I was thinking about Luke Easter the other day.
More years ago than I care to remember, I found myself improbably cast as the sports editor for a small chain of weekly newspapers serving the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. Not being very good at the job, I was constantly on the prowl for story ideas to augment the bowling scores, Little League roundups and high school swim team results that were my bread and butter.
"Luke Easter," somebody told me. "He hit the longest homer ever at Cleveland Stadium. He works over at TRW now."
TRW was a big factory just up the street from the newspaper office. I called, and eventually Luke got on the line. He told me what building he worked in. "Come on over," he said, and I went.
Luscious Luke Easter -- that was his real name -- was the first great man that I ever knew. During the 1930s and '40s, he spent his winters as a superstar in the Mexican and Caribbean leagues, coming home in the summer to play ball in the Negro League with the Cincinnati Crescents and, later, the Homestead Grays. On Oct. 3, 1948, he hit a grand slam as the Grays defeated the Birmingham Black Barons in what was to be the last ever Negro League World Series.
Along with Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin and Satchel Paige, Luke was one of the pioneers who broke the color barrier in baseball. Nobody knows how old he was -- researchers have still failed to come up with a birth certificate -- but his year of birth has been given variously as 1911, 1914 and 1915. His baseball cards say he was born in 1921, but that's clearly a lie. Even the place of his birth is in question, and various reference books will tell you it was in Jonestown, Miss. or St. Louis, Mo.
In any event, he was pushing 40 when he rookied in at first base with the Cleveland Indians in 1949.
Luke immediately became a favorite of the Tribe faithful, both for his affable nature and his ability to hit the long, long ball. He was the first man ever to put one over the centerfield bleachers at the Polo Grounds in New York City and his 477-foot blast into the upper deck of Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium was a mark never equaled.
A fan said to him once, "I saw the longest ball you ever hit." Easter told the guy that, if he'd seen it come down, it wasn't the longest one.
He played all or part of six seasons with the Indians, averaging 31 homers a year and batting a solid .274 with a .481 slugging percentage.
A broken kneecap had left him somewhat immobilized, and as a baserunner he was regarded as a liability. His lone Major League stolen base came in mythical fashion on June 15, 1952, when he, Larry Doby and Al Rosen mystified the Yankees with a triple steal that scored the winning run and left them shaking their heads in the Bronx.
At TRW, Luke Easter occupied one of those little plexiglass offices that sits out in the middle of the factory floor. He was the union steward, and earning far more than he had as the Indians starting first baseman a quarter of a century earlier. Standing six feet four inches tall and weighing around 250 pounds, he wore thick glasses and was chomping on a big cigar. We shook hands and he sat down behind an old steel desk.
It was 1977, and the Indians would finish fifth in the division, 28 games out of first place. I asked if it bothered him that banjo-hitting centerfielders and offensively challenged shortstops were making a million dollars a season.
"Any man that works," he told me, "should make as much money as he can make. And I don't begrudge them that at all."
He took a long draw on his cigar.
"What I do take exception to is the way they take themselves out of the game these days," he continued. "They have a hangnail or they stayed out too late last night and they can't play. It's guys like that we referred to as petunias."
Petunias. I'll never forget that. We got done with the interview, and he reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a postcard that showed him in a batting cage. It was dated 1958 and he was wearing a Buffalo Bisons uniform. I forgot to ask him to sign it.
The Indians signed Vic Wertz as their first baseman in 1954 and Luke was sent down to the Tribe's San Diego farm team. He bounced around, playing for Ottawa of the International League and then Charleston in the American Association before landing with the Bisons in 1956.
The Bisons were a team in transition. Formerly the AAA affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, they had become a community-owned club with no Major League source of talent. Washed up major leaguers and journeyman minor leaguers filled out the roster. And Luke Easter became the first black man to play professional baseball in Buffalo in the 20th century.
The old man did pretty good that year, leading the International League in home runs with 35 and RBIs with 106, and hitting .306 while playing in all of the Bisons' 154 games. The next year was even better, as Luke jacked 40 homers and batted in 128 runs while leading the league in walks, strikeouts and total bases. That was the season he hit one over the centerfield scoreboard at the old Offerman Stadium. Nobody thought it was possible, so Easter went out and did it again.
"Luuuuuuuke," the crowds would chant. People who didn't know thought he was being booed.
His popularity in Buffalo was such that he opened the Luke Easter Sausage Company, producing two varieties of the fabled links. Hot and extra hot. In the words of Buffalo baseball historian Joe Overfeld, "Never in the city's sports history has an athlete made such an impact on the community." Which is saying a lot in a town that's known the likes of Jim Kelly and Joe Mesi.
By 1959, the Bisons had hooked up with the Philadelphia Phillies, and the resulting infusion of young talent left Luke job-hunting once again. He didn't have to go far. The Baltimore-affiliated Rochester Red Wings were looking not only for a power hitter in their lineup, they wanted someone who could tutor their up-and-comers, particularly the young Boog Powell.
In limited play over the better part of six seasons, he banged out another 67 "Easter Eggs" along with 76 doubles and six triples. He was around 50 years old. When he retired, he went back to Cleveland and took the job at TRW. The most he ever made playing baseball was $12,000 a year, he told me.
There have been times, in the years since we met, that I've felt like I was tracing Luke Easter's footsteps. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New York, the scenes of his greatest triumphs, have all been familiar stomping grounds. While getting a beer at Dunn Tire Park a couple of years ago, I unexpectedly came across the bronze plaque commemorating his induction into the Buffalo Bisons Hall of Fame.
Once, when I was working at a small daily newspaper in Corry, Penn., I watched a Babe Ruth League game with an old-timer who told me the town had once boasted a semi-pro team of its own. On that very field, he said, the longest ball he'd ever seen came off the bat of Luke Easter when the Homestead Grays played an off-season exhibition game there.
At TRW, Luke was known as an all-around good guy. On payday, he'd gather up everyone's check and take them down to the Cleveland Trust branch on Euclid Avenue to cash. On the afternoon of March 29, 1979, just before Opening Day, a couple of punks approached him as he exited the bank and demanded the money. He wouldn't give it to them, and they shot him to pieces with a 12-gauge shotgun and a .38 Special revolver. A little while later, the city dedicated a Luke Easter Park on Martin Luther King Boulevard.
A crummy end for a great man, but then, is there a good end? The obit writers referred to him as a "gentle giant" and several found irony in the death of a black trailblazer at the hands of a couple of black hoodlums who probably didn't even know whom they were murdering.
Maybe it's because I remember talking to him around this time of year so many seasons ago. Or maybe it's because Opening Day is just a couple of weeks away and I know my beloved Indians might once again finish 28 games out of first place. I'm not sure why, really, but I was thinking about Luke Easter the other day.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||March 18 2003|