Edgecombe County side of town. I heard of him, but the light bulb didn’t come on about his significance in the baseball world until Ryan shared his experience in the Negro League.
To be honest, I felt a little dumbfounded because a red-headed white man from Indiana had to tell me about an African-American Hall of Famer who lived in my home county. Mr. Leonard’s sparkling career should have been first-hand information for me because I am an avid sports fan and I am an African American.
From the time I received the assignment until the day that Ryan and I were going to travel to Mr. Leonard’s house, I was over the fact that Ryan had beaten me to a significant story. But most of all, I was thrilled to be assigned to take pictures of a Hall of Famer.
Since I knew more about the county than Ryan, he asked me to drive. During the trip, I can’t recall talking too much about Mr. Leonard as much as thinking about what type of pictures were best suited for Ryan’s featured story. We were shooting film back then. I had already placed a roll in my camera along with a fresh set of batteries for my flash. I was a little nervous but, if I had any solace, it was knowing that my job was going to be easier than Ryan’s.
When we arrived at Mr. Leonard’s house, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I recalled a very polite elderly lady opening the door. She greeted us with a pleasant, articulate Yankee accent with a small touch of a Southern flavor. She was expecting us and after a short greeting, she led us to Mr. Leonard who was sitting in his trophy room.
I can’t remember what he was wearing or whether or not he wore glasses. What I do remember is looking around in awe of the memorabilia that he collected. There were pictures, posters, bats and balls, and jerseys. It was the coolest little museum that I had ever seen. Other than on a baseball field, I couldn’t have asked for a better place to take pictures of Mr. Leonard.
During the formal introduction, I looked Mr. Leonard in his eyes and shook his hand. The handshake was proof that the then-89-year-old National Baseball Hall of Famer wasn’t feeble, but father time had taken some of the strength from his hands. Although the greeting formality lasted just a few seconds, it was something majestic about that handshake that I just didn’t understand.
In an effort to allow Mr. Leonard to get comfortable with Ryan and I invading his space, I waited a few minutes before I began taking pictures. Ryan did a great job of introducing us and easing into the interview. It wasn’t long before Mr. Leonard was talking to us like we were one of his teammates. I can’t remember the exact conversations, but I do remember that Mr. Leonard’s memory was quite phenomenal.
Ryan’s interview had Mr. Leonard’s undivided attention, which made my job that much easier. I took wide angles shots of Mr. Leonard showcasing his memorabilia in the background and also close-ups that detailed the personality of an aging Negro League player. While looking through my viewfinder, I realized that this was a special moment.
Mr. Leonard was a Negro League superstar who was good enough to have played in the Major Leagues but didn’t because of the racial divide in America. But he persevered. Because of his dominance, he was called the Black Lou Gehrig. 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.”
Ryan’s story was published in The Daily Southerner and I remember getting rave reviews from the community. The editor chose a close-up shot as the feature photo and Ryan’s word capture the essence of Mr. Leonard’s entire life. Ryan sent the story to the Associated Press, and they picked it up for other newspapers to use across America.
Approximately one year later (Nov. 27, 1997), Mr. Leonard passed away. On that day I remember reflecting back to shaking the hand of a Negro League Baseball player.
That was Calvin’s experience, and I remain honored and delighted that he and I were able to share such a special moment through a meeting with a baseball legend.
I just wanted to add a few more thoughts to fill in some background on this tale. First off, a couple years ago I wrote a story about Bill Foster’s connection to Tarboro and the neighboring town of Princeville for the Raleigh News & Observer; you can read the piece here.
Second, Tarboro, as it turns out, has another intimate connection to the Negro Leagues, in the person of Hubert “Bert” Simmons, a pitcher/utility player for North Carolina A&T in Greensboro N.C., as well as local Negro minor league teams like the Raleigh Tigers (where he was managed by the aforementioned Foster), Greensboro Red Wings and Asheville Blues. His career culminated with in 1950, when he played for the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro American League.
But Simmons was born in Tarboro in 1924 and spent his youth there. Although he settled in Baltimore following his hardball career, he occasionally returned to Tarboro for reunions and such. In several post-career interviews, Simmons discussed his childhood in Tarboro, including being barred from playing organized baseball at the town’s stadiums because of segregation, as well as the fact that his school, Pattillo High School, didn’t even have a varsity baseball team (it’s now a middle school).
Simmons was able to overcome those handicaps, however, and went on to shine at NC A&T before moving on to his pro career. At A&T Simmons guided the Aggies to multiple Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association crowns in the 1940s by becoming the ace of the A&T staff as well as the consensus best hurler in the CIAA. He eventually earned his bachelor’s from the school and was elected to the Aggie Hall of Fame in 1978. (One of his Aggie teammates was Tom Alston, the first black player for the St. Louis Cardinals. Another product of A&T around that time was James Robinson.)
While in retirement in Baltimore, Simmons became a high-profile community leader and baseball coach at the Little League, high school, college and American Legion levels. His crowning achievement was helping to establish what is now the Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro League Baseball in the library at Owings Mills, Md. He passed away in 2009.
But as I stated, Bert occasionally returned to Tarboro, including Pattillo High School reunions, which is where my buddy Calvin met him in 2002. Calvin, with his experiences visiting Buck Leonard with me in 1996 in his pocket, interviewed, photographed and became buds with Simmons, who signed a baseball card for Calvin.
This past November, when I voyaged to North Carolina for Thanksgiving, I spent a day in Tarboro and Princeville cruising around with Calvin, and he gave me the card signed by Bert Simmons. I was extremely touched by the gift, so many thanks to Calvin — for the card, for writing this article, for all the barbecue lunches, for coming with me to meet Buck, and for being one of the best friends a guy could ever have.