Don Leshnock

This article was written by Chad Moody

Don Leshnock finished his big-league pitching career with the enviable statistics of a 0.00 earned run average and 18.0 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. Although his “cup of coffee” Major League Baseball career only lasted all of one game, Leshnock was a stellar college baseball player and also enjoyed several successful minor-league seasons.

Donald Lee Leshnock, was born of Czech descent on November 25, 1946, in the Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio to Betty and William Leshnock. His mother worked in a nursing home and his father was a police officer. Don was the second of two children; brother William came first. Perhaps surprisingly, Leshnock did not hone his baseball skills on the diamond of his high school baseball team. His school, Ursuline High School, a Catholic school in Youngstown, did not offer the sport at that time. Leshnock excelled instead on youth Pony League teams during his formative years. Although he threw left, he batted right. An unplanned disparity, as Leshnock noted: “I guess I just picked up a bat that way when I started out.” Leshnock’s Pony League experience yielded significant benefits upon his 1964 matriculation from high school to college.1

Leshnock, nicknamed “Lesh,” enrolled in the same college where his older brother played football, Youngstown State. At Youngstown State, Leshnock spent his first season as a Penguin in 1965 playing junior varsity baseball. In 1966, however, he began the first of his three years starring as a pitcher on the varsity baseball squad for coach Dom Rosselli.2 Under Rosselli’s tutelage – himself a YSU legend who was also the school’s long-time head basketball coach and assistant football coach – Leshnock flourished on the mound. The 6’3” southpaw immediately made an impact during his first varsity season, leading the team in nearly every major statistical category (wins, ERA, strikeouts, complete games, innings pitched, games pitched, and games started).3 And he capped a fantastic initial varsity campaign by tossing a no-hitter against Cleveland State University on May 14, 1966.4

Although his Penguin teammate Mike Malley statistically outshone him during 1967, Leshnock, who led the team in games started, turned in another solid performance during his second season. In his final season at YSU in 1968, Leshnock continued his dominance on the mound, once again leading the team in nearly every major statistical category. This dominance caught the eye of long-time Detroit Tigers scout, Edwin “Cy” Williams, who was responsible for signing several of the key Tiger players who contributed to their World Series Championship team later that year. Detroit selected Leshnock in the 23rd round (527 overall) of the 1968 MLB June Amateur Draft, and included what Lesh described as a “very small” signing bonus of $7,500. He had to forego his final year of college eligibility to turn professional, but even with an abbreviated college career, he was still among the leaders in several all-time record categories at Youngstown State. As of 2015, Leshnock was second in career earned run average, seventh in career strikeouts, and was among the top 10 in most wins, complete games, and strikeouts in a season. Considered by the University to be “One of the greatest ever to don a Penguin baseball uniform,” Leshnock later became the first Penguin ever to play in an MLB game, and was inducted into the Youngstown State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1986.5

Leshnock had a busy year in 1968: pitching in his final college season, being drafted by the Tigers, and beginning his Organized Baseball career in Sarasota, Florida, to play Gulf Coast League baseball for the rookie-level affiliate team of the Tigers. Having pitched well in eight games there primarily as a starter, Leshnock was elevated later in the year to the Class A Lakeland Tigers of the Florida State League, where according to the Youngstown Vindicator, he continued to impress. Also used primarily as a starter at Lakeland, Leshnock won his first two starts there in convincing fashion, striking out an average of 10 batters in those outings. He finished up his inaugural professional season in Lakeland with a 4-2 record and 2.25 ERA. Leshnock closed out his busy year in a celebratory manner by marrying a woman from his hometown, Cheryl Ann Kopko, in December.6

Leshnock spent the majority of his sophomore professional season the following year again in Lakeland, achieving similar quality results as in his first stint with the team. In 11 games for Lakeland (all starts), he again finished the year with 4 victories and an ERA under 3.00. In addition to his successful professional year in 1969, Leshnock also succeeded on a personal level as well. He took the opportunity to return to school to complete his studies, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Youngstown State; education that turned out to be especially valuable in his post-baseball career.

