My Buck story: Dennis Graham and research obsession

Here’s another installment of my continuing series about me and Buck Leonard. Actually, this is Part 1 of the installment, so it’s an installment within an installment. We’re getting all “Inception” up in here. You know, meta or something. Anyway, I’ll hopefully have Part 2 next week. You can check out a few of my previous Buck posts here, here and here.

This is my second whack at writing this post, because my first attempt perfectly and sadly exemplified the problems/strengths (which term I use depends how I feel about myself on a given day) one of the themes that I hoped to outline with this post.

Yeah, that’s a bit meta, and just writing it has me dealing with a bout of self-induced confusion. But this post was supposed to be partially about how easy it can be to — I know I over-use this term too much, but thinking of bunnies makes be happy — slip down the rabbit hole when it comes to historical research, and how such a literary venture provides me with both an escape from the occasional challenges of my disorders as well as, more malignantly, a place to hide when I really need to be dealing with serious crap in my life.

To wit: the saga of Dennis Wilson Graham and how the hand of fate maneuvers people of different backgrounds, mindframes and eras into a tapestry that, while intricate and sometimes admittedly tenuous, comes together seamlessly to help someone remember that life ain’t so bad, that we’re all connected, and that pushing forward is the right thing to do.

Dennis Graham also, of course, represents my maddening tendency to get lost in minutae and online databases to the point that I become a babbling, tedious mess of a writer and researcher. Seriously, I can drone aimlessly. You know it. I know it. Here we are.

So, a launching point: while researching Buck Leonard for this blog series, including his connection to his hometown and state, I came across this in the June 29, 1966, issue of the Rocky Mount Telegram, Buck’s hometown paper. It’s an installment of a regular column written by (apparently) another Rocky Mount native who, coincidentally, settled in Pittsburgh, just like Buck did for most of his career. The column, dubbed “Some of This and That” with the byline of “By An Old Reporter,” included this passage:

“As a resident of Pittsburgh and a baseball fan, whose interest in the national outdoor pastime goes back to the days of the Rocky Mount team that boasted such immortals of the diamond as Jim Thorpe [yes, that Thorpe, of “thanks, King” fame, which I’ll touch on briefly below], Sam Price and Doc Anderson, I miss few of the Pirates’ games that are played while I am in the city. At those games I have noted a colored man of pleasant appearance, who seemed to be be in his early seventies, at every game, sitting in the same seat every night, just three rows in front of where I sit. The other evening I got into conversation with him, and found him to be a real student of baseball, as well as a gentleman in every respect. He told me his name is Graham.

“His interest in baseball went back to the days when he was a regular player on the nation’s outstanding Negro team, the famous Homestead Grays. I hastened to tell him of a player on that team who now lives in retirement in his (and my) old home town of Rocky Mount.

“‘Who would that be?’ he asked.

“When I told him it would be and is the Grays’ star first baseman of many years, Buck Leonard, he became quite excited. ‘Good old Buck!’ he exclaimed. ‘A great ball player and just as fine a gentleman. Tell me, how is he? And when you arre [sic] down that way, please team him that I asked about him.’

“And so if I don’t get to see you when I am down that way, Buck, there is the message from one of your fellow players on the Grays.”

From there, the writer launched a narrative about the Grays — the guy was actually pretty well informed for an (assumed) white man born and raised in the South at the time — and how he (the author) had recently been told by none other than long-time Pirates executive Bill Benswanger that Benswanger “planned to break the color line in baseball long before the late Branch Rickey turned the trick by signing Jackie Robinson …”

(The use of the term “turn a trick” obviously has an, ahem, different, somewhat illicit connotation these days, but this was 50-plus years ago, when folks also used terms like “gee whiz,” “golly wow,” “he’s so dreamy” and “that is totally mint!” Well, OK, maybe those dopey terms weren’t actually used much in the 1960s. I cribbed the first two from a stereotypically perplexed Beaver Cleaver, the third one from “Back to the Future,” and the last one from “Super 8” — fantastic movie by JJ Abrams, btw, check it out — which used terminology that I and my friends actually used ourselves circa 1980 when we were 8. So yeah.)

Anyhoo … the Telegram writer went on to described how Benswanger (according to the Bucs owner’s own narration) was going to sign Josh Gibson to a major league contract but was dissuaded by a “tearful plea” from Cum Posey, who allegedly cried that “that loss of Gibson would take away the Gray’s [sic] main gate attraction, and that breaking of the color line would eventually destroy the Grays altogether.”

Whether any of that story is true and any of that stuff actually happened … I have no idea. The sentiment allegedly expressed by Posey — that integration would ruin the Negro Leagues — was absolutely at least a factor (and for some an actual fear and/or vexation) for Negro League teams and owners as integration proceeded. But I can’t really picture Posey — a very proud, self-assured man — actually bawling and begging a major league owner to not do something.

But that’s a topic for discussion. And for what it’s worth, An Old Reporter added:

“Benswanger said he knew how much money, time and effort Posey had put into the Grays, and just didn’t have the heart to strike the first blow in breaking up the team.”

(Well, how noble of you, oh compassionate white man! Thank you for possibly making up a whole bunch of nonsense and for believing that the you, as the benevolent paternalist you were, to believe that you alone held the fate of one of the greatest dynasties in baseball history in your loving, firm hands!)

The column showed that, even in the turbulent ’60s, the white population of a Southern town had nonetheless started to embrace Buck Leonard, a black player, as a hometown hero, which was a (tentative) good sign at the time. I discussed this subject a bit more in this post.)

That face was reinforced a year later, when An Old Reporter, the Steel City resident, returned to the topic in column from the Aug. 6, 1967, Telegram:

“At a twi-night double header at Forbes Field, Pittsburgh the other night, I ran into a friend by the name of Graham, an aging and portly gentleman, who, thirty and forty years ago, was an outfielder with Pittsburgh’s famed Negro team, The Homestead Grays, and he asked that I convey his greetings and good wishes to his old teammate, Buck Leonard, of Rocky Mount, who was the first baseman. And so, Buck, consider that I have carried out his directions. Speaking of his own abilities as a ball player, Graham told me ‘I wasn’t so hot in the field but I was pretty good with the stick.’ He want on to add that Buck was first-class both at bat and in the field.”

(OK, I said I’d explain the Jim Thorpe deal: as many SABR members might know, the legendary all-around athlete and Olympic champ ended up having the medals he won at the 1912 Games in Stockholm stripped from him because he reportedly had lost his “amateur status” by playing for the semipro baseball team, for a meager $2, in Rocky Mount, the Railroaders of the then-Eastern Carolina Association in 1909 and ’10. In 1982, his Olympic medals were restored to him posthumously. Ideally, I would have put this info in a footnote, but honestly, I have no idea how to do that in WordPress.)

Now, by posting those two lengthy passages pretty much verbatim, I’ve revealed one of my writing and researching flaws — I love me some quotes. Pure, unadulterated quote. I adore quotes to the point of irrational obsession. They give me warm fuzzies. Which, after a while, isn’t always a positive thing.

Also by posting these quotes, I’ve piqued your interest just as mine was when I first uncovered these articles — who is this Graham, and how in the heck is he related to Buck Leonard and, more confoundingly, my current blog series?

I shall expound … and, in so doing, attempt to avoid another of my common pitfalls as an historian and writer — that of getting lost in minutae and parsing details waaaaaaaay to obsessively.

