The Knuckleballer Who Helped Kids Go Straight
Emil “Dutch” Leonard
“Stories Behind the Signatures” #3
Dutch Leonard’s knuckleball is legendary. He racked up 20 years in Major League Baseball throwing his signature pitch, which he developed only as the result of a shoulder injury he suffered during a high school basketball game. His fast ball was never the same again, but oh, his knuckleball…
“It comes up, makes a face at you, then runs away.”
– Jackie Robinson, describing “Dutch” Leonard’s knuckleball
The Sporting News, 11/12/1947
Dutch Leonard was the son of a coal miner. After high school, he worked odd jobs as he played for various industrial leagues, both digging ditches and pitching baseballs for his employers. He worked his way up to the Majors, but in the early years his stats were unimpressive. He complained that the catchers weren’t calling for his knuckleball, which left him only his more hittable pitches. He was used in relief or as a “mop up” man, then sent back down to the minors. The press had already made up its mind about Leonard, describing him as a “fat bald man.” A “castoff” at the age of 29.
But my father, growing up in Philadephia in the 1940s and early 50s, remembers Leonard as a “good guy and a gentleman.” What changed?
Dutch Leonard credits his turnaround to 2 things.
- Catcher Paul Richards: Most of the players in the minors had seen better days, but catcher Paul Richards made it his mission to catch Leonard’s knuckleball. Paul Richards “put me back in the big leagues,” said Leonard. (Washington Post, April 6, 1940). Once Richards started calling for the knuckleball, Leonard started winning, and he was given another chance in the majors.
- Clean living: When Leonard signed with the Phillies in 1947, he was pushing forty and he knew he would have to clean up his act if he was to extend his career much further.
“No white bread, no starches, no midnight snacks, no beer, no anything except hard work…
I’m never going to let myself get fat again.”
— Dutch Leonard
The Sporting News, May 28, 1947
It worked. Leonard’s knuckleball took National League batters by surprise and his clean living regimen allowed him to pitch seven more seasons, until he was 44 years old.
So, at what point in his career did “Dutch” Leonard sign this autograph? At what point did my father have the face-to-face exchange that gave him such a good impression of the guy? Consider not just his commitment to clean living, but also who he was with when he signed the page. Tommy Brown.
The only time Dutch Leonard and Tommy Brown ever shared a spot in the same roster was in the twilight of Dutch Leonard’s storied 20 year career. They both played for the Chicago Cubs in 1952. They played in Philadelphia against the Phillies at Shibe Park 11 times over eight days that season. I’m convinced that it was on one of those days that my father obtained those two signatures.
In 1952, Dutch Leonard was the oldest player in the National League and one year shy of retirement. Tommy Brown, although already seven years into his MLB career, was still considered a “perennial prospect” because of his extreme youth. A boy of 16 when spotted by the Dodgers scouts and just 17 when he hit his first major league home run (the youngest player ever), Tommy was still only 25 years old in 1952. He had just been traded to the Cubs with an unacceptable batting average of .160.
“Dutch” Leonard was now the old veteran, the role model with sage advice… and it worked again. During his single season with “Dutch” Leonard, Tommy Brown’s batting average shot up from .160 to .320. Perhaps the “kind” impression my father received from Dutch Leonard while getting his autograph was also part of the education of young Tommy Brown.
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