Unlike his two strong initial minor-league seasons in 1968-69, the next two seasons were a bit more up-and-down for Leshnock. Although he finished each of them with an ERA over 4.00, bright spots abounded. While playing for the Class A Carolina League’s Rocky Mount Leafs in 1970, Leshnock tossed a no-hitter in a 4-0 victory over the Peninsula Phillies on June 28. Promoted to the Class AA Dixie Association’s Montgomery Rebels for the 1971 season, he pitched primarily in a relief role for the first time in his four minor-league seasons. There he sported a 7-3 record with a fine 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. This caused the Youngstown Vindicator to note (quite presciently) that Detroit Tigers were “very high” on the prospects of Leshnock joining the big-league club during the 1972 season. So high, in fact, that following his 1971 campaign in Montgomery, the Tigers sent Leshnock to the Winter Instructional League in Dunedin, Florida, to further refine and showcase his skills. He continued his excellent performance in Florida, opening his team’s season with a one-hit 3-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins winter-league squad.7

Seeing great promise in the then 25-year-old Leshnock, the Detroit Tigers invited him to their 1972 spring training camp for the first time. Here he got to face Tiger greats such as Al Kaline and Willie Horton in intrasquad practice games. Although he gave up the team’s first intrasquad home run of the spring to Horton, Leshnock nonetheless favorably impressed the coaching staff with his performance, although not quite enough to be brought north with the parent club immediately. However, Leshnock did come north to their Class AAA affiliate Toledo Mud Hens of the International League.8

Leshnock pitched well in Toledo early in the 1972 season. Following an outing where he struck out five of the six batters he faced in two scoreless innings against the Tidewater Tides, Leshnock finally got his big break. On May 30, 1972, with their rookie relief pitcher Phil Meeler struggling, the Detroit Tigers ordered Leshnock to join the big-league ball club for their two-game series against the Cleveland Indians. Lesh waited until June 7 to finally make his major-league debut. With the Tigers down 5-1 to the California Angels at Tiger Stadium, Leshnock was called on from the bullpen to pitch the ninth inning. Although he gave up two hits, he closed out the ninth allowing no runs and striking out two big-name batters with impressive résumés – outfielding great Vada Pinson and future Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan. “I wasn’t nervous out there. I’m more nervous right now thinking about it,” Leshnock admitted in the locker room after the game. Although Tigers manager Billy Martin retorted, “Good, that’s when he should be nervous,” the feisty skipper also conceded that “Leshnock did a nice job” in the team’s loss. The very next day, he made another relief appearance for the Tigers – albeit in an exhibition game against the Mud Hens. Not helping his cause to remain with the big-league team, Leshnock allowed three runs on three hits in one inning of work against his old minor-league club. He remained on the big-league roster for the next two weeks but did not appear in another game before being sent back down to Toledo to make room for veteran Les Cain. (Ironically, Cain never actually appeared in another major-league game for the rest of his career.) Although neither would Leshnock, he nonetheless considered his first and only appearance as a big-leaguer to be the outstanding achievement of his baseball career (along with his Carolina League no-hitter).9

After finishing out the 1972 season in Toledo, Leshnock and veteran catcher Tom Haller were involved in an offseason cash transaction that sent them from Detroit to the Philadelphia Phillies organization as de facto compensation for pitcher Woodie Fryman, whom the Tigers had claimed off waivers in August. Leshnock failed to make Philadelphia’s big-league squad during spring training in 1973. Between 1973-1975, he bounced around between Class AA and Class AAA minor-league affiliates of the Phillies, Kansas City Royals, and Pittsburgh Pirates organizations. And all across the country as well: Eugene in the Pacific Coast League, Shreveport in the Texas League, Jacksonville in the Southern League, and Charleston in the International League. His performance declined during these three tumultuous years. Although he would have rather been a starter, he served mostly in a relief role. In reflecting back on this rocky time, Leshnock admitted, “I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.” This being the case, he decided to retire from baseball after the 1975 season.10

After his baseball career, Leshnock – a U.S. Army Reservist who on occasion had to miss games to serve during his minor-league seasons – returned to his home state of Ohio to enter the business world. Although he had worked during baseball offseasons as a restaurant manager, Leshnock turned his attention now to the insurance and financial industries, in which he spent the balance of his career. He also spent time with his family. Leshnock and his schoolteacher wife Cheryl had one child, a son named Donnie. With his father as his first coach, Donnie also experienced some success in the game. He received a full athletic scholarship to the University of North Carolina in 1990, competed as a member of the U.S. National Team in 1991, and was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 5th round of the 1992 MLB June Amateur Draft. Donnie played five seasons of minor- and independent-league ball from 1992-1996, but never advanced past Class A level. After leaving the game, Donnie entered the business world and ultimately settled in North Carolina, where he and his wife, Miriam (a former UNC volleyball player), raised their three daughters. Leshnock’s beloved granddaughters – ages 11, 13, and 15 as of 2017 – are accomplished athletes in their own right in basketball and volleyball.11