And I shall do that by explaining who Dennis Graham was. Normally, of course, I’d end up writing a dissertation-length diatribe about him, one that gets lost in the thicket of specifics and brambles of marginal irrelevance when the researched person in question so that either a) I write too much about a player who, while good, wasn’t a superstar, b) the reader gets hopelessly bored and has his or her eyes glaze over, and/or c) I completely drown what was supposed to be the point in a soup of sidetracks and diversions that, while possibly nifty, really detract from my goal.

That’s what happened with my first draft of this post. I got bogged down in the Dennis Graham story when such, umm, bogged-downedness strayed from my focus.

It’s certainly not that Dennis Graham was a “meh” player who doesn’t deserve his own screed — he was a solid outfielder who deservedly earned praise and community (and media) attention for his abilities and exploits on the field — but this is not the place for that.

Pittsburgh Courier, June 10, 1925

Plus, while amply talented — he reportedly topped .400 for batting average in three different years and swatted over .300 for his career — he certainly was no Gibson, Leonard, Wilson or any other Grays superstars and Hall of Famers.

(As a counterpoint, it’s noteworthy, though, that in 1962 the Courier added another sterling trait to Graham’s legacy, calling him “the fastest going to first base” in Grays history. In addition, come April 1936, Cum Posey asserted that he “considers ‘Bujung’ Wilson and ‘Bujung’ Graham the best hitters of the Grays’ clubs in recent years.” I have no idea “Bujung” means, but it’s probably comparable to “Boojum,” Jud Wilson’s more well known nickname. That’s the only instance I’ve seen of Graham being called that. I also find a reference to Graham being dubbed “Peaches” as well. And now I want peach cobbler. Great. Anyway, I’ve found no explanation for those monikers.)

It could be argued that he was a role player who, for most of his career, ably played that role effectively, even reportedly becoming Cum Posey’s favorite all-time Gray.

Pittsburgh Courier, July 10, 1937. Posey singles out Graham.

But that’s really it. So for the purposes of this blog post, I’ll attempt to be brief when describing his playing career …

Pittsburgh Courier, April 27, 1929

Dennis Graham, as it turns out, was a solid, dependable outfielder for the Homestead club in the mid- to late-1920s, before the club really hit its groove and became a dynastic, Negro Leagues juggernaut. He stopped playing for the club after the 1930 season, but during his tenure with the Grays, he did play a key role in the club’s gradual strengthening ascendancy up the blackball ladder. He was a crucial facet of the Grays’ transition from sandlot and semipro upstarts, to independent, barnstorming stalwarts, to Negro Leagues powerhouse.

Newspaper reports suggested he started with the Grays in 1924 and immediately proved a success; in June 1924, the Courier opined:

“Graham has proven himself one of the most valuable men on the club, and his experience in ‘big time’ has made him a big factor in the consistent winning play of the team.”

And wrote the Courier’s Bill Nunn in May 1925, near the beginning of Graham’s Grays tenure:

“The Grays most consistent hitter. Graham, a former school teacher and college graduate [more on that in a bit], is quiet and unassuming, but when a drive goes into right, or a hit is needed to score a run, Graham is sure to produce.”

Most of the time Graham played in right field quite ably, and at the plate he was known for his power — not Gibsonian or, umm, Suttlesian by any means, but he could still crush a homer and launch a blistering line-drive double on occasion. In 1925, Graham put together a 24-game hitting streak (and possibly longer), and in May 1927 he earned a headline in the Pittsburgh Courier after smacking four hits, including a triple, in a Grays win over a club from Coshocton. In fact, in 1929, Graham clubbed the first Grays home-field hit of the season, a scorching single against the Akron Yellow Cabs. In 1925, the Courier said Graham “has proven the most consistent hitter in the Grays’ line-up.”

A few decades later, this is how later-day Courier sportswriter Earl Johnson summed up Graham’s talents and contributions to the Grays:

“Weighing close to 200 pounds [he] was almost as fast as either Harris or Gray in the outfield. He was the Grays leadoff man and his ability to get on base was equal to that of Eddie Stanky. Graham could bunt, drag bunt or knock the cover off the ball. He batted from the left side of the plate and when his bat met the ball, he was off to first base like a deer.”

Oddly, one of Graham’s weaknesses as a player seems to have a tendency toward maladies. During his first season with the Grays, in 1924, Graham sat out a few games “due to illness,” the Courier reported. On Christmas Eve, 1926, a car wreck caused enough of a gash to require 10 stitches in his leg below the knee, and in May 1928 he reportedly broke a small bone in his right foot during a rough slide into second. That one kept him out for a couple weeks.

But the most serious incident was an auto accident in June 1929 that involved one of the Grays’ traveling team cars. While everyone got some bumps and bruises — the Courier reported that six passengers, including Posey and Graham with a broken wrist — everyone was more or less OK, but the wreck apparently earned Graham a firm place in Homestead lore, as Courier columnist Rollo Wilson related in April 1930:

“The boys told a story about Graham, one which has never reached print, and his reaction to that automobile crash of the team [apparently there was another one following the 1925 wreck], last summer. It was up in the Pennsylvania mountains and it was See Posey’s car which skidded off that hump-backed road near Lewistown. As the men crawled from the wreckage other cars stopped to render assistance. Graham crept painfully out of the sedan and from the ditch, straightened up and made a halting path to the door of a farm house. To the lone woman who was standing there trembling he asked, brokenly, ‘Lady, have you got a mirror?’

“‘Why, yes,’ came her wondering reply, ‘but what do you want with a mirror now of all times?’

“‘Well, I want to see my face and see if it is cut,’ was the surprising comeback of the sturdy Grays outfielder.”

After leaving the Grays early in 1930, Graham played briefly with Tom Browns’ Stars, a semipro team, and even a handful of contests on the roster of the ascendant Pittsburgh Crawfords, therefore playing a role in the gradual rise of the crosstown rivalry between the Grays and Grays that would come to dominate the Pittsburgh sports scene in a few years later.

But  — oh boy, here we go again, with the “blah blah blah” and the going on and on and on, oy vey! —  the story of Graham’s departure from the Grays is one that’s both intriguing and multi-sided. I shall now engage in both indulging my obsessive writing traits — the same freakin’ one I already said in this post that wouldn’t happen in this post — and the chronicling of historical hearsay, scuttlebutt and rumor-mongering …

In its Feb. 22, 1930, issue, the Courier ran a photo of Graham, with a top-head stating “STATUS UNKNOWN,” and a caption asking, “Graham’s name did not appear with those of the men signed for 1930, and whether or not he will be with [the Grays] this season is still a question.” A separate, longer article in the same issue echoed the query.

Then, in the March 22 issue, columnist Bill Nunn issued an update, asserting that Graham had asked for for money and that management had balked and dumped Graham in favor of Oscar Owens in right field. Nunn wrote:

“Graham it appears, is a perennial holdout. This year, though, with the disbanded of the [first Negro National League], Posey found it possible to get plenty of good material. He has refused to pay those real fancy salaries, as have other managers. No use, he contends, to keep high-salaried when you can get others to take their places at reduced prices. Graham assists that his work during the winter would not allow of any reduction in salary. So that’s that, and it looks like the Grays and Graham are at odds for good.”

The April 26 issue of the Courier then confirmed that Graham had hitched on with Brown’s team for the 1930 campaign as part of a crop of talented stars signed by the semipro club, and a week later, Nunn expounded on Graham’s new gig, writing that “Dennis Graham, quiet, gentlemanly, whose powerful bat and speedy action has endeared him to thousands of fans in this vicinity, [will] be with the Browns.”

