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"The Professor" Who Hit the Big Leagues

When people learn that Dave Leonhard ’62 once played Major League Baseball, they often respond jokingly, as in, “Boy, the Red Sox could sure use you now,” Leonhard relates. Not that he ever was a member of the Sox—Leonhard spent six seasons, 1967 through 1972, as a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles—but he lives and works outside Boston.

Leonhard’s tenure with the Orioles coincided with the team’s glory years, including three consecutive trips to the World Series (1969–1971), in which he appeared twice (1969, 1971).

In a sport preoccupied with statistics, Leonhard represents a remarkable—and remarkably improbable—footnote: He is one of only two Johns Hopkins graduates ever to play at the major league level. (The other, Otis Stocksdale, played for four seasons, including one with the Orioles, in the 1890s.)

Leonhard arrived at Johns Hopkins in the fall of 1960 as a junior transfer student from Washington College in Chestertown, Md., and he decided to major in history.

NCAA rules require transfer student-athletes to forgo participating in sports for one year, so Leonhard did not join the Blue Jays baseball team until spring 1962. (He also played basketball for Hopkins as a senior.)

A self-described “horrible” pitcher in high school, Leonhard improved at Hopkins. A right-handed starter, he won three games while losing two, on one occasion pitching 13 innings and striking out 18 batters. Nonetheless, upon graduation, no professional scouts showed interest in him; that neither surprised nor bothered Leonhard, given that he never had entertained any illusions about playing pro baseball.

That summer, he and some friends participated in a Baltimore-area amateur league, paying for their own equipment and uniforms, and in the fall, he began teaching American history at a local high school.

During the academic year, Leonhard bumped into an Orioles scout who’d seen him pitch the previous summer. To Leonhard’s astonishment, the scout offered to sign him to a contract with the team. Unconvinced of his own talent and with a commitment to teach through June, Leonhard at first demurred, relenting only when told that he could pitch that summer for a monthly stipend in the Orioles’ low-level program.

Come fall, he took a job as a social worker, resuming baseball activities in the minor leagues for the Orioles in spring 1964. Over the next several years, he pitched impressively, rising rapidly through the team’s farm system until he made his debut with the Orioles in 1967.

David Leonhard

“It was a wonderful way to make a living,” recalls Leonhard of his professional baseball years. Today he and his wife run a thriving nursery outside Boston. [Photo: Billie Weiss]

Leonhard’s Hopkins degree earned him the sobriquet of “The Professor” from his Orioles teammates, whom he quizzed about U.S. history during games, “just horsing around.” But overall, he adds, players did not treat him differently because of his JHU education.

Never a star, he won 16 games and lost 14 during his Orioles tenure, pitching as both a starter and reliever. While his team’s two appearances in the World Series will remain golden memories for Leonhard, he says, “there was a lot of stress in pitching for me because I was always struggling to make the team, and always felt that every pitch could be my last if it wasn’t a good one.”

Leonhard spent the 1973 and 1974 seasons back in the minor leagues, first for the Orioles and then, after being traded, with affiliates of the California Angels and Chicago Cubs, eventually moving on to serve as pitching coach and sometimes pitcher for two years with the Quebec Carnavals, a Montreal Expos farm team.

“I liked it, but even in the big leagues, coaches were making only $10,000 to $15,000—the most money I ever made as a player was $25,000—and you were subject to being fired at any time,” he explains. “It didn’t seem like a great career path to me.”

A more secure career path materialized while Leonhard still coached and played in Quebec. In May 1975, he and his wife, Doris, bought a foundering flower shop and plant nursery in Beverly, Mass.

Together, the couple replaced greenhouses, added two wings to the main building, and over the past 40 years, transformed the place into a thriving full-service operation.

Business varies wildly. “There are times in May and June and December when we work 12- to-14-hour days,” Leonhard says. “It’s a nightmare. Everyone wants their Christmas tree decorated at the same time, and everyone wants to plant at the same time in the spring.

“On the other hand, the other nine months of the year, you’re working in a fabulous environment: sunshine streaming through the greenhouses, me dressed in my bathing suit in the summer or sweatshirt and sweatpants in the fall.”

Meanwhile, Leonhard retains a palpable fondness for his unlikely Hopkins-to-the-major-leagues baseball past. “It was a wonderful way to make a living,” Leonhard remembers, citing the attendant exercise and the camaraderie. “I was playing a game that I’d paid money to play before and now, they were paying me.”