Leonard is the only Negro League first baseman enshrined in Cooperstown. A lefthanded power hitter, he teamed with legendary slugger Josh Gibson to lead the Homestead Grays to nine consecutive Negro National League championships from 1937 through 1945. The duo was dubbed the “Thunder Twins” by the black press. Leonard was called a black Lou Gehrig, Gibson a black Babe Ruth. While Gibson slugged tape measure home runs, the pull-hitting Leonard, who feasted on fastballs, demonstrated his smooth, powerful stroke by hitting line drives off and over the walls. Leonard was equally smooth and consistent at first base. His sure-handed glove work was compared with that of Hal Chase and George Sisler. He was a smart fielder who always made the right play. Dependable and respected by his teammates, he was a steadying influence on the Grays.
Leonard began his career in 1933 with the semi-pro Elks and Black Swans in his native Rocky Mount, NC, after he lost his job due to the Depression. After being picked up by the Portsmouth, VA Firefighters, he was soon signed by the Baltimore Stars. When the Stars broke up later that season, he finished with the Brooklyn Royal Giants. The next spring, he was recruited by former Homestead ace Smokey Joe Williams for Cum Posey‘s Grays. For the next 17 years, Leonard was the Grays’ first baseman.
Beginning in 1942, when Leonard hit 42 HR, the Grays appeared in four consecutive Black World Series and won championships in 1943-44. Leonard tied Gibson for the ’44 HR title, and in the BWS he batted .500. He hit .375 in 1945, finishing behind Gibson in the HR race. Leonard tied for the HR lead and won his third batting title with a .395 mark in 1948. Under Leonard’s inspirational leadership, the Grays won their 10th pennant that year and a record third BWS.
Years before Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers, Senators owner Clark Griffith approached Leonard and Gibson about playing in the majors. But Griffith backed down, deciding not to disturb the status quo. When the color line was finally broken, Bill Veeck contacted Leonard about playing in the majors, but the veteran felt he was too old. He said he “didn’t want to embarrass anyone or hurt the chances of those who might follow.” His only appearance in organized ball came at age forty-six, in 1953, when he played 10 games for Portsmouth (Piedmont League) and batted .333.
Leonard compiled a lifetime .341 average in the Negro National League and a .382 mark in exhibitions against major leaguers. He made a record 12 appearances in the annual East-West all-star game, hitting .317 with an all-star record three HR.
After the Grays disbanded, Leonard played in Mexico from 1951 to 1955. He liked the warm climate, having spent winters on the diamonds of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. In 1962 he helped organize the Rocky Mount (Carolina League) club and served as its vice-president. Leonard and Gibson were inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues in 1972.