But there was one more journalistic shot left to be fired. On May 10, 1930, the Courier ran a column that charged the Grays with obfuscation and reticence in regards to Graham, hinting that something fishy or unseemly might be afoot.

But, funny enough, the author of that newspaper report was “Wylie Avenue” columnist John L. Clark, who just happened to double as — wait for it! — the press agent for the Crawfords.

That’s right — the representative for the Grays’ main local antagonist was smack-talkin’ the Grays. Specifically, here’s what the obviously objective and completely unbiased Clark wrote:

“The Homestead Grays 1930 baseball team has been a topic of discussion during the past week. There is a contention in some circles that the aggregation is better than years, while the other group claim [sic] that it is not as colorful.

“The names of Washington and Graham were brought up. These men, it is claimed, had developed a large following through personality and superb playing. And, that since no reason has been given for dropping them, a passive resentment is apt to show in the gate receipts.

“The Column, along with others, would like to know the true and actual reason for dropping these players. We do not agree, however, that the treatment accorded the players in question is different from that of big league operation. Nor will the passive or loquacious resentment materially affect the gate receipts.”

Geez, talk about “passive” … passive-aggressive. That was the equivalent of, “Hey, you didn’t hear it from me, but are those guys hiding stuff? The public — by which I mainly mean me, in this case — wants to know!”

A year later, Graham was in the Craws’ lineup for much of the 1931 season. Funny how stuff like that just happens …

(Really quickly and with no substantive segue … Graham did play for several squads before the Grays, including the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and even with the Baltimore Black Sox briefly in 1925 — he seems to have jumped between the Black Sox and Grays during 1924. Even earlier, he began his career in the mid-1910s with the semipro Havana Red Sox, but more on that later.)

However — and here’s my point, incredibly — there’s no evidence that Graham ever played on the same team as Buck Leonard, including with the Grays. It looks like Graham had left the squad, retired from baseball and settled into a second career as a railroad porter — known colloquially as “Red Caps” — in Pittsburgh before Buck arrived in the Steel City in 1934.

Most likely, that is how Graham and Leonard knew each other — while Leonard was establishing his HOF career with the Grays, “Peaches” was becoming a fixture in the Pittsburgh community.

Dennis and his wife, Sadie, raised a family in the Steel City, shuffling from home to home; the 1930 U.S. Census lists them and their two kids on Francis Street, while the 1940 record places the couple and their four children on Junilla Street. Dennis’ World War II draft card, issued in 1942, pegs him on Burrows Street. Sadie passed away in 1955, leaving Dennis a widower.

Graham worked as a red cap for several decades, and seems to have been quite devoted to the gig and the profession; in 1950, John Clark of the Courier mentioned Graham in comments about the status of the Redcap force in Pittsburgh, including an assertion that the “red cap force has been reduced to the point where the number is not sufficient to two trains arriving at the same time.” Oy vey. (On the positive side, Graham took part in parties, events and “smokers” — barbecues — for the local porter fraternity.)

Dennis, Sadie and their kids became very involved in the Pittsburgh African-American community; Sadie directed a glee club, and Dennis sang in similar singing groups. Sadie also was an active party of several fraternal organizations, while Dennis donated money to the local African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In his post-athletic retirement, though, Graham remained close to the game of baseball as well as the local sports media — again increasingly the likelihood that Graham and Leonard were at the very least casual acquaintances. In 1938, Graham took part in a Grays Old-Timer’s contest that served as a doubleheader opener that concluded with the Grays — with Buck Leonard — squaring off against the Newark Eagles.

In spring 1946, Graham solemnly served as an honorary pallbearer at Cum Posey’s funeral. In 1950, Graham was interviewed by Courier columnist Earl Johnson, who got the interviewee to name the ‘26 Grays as his favorite club on which he played, with the writer quoting Graham thusly:

“The Grays of ’26 was [sic] one of the greatest clubs I ever saw. The infield could bat, run and throw. Williams and Harris were fast and accurate in handling double play balls. Smith, while not as great as Martin Dehigo [sic], Jud Wilson or Judy Johnson was a reliable third baseman. Jap Washington was rugged, had sure hands and could hit the ball a mile. The outfield compared with many outfields in the major leagues.”

By the the twilight of his life, as the 1966 columns in the Rocky Mount Telegram attest, Graham had become a well-liked and respect regular at Pirates games, even attracting the attention of the mainstream Pittsburgh press. For example, in 1963 a Post-Gazette writer penned:

“Dennis Graham, who played for the Homestead Grays (1924-1930), is now a Pennsylvania Railroad redcap. He says his favorite Pirate when the Pittsburgh club was using the iron horse to travel was Pie Traynor. His favorite of all traveling secretaries in the major leagues is Bob Rice.”

Dennis Graham died in Pittsburgh on Dec. 2, 1967, at the age of 71. He was buried Allegheny Cemetery after a funeral service at Central Baptist Church. The Courier reported that several fellow Red Caps attended the services, and the paper described him as “popular and likeable” and “a great professional diamond star.” As a veteran, Graham received a granite military headstone.

Pittsburgh Press, Dec. 4, 1967

The brief Courier article also reported that Graham was born in Proctorville, N.C.

Wait, what? Buck Leonard was a North Carolina native, too. And Rocky Mount is only about 150 miles from Proctorville, which is located in Robeson County. But, hold on, Robeson County is home to the modern-day Native-American Lumbee Tribe … Lumbee Tribe? Wait, I know about them! I went to Robeson County a bunch of years ago for an article in Native Peoples magazine. Small world, man …

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John Donaldson: Greatness on film and how to help

Photo courtesy the Donaldson Network

I’m taking a break from my Buck Leonard series to highlight a really neat process taking place about one of the greatest but arguably least-appreciated black baseball legends — pitcher John Donaldson — and how you can help with the effort …

It is, perhaps, an eternal conundrum for Negro Leagues researchers, fans and former players and owners — how to get the average layperson to care about the history of black baseball.

All of us within the Negro Leagues community already know the ins and outs, the large and small, the challenges and successes to be found in the Negro Leagues of yore. We’re familiar with the names, the monikers, the stadiums, the managers and owners, the classic games. Why, because we love it, plain and simple.

And even enthusiasts of baseball history in general are knowledgeable of some of the towering figures and teams — Satchel, Josh, Cool Papa, Cyclone Joe, the Monarchs, the Grays and American Giants.

But then there’s the general public, folks who maybe check the MLB standings once in a while, or who watch a game on TV if they can’t find anything else to check out, or who go to minor league games for something to do on a Friday night. They enjoy baseball occasionally, but it’s only on the their periphery.

These are the ones we need to reach.

And Peter Gorton and the rest of the Donaldson Network just just be onto something in that regard.

John Donaldson was a fireballing, curve-balling African-American pitcher who, over the first few decades of the 20th century, became the first great barnstorming black player. He was Satchel Paige before there was Satchel Paige. The man traversed much of this country — including pretty much all of the Midwest — earning the respect of white and black fans with his immense talent, keen savvy and impeccable character.

What’s more, unlike many early barnstorming stars, Donaldson was caught on film, and a snippet of such footage — 39 seconds, to be precise — was discovered in 2011.

Which, quite naturally, thrilled Gorton, the founder and director of the Donaldson Network, which for nearly 20 years has worked tirelessly and toiled persistently to research every nook and cranny of Donaldson’s life and career.

