Friday, May 23, 2014

Card #47: Jeffrey Leonard

Who Can It Be Now?
Jeffrey Leonard was born on September 22, 1955 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he attended Overbrook High School.  Leonard is the only baseball player to have attended that school, but he is in no way the most famous alumnus of Overbrook -- that title certainly belongs to actor/rapper Will Smith.  Indeed, Leonard isn't even the best athlete to come out of Overbrook since NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain attended Overbrook around the time Leonard was born.

Leonard was more highly regarded by colleges for football and basketball than for baseball. In a story about Leonard near the end of his career in the Seattle Times, the story was told that Leonard "got 60 scholarship offers for football, five for basketball and none for baseball, where he played shortstop and twice hit two home runs in one inning."  It should not be surprising, then, that he was not drafted.  

His signing by the Los Angeles Dodgers sounds like a 1970s version of a Horatio Alger tale -- poorer African-American boy grows up in tough neighborhood, rises above his circumstances, and ends up in the big leagues.  That's not far off from the truth.  As a high school player, baseball scouts ignored Leonard. Leonard believed that he was ignored because his school only played a 12-game season and lost several of those to rainouts.  

One day, a Dodgers scout, Ed Libertadore, saw Leonard play and gave Leonard a business card.  Leonard was certain that the Phillies were going to draft him so he stuffed the card into his uniform pocket and forgot about it.  When Leonard went undrafted,  he went back to retrieve it from the dirty laundry pile at his high school. Leonard's father called Libertadore, who came to watch a game (with three Phillies scouts also in attendance) that was -- surprise -- rained out.  The next day, the Phillies scouts did not return, but Libertadore did and ran Leonard through some drills.  Libertadore said Leonard was"raw, but had tools, a pretty good prospect."  Leonard continued, "I took him over to my car and signed him."

Leonard got a $500 signing "bonus" and a new baseball glove.  Libertadore threw in some extra money for equipment and a new suit.  

Leonard was just 17 years old when he signed in 1973, and his first minor league assignment sent him clear across the country to Bellingham, Washington -- a Navy town nearly on the Canadian border.  He spent the better part of two seasons at Bellingham in short-season ball and hit very well.  

Perhaps because he was not drafted and, therefore, did not have a "pedigree," he wasn't really pushed to advance through the Dodgers system until around 1976.  The Dodgers gave him a 7-game preview of Triple-A at the young age of 20 after Leonard spent the season in the Single-A California League.  Leonard hit .296 and slugged .556 in 27 at-bats and did not appear overmatched other than not taking any walks.  

The Dodgers organization realized that Leonard could hit, and they moved him up to Double-A San Antonio in 1977.  The Dodgers gave Leonard a brief September call-up in 1977, and Leonard hit .385 in 27 at-bats.  

Leonard moved up to Albuquerque in 1978, but he was stuck in an organization that had Dusty Baker, Bill North, and Reggie Smith in its outfield and was contending for World Series titles (they lost to the Yankees that year). So, when the Dodgers needed to come up with a player to be named later to send to Houston in September to complete a trade made earlier in the year for backup catcher Joe Ferguson, Leonard was made available.  The Astros grabbed Leonard.

In 1979, Leonard got his first opportunity to play regularly at the major league level.  He did not hit for power, but he did hit and get on base well -- .290/.360/.350.  He finished a distant second in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Dodgers pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, but it was certainly a successful year.

Despite the good season in 1979, the Astros made Leonard their fourth outfielder in their run to the National League West title.  Leonard struggled early in 1981, and the Astros felt he was expendable. So, on April 20, 1981, Leonard and Dave Bergman were sent to San Francisco for first-baseman Mike Ivie.  Leonard was sent down to Triple-A immediately on his arrival with the Giants, and he flourished in Phoenix -- in 204 plate appearances, he his .401/.451/.636 and added 18 stolen bases in 19 attempts.  So, when the major leagues resumed after the strike, he was in San Francisco.

He played in the minor leagues again in 1982, but that was to get himself back into shape. Leonard came clean that year about the fact that he had a cocaine problem and sought and received treatment for his addiction.  

