I don’t remember in which particular bookstore I found “Buck Leonard: The Black Lou Gehrig,” the autobiography of the Homestead Grays great that was co-authored by James A. Riley and released in early 1995. It might have been the Indiana University bookstore, or maybe it was a random Barnes & Noble (which, if it was indeed the source of the volume, is quite possibly closed now, a victim of the terrifying juggernaut known as the Internet).
But where I found the book isn’t as important as when I discovered it. That would be May 1995, shortly after my IU graduation ceremony. And even more significant was the emotional weight and psychological impact it had on me, for it came at a time when, despite receiving a bachelor’s degree — which I somehow managed to complete in the wake of my spiritual crises — I had tumbled into the absolute nadir of my life up to age 22.
In the months leading up to my graduation, I’d suffered two different mental breakdowns that, combined, completely wrecked my life, crippled my self-worth and decimated the hard-earned, carefully-established future I had made for myself in the world of journalism. Gone was my editorship of the Indiana Daily Student. Gone was my impending internship with the Louisville Courier-Journal. And gone — obliterated, really — was any internal sense or belief that life would somehow hold meaning from then on out. Optimism was swept away, hope was crushed into cinders.
However — and it took me years and years to finally wise my thick head up and realize this — what did remain was an incredibly deep and devoted support network of family and friends, people who had somehow weathered the shock of seeing their loved one mired in mental hospitals and receiving cryptic, morbid hints that I was thinking of ending my life. They’d held in their, more bravely than I realized at the time, and they had caught me as I was in free-fall, preventing me from disappearing into the foggy abyss of nothingness.
In addition to that blessing, one other good thing did come from the preceding few months — a deepening interest in baseball history, specifically the Negro Leagues. As I previously detailed here, one of my mentors, the late Dr. William Wiggins, had provided the spark of knowledge in me and then sponsored an independent study honors grant I’d received to study black baseball history during the spring 1995 semester.
While I pursued that research, I became further and further enthralled by the history and characters that had toiled and triumphed behind the curtain of segregation. It was then that I tripped over the name Buck Leonard, via a book about Josh Gibson. I learned that Leonard had been Gehrig to Gibson’s Ruth, that he batted cleanup behind the star-crossed, doomed slugging catcher — and that had come from and retired to Rocky Mount, N.C.
Which just so happened to be where I was headed to rebuild my life and my psychological foundation.
And, what’s this? I read. Buck Leonard just released an autobiography? Like last month? No freakin’ way! I gotta get that shit!
And, by golly, I did.
As I departed Bloomington, Ind., for North Carolina, as I burrowed into the back seat of my dad’s Explorer, that book was my reading material — and my initial, tentative steps back into the real world. In many ways, that book was one of my lifelines back to sanity and hope for the future, whatever it may be.
I was simply spellbound.
I now had an image of Buck Leonard coalescing in my head, not necessarily just a visual portrait of him, but also in terms of his personality, his character, his way of carrying himself. I formed a picture, even just casually through his own words on the written page, of a soft-spoken, reserved, modest man who bore the burdens and injustices of an age gone by — or one that we like to tell ourselves has gone by, not completely, but at least to the point where fairness, respect and understanding (however grudgingly on the part of some) have evolved enough to provide Buck Leonard the accolades, honors and recognition he so deserved after nearly a lifetime.
In addition to providing me with an introduction to Buck — the athlete, the man, the citizen — reading Riley’s book introduced me to the ever expanding, always passionate world of Negro Leagues research and writing.
The next step for me, naturally, was Robert Peterson’s seminal “Only the Ball Was White,” a brilliant revelation of another world that echoed across baseball history like a cannon in 1970. I then learned of all the writers and researchers — many who themselves have reached (although they’d never admit it) legendary status. Riley. Holway. Lester and Clark. Hogan. Heaphy. Dixon. Burgos. Coates.
There’s a whole bunch more, of course, but those are just the ones who have made the biggest impression on me, those who have further influenced my work, my passion, my view of the world around.
But Ground Zero, so to speak, was Jim Riley, Buck Leonard and Rocky Mount.
By this time, I was chomping at the bit to meet Buck Leonard. I had some info, I had an exuberant thirst for knowledge. I had goals, and purpose, and a light at the end of the tunnel.
Naturally, this excitement was tempered by a not-insignificant amount of nervousness. I mean, how to you even approach a Baseball Hall of Famer? How do you introduce yourself to a living embodiment of history? How do you, well, talk to a legend?
You start with the phone book. Actually, I didn’t expect a Hall of Famer to be listed in the white pages.
But, yeah, he was. Walter F. Leonard on Atlantic Avenue. Right there on the page.
I was astounded but also giddy with joy.
Which, of course, transitioned rather rapidly into anxiety as i stared at my parents’ phone. You know, the whole meeting a legend thing.
But I somehow managed to lift the receiver, albeit with trembling hand, and dialed the number. It rang a couple times …