Not only has the Network uncovered hundreds and hundreds of articles and box scores, but it’s also filled out a picture of the man behind the pitching greatness. Gorton and his peers have been able to draw a portrait of Donaldson’s character and his life, and in so doing have amassed a massive collection of information with which to spread the gospel and Donaldson’s overlooked, underappreciated legend.

The group succeeded in getting Donaldson inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame last year (the player was a Missouri native), and the Network continues to lobby for his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown (and many pundits, including this one, believe Donaldson does indeed belong in those hallowed halls).

But once the 39 seconds of film footage of the pitching great emerged, the Donaldson Network struck gold in its efforts. With the film in their (pardon the pun) satchel of documentation, Gorton and his compatriots feel they have something — namely, something dynamic and visual — that can’t help draw in the general public to Donaldson’s story.

“It’s a key part of [their effort],” Pete told me. “We see the film as a stepping stone … We can take it to a different audience.”

As such, the Network has recruited a film production team to produce a documentary about Donaldson called, “39 Seconds,” which, as the title suggests, will center around the discovery of that vintage, rare film footage. (Information about the project can be found below, in the text of a press release sent out by the Donaldson Network recently.)

 

Courtesy the Donaldson Network

Gorton said he believes the documentary — which is slated to film this summer — could be a key component in the group’s efforts to expanded awareness of Donaldson and his legacy to the general public.

“We’re trying to take an extremely bold step,” he said. “We’ve got to get it out to everybody who’s never seen [Donaldson’s] story before. We’re going to be able to tell the story of John Donaldson and his greatness to more people.”

Part of that mission is to move Donaldson’s tale out from the shadow of more widely known figures for whom Donaldson actually served as a prototype and inspiration.

“We’re trying to push the envelope and tell people that way before Satchel Paige, there was John Donaldson,” Pete said.

The documentary will also show how Gorton and the Donaldson Network has been striving for 17 years to delve into and uncover the pitcher’s stats and his story. Pete said the group has piles of information from box scores and game covers — 403 career wins and more than 5,000 strikeouts, for example — to satiate any baseball nut’s curiosity and queries.

It’s been a long haul, he said.

“We are rock solid in our analysis of the baseball part of it,” he told me. “Let’s also tell a story about that challenge.”

Gorton acknowledges with a laugh that his mission crossed over into “a crazy obsession” a long time ago, and that he’s spent years and years pursuing his passion. He says that, yeah, a few people raise an eyebrow at first glance when they encounter him, but eventually, those doubters understand and support him.

“People say, ‘He’s nuts,’” Gorton said. “It is the ultimate obsession to tell this American story. We’ve worked so hard to figure out that story every day of the last 17 years.”

A still image from the film footage (courtesy the Donaldson Network)

The key is to allow the public relate to Donaldson and the pursuit of history.

“Yes, there’s baseball in [the story,” he said, “but baseball isn’t the biggest story. John Donaldson’s story can resonate with every single person out there.”

You (the general public and my readership, that is) can help bring the film production together. On Feb. 20 (Donaldson’s birthday), the group launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $43,000 to help fund the production of the documentary. Gorton said the raised money will be used to gather interviews with experts that hopefully will be part of the film.

While the $43,000 would only be a portion of the production budget, Gorton said it will nonetheless be a crucial part of the process.

You can link to the Kickstarter page here, and more information about the Donaldson Network and the film production can be found here. Recently published article about Donaldson, the Network and the documentary can be perused here, here and here. For any questions, contact Peter Gorton at pwgortonmb@hotmail.com.

Below is a lightly edited version of press release issued on March 5 by the Donaldson Network giving details of the film:

LIFE AND LEGACY OF THE GREATEST UNKNOWN BASEBALL PLAYER RESTORED

Tru Ruts Films and 612IM to produce 39 Seconds documentary film

Minneapolis — The film “39 Seconds” will star leading Twin Cities actors, Tru Ruts Films announced today. The film will shoot in in the summer of 2018.

John Donaldson, born in Glasgow, Mo., on Feb. 20, 1891, played ball all the way up to 1949, when he became the first black baseball scout for the Chicago White Sox. Then he disappeared, only to be buried in a unmarked grave in Alsip, Ill.

This documentary film will tell the incredible story of his life as a ball player and consider the hardships a black man at that time had to overcome — and why such a great man and legendary ball player just disappeared from the American story.

The documentary will highlight the career of John Wesley Donaldson, a left-handed pitcher known as “The Greatest Colored Pitcher in the World.” The Donaldson Network’s research techniques have been labeled by the Center for Negro Leagues Baseball Research as “the most extensive research project that has ever been undertaken related to black baseball.”

Donaldson’s legacy required more than 500 researchers from around the world to make it happen. John Donaldson is known to have won 403 games, the most of any segregated pitcher in history. Combined with 5,034 documented strikeouts from over 550 different cities, the numbers are impressive.

The creative team for the film includes director Paul Irmiter; assistant director and casting director Kevin D. West; Tru Ruts executive producers E.G. Bailey and Sha Cage; researcher/story master Peter Gorton; editor Dane Whitehead; and leading actors and creative talent.

ABOUT TRU RUTS FILMS: Tru Ruts operations encompass motion picture production, theatrical and music production, film curation, and acquisition and development of new entertainment products. Its latest film, “New Neighbors,” premiered at Sundance in 2017.

The company’s film areas of interest include narrative shorts and features, Web series, music videos and documentaries. With a 15-year history, current Tru Ruts programs include the “America Now!” international program; Next Wave film series; the Sankofa Festival; and the Brown Cinema Cafe. For more information, see www.truruts.com.

ABOUT 39 SECONDS FILMS: 39 Seconds Films is a partnership between Irmiter 612IM and The Donaldson Network.

Related Links https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1039747489/39-seconds.

I’ll conclude this post with a quote from Donaldson himself, as uncovered by the Donaldson Network effort:

“I am not ashamed of my color. There is no woman whom I love more than my mother. I am light enough so that baseball men told me before I became known that I could be passed off as a Cuban. One prominent baseball man, in fact, offered me a nice sum [$10,000 in 1917] if I would go to Cuba, change my name and let him take me into this country as a Cuban. It would have meant renouncing my family. One of the agreements was that I was never again to visit my mother or to have anything to do with colored people. I refused. I am clean morally and physically. I go to my church and contribute my share. I keep my body and mind clean. And yet when I go out there to play baseball, it is not unusual to hear some fan cry out, ‘Hit the dirty n—–.’ That hurts, for I have no recourse. I am getting paid, I suppose, to take that. But why should fans become personal? If I act the part of a gentleman, am I not entitled to a little respect?”

My Buck story: The book that started it all

The next installment of my project about meeting Buck Leonard. Check out some earlier installments here, here and here.

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 …

A friend gets on board with Buck

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.

Postlude

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.

Buck extras, Part 1

I’ve been compiling so much info and piles of files about Buck Leonard for my ongoing project about him and my meeting with him that occasionally I come across some pretty neat stuff that’s worth discussing for a bit but doesn’t fit into one of the main posts I write about Buck.

There’s also info, documents and articles I come across that are pertinent to posts I’ve already written, things that I would have included in said previous posts if I had known about them.