Over the years, Leshnock’s love for sports never diminished; he enjoyed officiating sports as a hobby. And he also resumed his competitive baseball career in the early-2000s while in his mid-fifties. Described at the time in The Vindicator as a “pitching ace,” Leshnock played on senior division teams in the amateur Roy Hobbs Baseball organization, where he still possessed the ability to throw in the upper 80s. In fact, he and his teammates on the P&N Silverhawks won the Roy Hobbs World Series in Tampa, Florida, in 2004 and 2010, with Leshnock being named MVP in both.12

Described as a man of “integrity, kindness, and generosity of spirit,” Leshnock passed away due to bladder cancer at the age of 65 on May 5, 2012 in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he and his wife had relocated to be near their son and his family. Although he left a legacy of having been one of a relative few “cup of coffee” players to have appeared in only one career Major League Baseball game, Leshnock had no regrets, stating, “it is nice just to say I was in that small percentage of players who start in the minor leagues and who got to the big leagues.”13

 

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank Tom Schott for review and edit of the narrative, and Cheryl Leshnock for her time and research assistance.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author accessed Leshnock’s file from the library of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York; GenealogyBank.com; Newspapers.com; Retrosheet.org; Baseball-Reference.com; and Baseball-Almanac.com.

 

Notes

1 “Betty Leshnock: Obituary,” The Columbus Dispatch, September 19, 1996; “Ex-YSU Mound Ace Gains Majors,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland), June 15, 1972; Richard Tellis, Once Around the Bases: Bittersweet Memories of Only One Game in the Majors (Chicago: Triumph Books, 1998), 285.

2 “Lions Risk 16-Game Win Skein in Homecoming Duel,” Reading (Pennsylvania) Eagle, October 20, 1961; Youngstown State University Penguins, http://ysusports.com/fan_zone/hof/bios/Leshnock-Don, accessed May 19, 2016.

3 YSU Sports Information Office, 2015 Youngstown State Baseball Media Guide (Youngstown: Youngstown State University, 2015), 24-26.

4 Ibid. 2008, 40.

5 Ibid., 2015, 24-26, 33-34; Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator, September 29, 1971; Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, “Cy Williams: Professional Baseball Scout,” http://buffalosportshallfame.com/member/cy-williams/, accessed May 19, 2016; Tellis, Once Around the Bases, 285; Youngstown State University Penguins, http://ysusports.com/fan_zone/hof/bios/Leshnock-Don, accessed May 19, 2016.

6 “Tigers Elevate Don Leshnock,” Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator, August 21, 1968.

7 Minor League Baseball, “Carolina League No-Hit Games,” http://atmilb.com/1NHH1qb, accessed May 19, 2016; Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator, September 29, 1971.

8 “Kaline Starting Off Strong for 20th Year With Tigers,” Kingsport (Tennessee) Post, March 9, 1972; Tellis, Once Around the Bases, 287.

9 Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator, May 30, 1972; “Tigers Swap Dalton Jones to Texas for McRae,” Ludington (Michigan) Daily News, May 31, 1972; Associated Press, “Tiger Rookie Is Nervous in Clubhouse,” The Times Herald (Port Huron, Michigan), June 8, 1972; Charlie Vincent, “Toledo Rips Tigers, 10-3,” Detroit Free Press, June 9, 1972; “Reactivate Cain,” Milwaukee Sentinel, June 23, 1972.

10 Bruce Keidan, “Phillies Get Young Pitcher, Vet Catcher from Detroit,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 26, 1972; Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator, October 26, 1972; “Phils Cut Leshnock,” The Blade (Toledo), March 20, 1973; Chuck Stewart, “Starting Role Is Goal,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, August 2, 1973; Tellis, Once Around the Bases, 289.

11 “Skidding Ems Gain Two, Lose Wallace,” Eugene Register-Guard, June 20, 1973; “Don Leshnock: Obituary,” The Columbus Dispatch, June 5, 2012; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Carolina Baseball History,” http://www.goheels.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=3350&ATCLID=205484670, accessed May 19, 2016; Cheryl Leshnock, email correspondence with author, June 5, 2017.

12 John Kovach, “Age No Problem in This League,” The Vindicator (Youngstown, Ohio), July 29, 2002; Mike Murphy, “AAA Teammates Reunite in Hobbs WS Locker Room After 37 Years in a ‘Magical Experience’,” Roy Hobbs Baseball Inside Pitch, November 20, 2009; Roy Hobbs Baseball, “In Memoriam,” http://royhobbs.com/in-memoriam, accessed June 26, 2017; “Don Leshnock: Obituary;” Leshnock email correspondence, June 5, 2017.

13 Ibid; Tellis, Once Around the Bases, 289.