After that time, Leonard was clean and his performances improved as well in many respects. He was an all-star twice -- once in San Francisco in 1987 and again in Seattle in 1989.  That did not stop him from being a divisive character, however. In 1987, Leonard and Will Clark got upset with each other in the visitors clubhouse in Philadelphia due to what Clark called later to be Leonard's "unyielding abuse." With the Giants in Philadelphia, Leonard had a nephew in the clubhouse.  The nephew asked Clark for an autograph.  Clark turned Leonard's nephew down and added a gratuitous racial epithet to boot.  Clark says that did not cause the fight between the two, but they did fight. 

Two years later, when the Giants made the World Series, Clark still had not let the incident go -- calling Leonard a "tumor" and saying, "we got rid of him; now look where we are." Clark was referring to the fact that Leonard was traded in June of 1988 to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for shortstop Ernest Riles. At least one San Francisco Examiner columnist, Art Spander, was not a fan of the trade, calling it a "joke" and saying that the Giants "are giving away ballplayers."

Leonard responded to Clark by saying, "It's about time Will Clark came out of the closet. Talk about my personality! Let's unveil his true personality. He's a talented hitter, but he's a prejudiced bastard."

The idea that Leonard was a difficult character was not new.  Former Brewers and Mariners manager Del Crandall managed Leonard at Albuquerque.  His comment in 1990 was that Leonard, "had considerable talent.  But he really wouldn't talk to anyone but his teammates. At times he appeared, I'm not sure of the right word, maybe angry.  It might have been a defense against management or anyone who had to evaluate him."

The Brewers kept Leonard only for the rest of the 1988 season, letting him go to Seattle for the 1989 and 1990 seasons. By that time, Leonard had become an elder statesman of sorts, especially with younger African-American players.  For instance, a July 30, 1989 story in The Milwaukee Journal questioned openly whether Gary Sheffield would have settled better in Milwaukee had Leonard still been with the Brewers.  In fact, in Seattle, none other than Ken Griffey Jr. cited Leonard as being a major positive influence on him.

After his two-year contract with the Mariners ended, though, the Mariners released him on October 13, 1990.  Leonard played in 1991 for the Royals' Triple-A farm team in Omaha, but never made the majors and retired after that.

Pass the Dutchie
As mentioned in passing above, Jeffrey Leonard was one of many major league baseball players who got caught up in the cocaine-fueled early 1980s.  Not only that, but Leonard also testified at the Pittsburgh Drug Trial of Curtis Strong.  The book citation here says that Dave Parker allegedly smuggled drugs into the US in a catcher's mitt and sold it himself.  Initially, Leonard received a one-year suspension that was never enforced, and rumors were that his punishment was reduced by then-Commissioner Peter Ueberroth.

The Message
I've forgotten to use this subject a few times for others who have done or are doing a great deal of charity work.  I'm bringing it back here, though.

Jeffrey Leonard's daughter Christine suffered through stage 3 breast cancer.  As a result, he set up a charity called "Jeffrey 'HacMan' Leonard Runs Bases for a Cure" to promote cancer awareness and to seek support for his daughter.  Leonard and his wife Karen have a joint Facebook page that is listed as the administrator for the Cancer charity.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
In 1982, I was not all that familiar with Leonard.  By 1988, though, I obviously was since he played for my Milwaukee Brewers. I remember Leonard as the archetypical anti-hero in many respects.  He was great to his own teammates, yet he kept his distance from the media and the fans.  Perhaps because of that -- and perhaps because of the fact that I was a trying-to-be-rebellious 16-year-old -- I loved Leonard's "One Flap Down" home run trot.  In the video at this link, Leonard explained that the One Flap Down trot actually originated somewhat by accident.

Since retiring as a player, Leonard managed for a while in the minor leagues in the Oakland A's organization. In the story about his appointment to the position with the Modesto A's, he mentioned that he had become religious and credited Jesus Christ for his turnaround. Leonard hung around for a little while in the minor leagues before coaching the Antelope Valley College Marauders in 2003 and 2004.

More recently -- as in 2014 -- Leonard rejoined the San Francisco Giants organization as a Community Ambassador.  According to the press release regarding the position, Leonard is scheduled to attend the Breast Cancer Awareness Night at AT&T Park on Wednesday, July 2.  

His "One Flap Down Foundation" is still active and aims to assist single parents who have cancer.  If you wish to learn more about that fight, you can click through here. That website tells the story of his stepdaughter's fight against breast cancer -- it is worth your time to read it.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting how Will Clark's supposed racial epithet got not press. I remember him being a big supporter of John Rocker after Rocker's incident.