For these two types of particulars, I’m going to write some odds-and-ends side posts, of which this one is the first. So onward we go! …

The first item for this piece is an article I found in the Rocky Mount Telegram that perhaps conveys what I wrote in my previous post about the Rocky Mount, N.C., black population forming its own, self-sustaining economic and social demographic as a way of coping with and even defying the lingering racism that permeates the community there.

The article covers a May 1956 meeting and awards ceremony of a local community organization of black men called the Frontiers of America, or the Frontiersmen. At the gathering, Buck received a citation for achievement in sports, while other members were honored for their accomplishments in other fields.

However, the majority of the article involved an addressed by Dr. G.K. Butterfield, a councilman for the small city of Wilson, N.C., located about 20 miles south of Rocky Mount along I-95. Butterfield was the first African American elected to the Wilson City Council and the first black elected official in eastern North Carolina since Reconstruction.

As a dentist, Dr. Butterfield cared for men, women and children in the impoverished East Wilson community. He co-founded the local NAACP chapter and dedication himself to voter registration drives, but he lost his council seat in 1957 thanks to a form of gerry-mandering that blunted the impact of the local black vote. (Butterfield’s son, also named G.K. Butterfield, is currently a Congressman representing North Carolina; the younger Butterfield previously served on the North Carolina Supreme Court.)

G.K. Butterfield and family

Back to the elder Butterfield’s speech at the 1956 Frontiersmen meeting … the dentist and elected official challenged the men in attendance — as well as the entire black community — to establish economic success within that community that would bring local African Americans closer to achieving equal rights and respect from the white community. Here’s an excerpt from the Telegram article:

“The Wilson Councilman challenged Negroes throughout this area to do something about the economic condition of the race. He stated that the pressure had been on Negroes for the past three or four months and in order for the race to survive, members of the race would have to being now doing something about it. The speaker also stated that when a member of the other race took a bold stand for integration, he too, was subjected to the same type of economic pressure. He went on to city instances in other states where this is happening.

“Continuing, Dr. Butterfield told the group that the Negro cannot be independent unless he can furnish all the necessities of life. Because of that fact, he asserted, Negroes are treated as children. He further suggested that Negroes try to help bring in new industries into this section. This can be done, he stated, by helping to vote men into public offices who are favorable to projects of this type. In addition, Negroes must have an interest and a good attitude in the economics of the community. So far, he asserted, the race has neglected this field.”

To me, the speech seems to have included some of Booker T. Washington’s belief in racial uplift through self-reliance and business success, as well as Malcolm X’s message of establishing a separate, successful community apart from the white society that heaped scorn and hate on blacks.

The article, I think, also reflects how those beliefs have been present in Rocky Mount’s African-American community for decades and have helped form the current situation I discussed in my previous post.

The second chunk of info I want to relay in this post is much more upbeat and sunny than Butterfield’s speech from 60-plus years ago. My first post in this Buck Leonard series served as a introduction by chronicling the reaction of the Rocky Mount community and media upon Leonard’s death in November 1997.

The genuine and heartfelt expression of sadness as well as joy in celebrating Buck’s life and legacy that came from the entire Rocky Mount community revealed that, after decades of wrangling with the ideas of integration and equality, Buck had truly been embraced as Rocky Mount’s favorite son, an icon for the city and a symbol of how far the city had come toward achieving full racial reconciliation.

Well, now it’s time to show how Buck Leonard fully and passionately reciprocated that positivity and acceptance he received. Despite all the trials of segregation and the challenges posed by ongoing racism, Buck did love his hometown and never considered living anywhere else during his life. That included eschewing the possibility of a residence in Pittsburgh while becoming a Homestead Grays legend.

Rocky Mount Telegram, Aug. 16, 1970

These excerpts come from various other articles in the Rocky Mount Telegram in which the writer expounds on Buck’s love for his hometown. I want to note that right now, as of this moment, I don’t have much personal testimony on this subject from Buck, i.e. him in his own words, for various reasons, but I will uncover them at some point. One example is his autobiography, written with James Riley, the book that inspired me to get up the gumption to call Buck in the first place; I’ll discuss that in my next post.

So here are some of those article excerpts …

Staff writer Mike Hixenbaugh, Nov. 30, 2007, issue, upon a celebration and remembrance on the 10th anniversary of Leonard’s death:

“If there was one thing the baseball legend loved above all else, it was the town he grew up in. After his 1972 induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Leonard was offered a job in the Major League Baseball Commissioner’s office, but refused the position to stay in Rocky Mount — avidly supporting little league, running a local minor league team and also working as a truant officer and real estate broker.”

Sports editor Jessie Nunery, Oct. 10, 2010:

“To understand Walter Fenner ‘Buck’ Leonard was to know that no matter where life took him, Rocky Mount was home. …

“Leonard always came home to Rocky Mount, no matter his accomplishments.

“‘As a man, he was a good man, a good community man,’ said Rocky Mount native Henry Barnes, who lived in the same neighborhood as Leonard’s family, an area known as ‘Little Raleigh.’ ‘The one things we always say is, ‘He went off an accomplished quite a bit, but he did not forget where he came from.’ He didn’t build a house on the hill. He was always right here.’” …

Nunery also discusses Buck’s activities and impact during the years after his baseball career; I’m going to have a couple posts of my own down the road focusing on this topic. Wrote Nunery:

“Those who missed out on Leonard’s playing days were able to learn about him as a man here in Rocky Mount. …

“These years were about giving back to Rocky Mount. Little boys who didn’t know it was possible to play baseball for a living were exposed to the game when Leonard made the rounds at black elementary schools on a weekly basis. For many, Leonard’s visits were the first time they swung a bat. At that time, physical education was not a part of the curriculum. …”

The final article comes from just under a year ago, on March 12, 2017. This story is particularly special because it’s authored by Rose Hunter, Buck’s step daughter and director of the Buck Leonard Association for Sports & Human Enrichment, an organization created in 1999 to provide athletic opportunities and personal enrichment services to children of low-income families in Rocky Mount. I’ll discuss the BLASHE and hopefully interview Mrs. Hunter and other family members and community volunteers down the road.

These final quotes begin to examine Buck Leonard’s formative years and how they affected the man he became and his love for Rocky Mount. Wrote Hunter:

“To begin to unveil the making of North Carolina’s first baseball Hall of Famer, we begin with a look at the early and formative years that most likely contributed to Leonard’s ascension to prominence both and and off the baseball field.

“Leonard enjoyed what he believed an idle family life with his father, mother and five siblings. His mother ran a strict and immaculate household while his father worked with the Atlantic Coastal Railroad. …

“The path of Leonard’s life was dramatically altered with the death of his father. At the behest of his mother when he was 12, he became male child head of the household. Working at the local hosiery mill and later on the local railroad, Leonard took on the responsibility of his succession with the aid of his siblings until the Great Depression led to his unemployment. …

“Leonard was not the flamboyant, bombastic jock seeking the limelight, but one who approached the game in a very methodical manner, a thoughtful practitioner; he was a critical thinker — sure in the clutch and almost never left a man on base. Possessing a calm demeanor, Leonard was a near-perfect fielder; his pull-style hitting resulted in both power and average.”

That wraps up this here post. Like I noted at several points during it, I still have much, much more to do for this project, and my goal is to do as much of it as I can — namely, interviewing folks, getting personal information and presenting some of Buck’s own words. This is a work in progress, and it’ll hopefully continue to gestate into something special.

My Buck Leonard story: A return to Rocky Mount

The air on the northwest outskirts of Rocky Mount was crisp but not frosty, a gorgeous fall day, the type a typical Rochester kid misses from his youth and savors once he resides well below the Mason-Dixon line. Summers in eastern North Carolina — not to mention the heavy, seemingly endless and sultry type that said upstate New York boy slogs through in New Orleans with resignation and a series of sweat-stained ballcaps — are oppressive enough that the arrival of what passes for autumn in those summer climes is met with unrestrained joy.

It was, I guess is what I’m sayin’, a gloriously resplendent day. Beautiful. Fantastic. Quite gnarly.

It had taken me a couple hours or so to drive — with a rental car, because my stepmother’s Audi is off-limits and my dad’s SUV is frightening — from Atlantic Beach to the cemetery, surprisingly quickly.

The majority of the graves in Gardens of Gethsemane are small but dignified, flat stone markers nestled amongst the well manicured grass. A good portion of the rest of the graves are identified with modest tombstones, few of them taller than waist-high, if that. Most of these such graves are located toward the rear of the cemetery, shaded by longleaf pine trees that steadily drop enough brown needles to thinly blanket the ground below.

Rising from this prickly, arboreous crust are a pair of mausoleums that, aside from their contents and stony scripts, are pretty much identical to each other — four crypts high and two crypts wide. (I don’t remember how many crypts deep they are, and of course I didn’t bother to take a picture of the whole thing.) On this day, the sun’s brilliant rays glint off the brown marble of the ends of the mausoleums, adding a muted radiance.

The most notable facet of the modest cemetery for me is the white stone sculpture of Jesus that stands guard at the entrance to the Gardens. Hands at his side and facing forward, his head bowed slightly, the short but affecting figure stands atop a brick foundation with a small bed of flowers in front and a flagpole rising above Jesus’ head and topped by an American flag. The statue is similar to ones that stand sentinel at countless cemeteries large and small across the country, but the one at the Gardens of Gethsemane fits seamlessly into the overall mood, scope and spiritual impact of the cemetery.

(The perpetual-care, privately owned cemetery is actually a fairly new one — it was created in 1991 despite some grumblings from adjacent property owners who worried that groundwater from the graves would contaminate the neighbors’ drinking water. Then-Edgecombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Rev. J.O. Thorne endorsed the proposal, and landscape contractor A.B. Rose called it “a good project, and I think it’s going to be a good asset to the community.” Actually, it seems like the cemetery was initially supposed to be much bigger than it turned out, from a proposed 10,000 graves down to roughly 2,400, with wetlands issues playing a role. I write about these picky details out of nostalgia from my early days as a journalist in small-town North Carolina, covering planning boards and county commission meetings. It seems like a whole lot of drudgery, and it was in some ways. But it was also kind of fun and compelling getting to see how government works on a small scale. And by and large, local governmental systems — especially in small-town America, work much more smoothly and with a minimum of acrimony, certainly compared to what we see in D.C. It was surprisingly reassuring. That doesn’t mean things were completely devoid of controversy, personal grudges and administrative volatility; that stuff was there, no doubt. But municipal and county-level government tends to be much more responsive and attentive to the needs and concerns of the populace, which is pretty cool.)

In all, the Gardens of Gethsemane covers about … honestly, I don’t know how many acres of land along U.S. 64 Alternate, otherwise known as East Raleigh Road. (I was going to call the cemetery office and ask weirdly specific but non-burial questions like that, but I figured I’d come off a little, umm, weird. I’ll get the exact acreage in the revision to this opus.) While the cemetery is roughly three miles out from the center of town, it’s situated far enough out to the west that the surroundings have a slight country field; across the road is the dilapidated, overgrown, rusted Rocky Mount fairgrounds (the facility has been idle since the 2016 Rocky Mount fair, which had been a century-old local attraction before its demise), and flanking the cemetery are a roller skating rink and custom car shop. Dotting the stretch in between the businesses are single- and double-wides, and modest but neat, one-floor homes with brick siding. In all, it’s a typical, “eastern North Carolina” kind of vibe.

(Editor’s Note: In a coda to this post below, I discuss US 64 and how a part of it was renamed after Buck Leonard.)

Truth be told, I hadn’t been to Rocky Mount for at least a dozen years, but, aside from the propagation of generic commercial (fast food, dollar stores, pharmacies), the landscape hadn’t really changed — or at least from how I remembered it.

When I lived in Rocky Mount for about six months after graduating with my bachelor’s, the city — I’d call it a very large town with delusions of enormousness, but why quibble — wasn’t hurting economically, per se, but it wasn’t a boomtown, either. It had its anchor employers — RBC Bank, restaurant conglomerate Boddie-Noell Enterprises, Sara Lee Bakery and MBM Corp., the food distribution company my dad worked for a spell — but those sources of employment and revenue didn’t necessarily translate to a hopping business community or happening social scene.

Downtown Rocky Mount was, for all intents and purposes, dead, with shuttered businesses and very little traffic — auto, foot or otherwise. The downtown wasn’t blighted and didn’t qualify as a proverbial ghost town, but it was just, well, dead. Most of the population growth in the latter half of the 20th century occurred on the outer rings of the city, including the middle-upper-class neighborhood on the west side in which my parents lived.

Judging from what news and stats I can glean, I’m not really sure how Rocky Mount is doing financially these days. Recent Department of Labor numbers pegs the unemployment at around 6.5 percent or so, representing a significant drop from the mid-14-percent level of circa 2010.

However, the area’s largest employer, a Pfizer pharmaceuticals plant that (as of 2016) employed roughly 2,400 people, instituted drastic layoffs beginning in fall of that year, and the planned construction of new, $150-million-plus production facility by the firm reportedly doesn’t come with any new jobs.

Moreover, word in 2016 of a $160-million investment in a railroad terminal by CSX quickly evaporated, with the rail company stalling on implementation of the intermodal hub that allegedly would create at least 150 new jobs.

Rocky Mount Telegram, June 19, 1991

On the other hand, city officials and business leaders in spring 2017 crowed about the groundbreaking of a 175,000-square-foot, 12- acre, up-to-$41-million downtown community facility right smack downtown. Whether such a public enterprise, though, can spur the local economy — including the redevelopment of a long-dead downtown — well, we’ll see.

Buuuuuuuuuut, I undertake all that blathering to come back to my day last November visiting the Gardens of Gethsemane Cemetery near Rocky Mount and the crypt of its most famous denizen and the city’s favorite son.

To wit: at the entrance to the cemetery that day labored the owner and a few employees of the mega international conglomerate of Hunter’s Maintenance & Repair Service.

Well, of course not. Walter Hunter’s landscaping and general-labor business isn’t a global financial superpower. It’s not a substantial local corporation. In fact, whether it’s actually incorporated under the North Carolina government might be in question.

But there, in his work-worn, beat-up white pickup sat the man himself, Walter Hunter. With feet dangling from the driver’s side of the vehicle and his forearm draped over the steering wheel, Walter chomped on a cigar and picked at a late-afternoon sandwich. Various work equipment — a lawn mower, maybe? A generator? A magician’s trunk filled containing trick rings, colorful handkerchiefs, a top hat and at least two, possibly three bunnies? I don’t really remember — was piled up in the bed.

Adorned with neon green-yellow worked vests and calf-high brown leather boots, toting massive, yardwork plastic bags, and fanning out from the cemetery’s dirt driveway entrance, Walter’s subordinates meandered along the small ditch along East Raleigh Road, scooping up lawn clippings, branches and leaves and depositing them in the said plastic bags.

(As a clarification, for the rest of this post, when I refer to “Walter,” it’s to Walter Hunter, not Buck’s given first name — Walter Fenner Leonard.)

With the sun slipping down and the work day nearing its conclusion, it struck me that — railroad depots and drug plants and rec facilities aside — Walter’s little operation embodied what I recall as a truly Rocky Mount and eastern North Carolina business.

Because during all my time living in eastern North Carolina and working for small daily newspapers — a little over two years in the mid- to late-1990s — one of my biggest, clearest impressions of the social and cultural setting there was that the black community was extremely tight-knit. Surnames were often and widely shared, extended families were vast and geographically far-reaching, church congregations were devoted and deep, and black businesses were small but ubiquitous, from barbecue joints to barber shops to real-estate agencies to computer support firms to little landscaping operations like Walter’s.

In some ways, the African-American population in eastern North Carolina has been forced to develop such a cohesive network thanks to the unspoken, denied but persistent racism that permeates the region.

Although pockets of eastern North Carolina (including Edgecombe County, in which the Gardens of Gethsemane and Buck Leonard’s former house rest, and Halifax County to the northeast) are majority African-American and feature numerous black members of government or law enforcement, the real power and control of the region sits with the white population. The two groups mix and mingle with each other on a daily but casual basis, but that interaction is only formal, commercial and perfunctory in nature — almost as if it’s an economic and political necessity to keep local society functioning smoothly, without any disruptions.

But below that shallow, commercial surface layer, eastern North Carolina — at least when I lived there — was split by informal but strict segregation, a de facto cultural separation that affected living areas, religious life, social clubs and even schools to a certain extent. The fact that, unsurprisingly, many of the black neighborhoods and communities were among the poorest and most disadvantaged probably goes without saying.

Rocky Mount, my dad told me recently, presented one of the clearest examples of how institutional segregation can linger in impact and practice for decades after such racial division is banned under the law. Actually, it’s almost eerie.

Bisecting Rocky Mount right down the middle are lines of railroad tracks. To the east sits black-majority Edgecombe County, white-majority Nash County to the west, and to paraphrase my father, if you stand straddling those tracks facing north, you can look left (west), then right (east), and be witness to two completely different worlds — worlds in which the cliche of “wrong side of tracks” isn’t cliche — it’s real. I’ve rarely, if ever, seen one municipality so completely hewed in half along rigid geographical boundaries.

Thus the tight-knit, semi-insular nature of an African-American community that has battled and continues to battle segregation, economic disparity and social isolation by developing a self-contained community that supports, nurtures and grows itself. Such an evolution helped, in many ways, to shield the black population from often withering racism-cum-paternal sanctimony from local whites.

And, as I spoke with Walter Hunter this past November, I realized that Buck Leonard was a member of this black community, the one isolated by unspoken social segregation and compelled to develop a self-sufficient, intricate system of economics and spiritual unity. In fact, that closeness was perfectly exemplified by Walter’s remarkable connection with the legendary first baseman.

Walter’s father, Herbert Hunter, for decades operated a funeral home on the 200 block of Atlantic Avenue in Rocky Mount — just four blocks down from Buck’s home on the same street. So it’s not surprising that the Hunters, including young Walter, were good friends with the then-retired baseball star.

(On a neat little aside, both Buck and Herbert Hunter served on the 1972 campaign committee for Rocky Mount City Council candidate George W. Dudley; both men help positions on Dudley’s finance committee. Herbert Hunter passed away in 1982.)

Rocky Mount Telegram, April 14, 1982

Walter said he knew Buck when the Hunter Jr. was a wee one, and a popular, African-American-run business was often the catalyst for Walter’s frequent contact with the future Hall of Famer.

In fact, Walter recalls Buck dropping by Hunter’s Funeral Home to, well, just hang out and shoot the breeze. The mortuary served as a social gathering place for the almost all-black neighborhood, and Buck would smoke cigars with Herbert Hunter and just catch up. Many nights, Walter told me, the junior Hunter would jaw with the hardball legend, slowly realizing that through his father’s friendship with Leonard, little Walter got a chance to sit at the feet of greatness — modest, unassuming greatness.

“Everybody knew him,” Walter said. “He was very quiet. Almost every day he’d turn up at our office. I was a small boy.”

Mostly, Walter told me with a grin, he just listened to the retired great, a big bear of man who toward over the youth.

“He talked about baseball, talk about business,” Walter said, referring to Buck’s real-estate firm. “I was just a small boy, and back in those days, children didn’t get up in grownups’ business.”

My conversation with Walter Hunter that November day — as well as, in the interest of full disclosure, a follow-up interview with him over the phone a few weeks later — was both illuminating and comforting; it made me happy that Buck Leonard played such a large part in the everyday lives of his Rocky Mount neighbors.

However, my later phone conservation with Walter Hunter ended on a slightly doleful note — when I asked him if the city has done enough to recognize Buck Leonard and the star’s contribution to the city, Hunter was unequivocal in his response.

“They don’t do a whole lot in the city for him,” he said.

Which is a sentiment that comes across as a bit jarring, given the city’s record of honoring Buck — he has a park named after him; a significant thoroughfare has been renamed Buck Leonard Boulevard (a move that was made in the years after I left North Carolina in 1997); several community awards have are named and bestowed in his honor; and, in many ways, 20 years after Buck’s death, the Hall of Famer is, without hyperbole, Rocky Mount’s favorite son.

That left me wondering — is there a disconnect there? Has the city truly done enough? What exactly is Buck Leonard’s legacy in his hometown?

Perhaps the most important question to ask about how Buck Leonard impacted his hometown — especially in light of the lingering effects of segregation — is whether his fame, success and character went beyond inspiring and encouraging Rocky Mount to play baseball and to develop the same type of vibrant moral code Buck himself had?

Did Buck’s popularity across cultures and races actually help ease racial tensions and socioeconomic divides? By accepting an older black man as their city’s favorite son, were the whites of Rocky Mount given more than a cursory glimpse into the lives of the average black man, woman or child in the city? And were those whites spurred to thus open their minds to the historical realities that still faced minority populations in Rocky Mount? Was Buck not just a window into the lives of “the Other,” but also an active conduit for reconciliation, understanding and bonding?

Likewise, was Buck’s career and life — including not only his athletic achievements but his later-life roles as a school truant officer and successful businessman — enough evidence to show the city’s black residents that success was and still is possible? Was his example enough to give the socioeconomically downtrodden the type of inspiration and hope that, when coupled with helping hands from government programs and community organizations, could spur them to similar success as the baseball legend?

Being 20 years removed from my period of residence in eastern North Carolina — and, as such, viewing the situation with the jaundiced, admittedly somewhat sanctimonious eye of a Northern liberal and Negro Leagues scholar — I’m probably not the best person to render judgment here.

So, here we are. However, I’ll (try to) quickly offer up an example of the unspoken, persistent division and discord in Rocky Mount, one that happened a few years after I left eastern North Carolina for parts elsewhere, but also that, like those train tracks, involved a visible, pressing symbol. … 

In 1999, the Rocky Mount city government announced its plan to memorialize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a new park and statue of the great civil rights leaders. Sounds well and good, right?

Well, according to University of Maryland professor Renee Ater, city officials bungled the process from the start — most significantly by failing to solicit much input from neighborhood residents or African-American organizations, giving Rocky Mount blacks the distinct feeling of, yet again, being ignored by a white power structure that, to them, feigned interest in the black community and operated with a sanctimonious patriarchy and pandering.

That allegedly callous official attitude was then couple, wrote Ater, when “Rocky Mount’s economy [took] a downward turn in early 2000, with a disproportionate impact on the African-American population.”

Asserted Ater in the Indiana Magazine of History in March 2014:

“As a result, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial became a lightning rod for the divisive racial politics of Rocky Mount — a town that was 56 percent black at the time but had been ruled by the same white mayor and a majority-white city council for 30 years. … All of these issues formed a combustible mix, and deep emotions erupted to the surface in heated public discussions — on the surface about the statue and the artist [Erik Blome], but on a deeper level about local politics and the future of Rocky Mount.”

The irony was overpowering — the memory and image of a man who strove his entire life and succeeded (in varying degrees) to unite people was suddenly and tragically now the source of further division, anger and resentment.

Maybe somewhere in all that is a valid comparison between the nationally revered, outspoken orator, minister and revolutionary (King) and the quiet, unassuming local kid who happened to play baseball really well and, in so doing, practically stumbled in fame and importance in his hometown. But, maybe, that’s a further discussion for another day …

OK, having written all of this, including painting in some detail everything else about my November trip to visit Buck Leonard’s grave — the weather, the history of the cemetery, the social setting in Rocky Mount, my chat with Walter Hunter — I feel weird and somewhat guilty finally getting to the point of my venture that day.

That being visiting and actually seeing his grave. Which, strangely and possibly ruefully, I discuss now as a seeming afterthought. But it wasn’t an afterthought, please believe me. The moment I stood in front of the mausoleum that includes Buck’s crypt, with the sun beaming warming rays on my face, I felt a sense of … Satisfaction? Belonging? Tranquility rooted in the now confirmed knowledge that, at the very least in death, Buck Leonard is remembered, albeit (and quite properly, given his legendary humility) humbly, at least in death.

Buck’s crypt features a rectangular bronze plaque reading, “Walter F. ‘Buck’ Leonard, Baseball Hall of Fame, 1907-1997.” A little relief of a swinging baseball player separates his years of birth and death. Affixed to the right side of the plaque is a little vase holding white, red and pink artificial flowers; the floral arrangement, on this day, casts a shadow on the name plaque (which, at the very least, made it a bit challenging to get a decent picture of the grave).

(Another note: When I arrived at the cemetery I spoke briefly with the facility’s family services manager, Elsie Ricks, one of the company’s three employees, in a modest office building on the edge of grounds. I asked her if many people come to see Buck Leonard’s grave, and she kind of shrugged and gave a blase mumble of affirmation. To be fair, she was busy working on arrangements with a bereaved family on their loved one’s final burial place, so, sure, technically I was butting in on a very important conversation and being kind of a putz, but I was hoping for at least one or two nifty quotes. Phooey.)

After paying my respects (and yakking with Walter Hunter), I left the Gardens of Gethsemane and began the two-hour drive back to my folks’ place. My noggin rattled with errant reflection, trying to bring the whole day’s experience together. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t come to any sort of a conclusion about what I had just experienced. One overarching thought muffled any such attempt at satisfying contemplation.

I wasn’t done yet.

Nowhere near.

Rocky Mount Telegram, Nov. 19, 2005

Coda

In June 2004, roughly seven years after Buck Leonard’s death, the Rocky Mount City Council passed a resolution calling for the North Carolina Department of Transportation to rename Ramp Road —  a portion of U.S. 64 Business between the U.S. 64 Bypass, which runs east-west through Rocky Mount, to Sunset Avenue — Buck Leonard Boulevard. The DOT approved the alteration at its Sept. 2, 2004, meeting to restyle a fairly significant local thoroughfare into permanent memorial to the baseball legend.

In November 2004, a formal ceremony was held featuring remarks from the mayor pro tem and the unveiling of a massive sign along 64. The change was recommended by local attorney George Whitaker.

“He was just somebody I knew and thought a lot of, not because of what he had done in baseball,” Whitaker told the Rocky Mount Telegram at the time, “but just things other than that. … He was just as fine a gentleman as you’d ever want to meet.”

(Interestingly, what’s now Buck Leonard Boulevard sits in the Nash County side of the city, through a generally middle- to-upper-class area — and a hefty distance from Buck’s old neighborhood in the Edgecombe section of Rocky Mount.)

This pic is actually from Gary Ashwill’s Agate Type blog. I hope he doesn’t mind if I use it for this. His site, which is one of the best Negro Leagues blog out there, is here. Please check it out.

Traditionally, U.S. 64 has sometimes been described as “Murphy to Manteo,” entering the Tar Heel State at its very western tip in the Smokies near the former city, and concluding near the latter town, which sits in the middle of Roanoke Island, just west of the famed Outer Banks. And yes, it is that Roanoke Island, where some people got lost or some such.

I’ve traversed U.S. 64 innumerable times; it runs directly between Rocky Mount, where my parents lived and where I briefly worked at the Telegram, and Tarboro/Princeville, where I lived and worked at the Daily Southerner for a year and a half. The highway also runs right to Raleigh to the west, where my parents lived for several years after leaving Rocky Mount, and where my brother attended N.C. State.

(Tangential to this tangent is the story of Princeville, the first town in the U.S. chartered by blacks, which I’ve covered and written about a lot over the last 23 years, and which is the home of my lifelong friend Calvin. Both Princeville and Calvin — as well as none other than Hall of Fame pitcher Bill Foster — will figure into my Buck narrative in a bit.)

The renaming of a significant Rocky Mount thoroughfare and U.S. 64 connector to Buck Leonard Boulevard roughly corresponded with other, even more substantial adjustments. When I lived in Rocky Mount and Tarboro (circa 1995-1997), 64 was a limited-access, four-lane highway from Raleigh to Tarboro, but from there on east to the Outer Banks, it was a two-lane or four-lane, full-access road.

But that’s since changed — the four-lane freeway portion was extended to Williamston, about half-hour east of Tarboro and couple hours west of Manteo. The whole stretch from Raleigh eastward to Williamston — including through Rocky Mount — is in the process of being turned into Interstate 87. As it turns out, that’s significant because north-south I-95 runs just a few miles west of none other than Rocky Mount — in fact, it could be argued that Rocky Mount exists as a city largely thanks to I-95 traffic — which means there will be an intersection of interstates at Rocky Mount.

It also means that Buck Leonard Boulevard will soon become an important connector between Rocky Mount and an interstate, which would bring with it all sorts of developmental and commercial prospects, which, in turn, could make the name Buck Leonard a lot more well known to the general public. Which is quite good.

But there’s a little more to the U.S. 64/Buck Leonard story … Way back when the highway was first established, 64 was a simple two-lane road that ran right through downtown Rocky Mount; that changed when the 64 Bypass was built in the mid-1980s, and the old 64 became U.S. 64 Business/Alternate.

Connecting the dots, Buck Leonard Boulevard is, in fact a stretch of old U.S. 64, now 64 Business. From the end of the Buck Leonard Boulevard portion, 64 Business continues to run westward through the heart of Rocky Mount, from Nash County into Edgecombe County — through black and white neighborhoods, through well-off and working-class areas — until it exits the city with the name East Raleigh Road. Nestled along East Raleigh Road/64 Business?

The Gardens of Gethsemane cemetery.

My Buck story begins here

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!