Luke Easter (baseball)

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Luke Easter
Luke Easter 1953.jpg
Easter in about 1953.
First baseman
Born: (1915-08-04)August 4, 1915
Jonestown, Mississippi
Died: March 29, 1979(1979-03-29) (aged 63)
Euclid, Ohio
Batted: Left Threw: Right
MLB debut
August 11, 1949 for the Cleveland Indians
Last MLB appearance
May 4, 1954 for the Cleveland Indians
Career statistics
Batting average .274
Home runs 93
Runs batted in 340
Teams

Luscious "Luke" Easter (August 4, 1915 – March 29, 1979) was a professional baseball player in Major League Baseball and the Negro leagues. He batted left-handed, threw right-handed, was 6 ft 4 in (1.93 m), and weighed 240 lb. The birth year listed here is drawn from census data. Easter himself listed multiple birth years ranging from 1911 to 1921 on different occasions, so some ambiguity as to the correct year exists.

Early life[edit]

Luke Easter was born in Jonestown, Mississippi to parents James and Maude Easter. His father was a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute.[1] His mother Maude died in 1922 and the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri where his father worked in a glass factory. Prior to that time, the Easters had been farmers in the Mississippi Delta. Luke Easter attended the same high school as fellow Negro league star Quincy Trouppe before dropping out in the ninth grade.[1] For the next few years Easter worked a variety of jobs such as shoeshiner, hat making, and for a dry cleaners.

Although Easter was good enough to be a professional player, there was no Negro league franchise in St. Louis. So, in 1937 Easter joined the top team in the area, a semipro outfit called the St. Louis Titanium Giants. The team was made up of African-Americans employed by the National Lead Company.[1] Players would work their factory job during the week, often with time off to practice, then play baseball for the company on weekends. Easter earned twenty dollars ($20) per week plus another ten to twenty on the weekends for baseball games.[1] Luke Easter was a very large man for his, or any other, time standing six feet, four inches in height and weighing around 240 pounds.[2] A left-handed hitting first baseman, he was known for towering home runs. During his five years with the Giants they fielded a very competitive team. Also featuring Sam Jethroe, they went 6–0 in exhibitions against teams from the Negro American League in 1940.

With World War II raging and America soon to enter the fray, Luke Easter planned to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1941. However, while returning from a trip to Memphis, Tennessee with Sam Jethroe, they were involved in an auto accident that left Easter with a fractured leg.[1] Luscious "Luke" Easter, serial number 37 368 805 was finally inducted into the Army of the United States at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis on June 22, 1942. Assigned to the Quartermaster Corps after basic training he was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, about one hundred miles southwest of St. Louis. Easter was separated from the Army at Fort Leonard Wood on July 3, 1943[3] and thereafter worked in the defense industry.

Following the wars end in 1945 Luke Easter had try-outs with two Negro National League teams, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Chicago American Giants. Both teams felt he was too big and awkward to be a good ballplayer despite his previous success with the Titanium Giants.[1] Manager "Candy Jim" Taylor of the American Giants elected not to sign Easter, but referred him to promoter Abe Saperstein—famous as the founder of the Harlem Globetrotters. At that time Saperstein was founding a new touring baseball team, the Cincinnati Crescents.[2] Saperstein signed Easter, and after a successful 1946 season, sold him to the Homestead Grays.

Negro and Major Leagues[edit]

Easter was a solid contributor to the Grays in 1947, and excelled in 1948. That year, he batted .363, tied for the league lead in home runs, and led the league in runs batted in. He led the Grays to a victory over the Birmingham Black Barons in that year's Negro League World Series, the last ever played. His success attracted the attention of Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, who purchased his contract from the Grays. A knee injury in spring training in 1949 cost Easter a spot on the major league roster at the start of the season. He started the year in the Pacific Coast League; despite a mid-season operation on the knee, continued to star. He again batted .363, along with 25 home runs and 80 RBI. This performance impressed the Indians so much that they called Easter up for a brief appearance at the end of the season, and early in 1950 traded All-Star Mickey Vernon to open up first base for him.

As a 34-year-old rookie, Easter continued his power hitting, ranking among the league leaders in home runs and RBI, and led the league in times hit by pitch. He continued to produce in 1951 and 1952, finishing 13th in Most Valuable Player voting in the latter year, but continuing knee and ankle problems, as well as advancing age, brought his major league career to an end. He played in only 68 ML games in 1953, spending part of the year at AAA, and finished his major league career with six games in 1954.

Easter continued to play professionally at AAA, even though the leg injuries had reduced his running speed to a limp. He played regularly for the Ottawa Athletics, Charleston Senators, Buffalo Bisons and Rochester Red Wings, and won the International League's MVP award with the Bisons in 1957. He ultimately retired as a player in 1963, at the age of 48, and worked for several years thereafter as a coach. His number (36) was retired by the Rochester Red Wings and number (25) by the Buffalo Bisons.

Notable home runs[edit]

As a player, Easter was best known for his powerful home runs, colloquially known as "Easter Eggs".[4] While with the Grays in 1948, he became the first player to hit a home run into the center field bleachers at New York's Polo Grounds during game action, a section that was 475 feet from home plate.[5] During his rookie season, he also hit the longest home run in the history of Cleveland's Municipal Stadium, a 477-foot blast over the auxiliary scoreboard in right field; the only other player to match that feat was Mickey Mantle, who did it in 1960. Finally, during his twilight days with the Bisons, he became the first player to hit a home run over the center field scoreboard at Buffalo's home park, Offermann Stadium, doing so twice in a month in 1957.

When told by a fan one time that the fan had seen Easter's longest home run in person, Easter is reported to have replied, "If it came down, it wasn't my longest."

Post-playing career[edit]

While playing with the Red Wings, Easter also began to serve as a coach, and after his playing days were over he continued in this role. Future major leaguers Boog Powell, Curt Blefary, and Pete Ward were among the players who credited Easter as a positive influence on their careers.

Murder[edit]

After his days as a coach, Easter returned to the Cleveland area and went to work for the Aircraft Workers Alliance in 1964, eventually becoming the chief union steward for at TRW in the east side suburb of Euclid, Ohio. On March 29, 1979 he was shot and killed outside a bank at East 260th Street and Euclid Avenue while transporting $5,000 from payroll checks.[4] Police reports indicated that Easter was approached by two robbers armed with shotguns and after refusing to turn over the funds, he was shot twice at close range.[4]

In 1980, Woodland Hills Park, in Cleveland's Mount Pleasant neighborhood, was renamed Luke Easter Park in memoriam.[6]

Historical analysis[edit]

Easter was generally well liked by teammates during his career, and most printed recollections by them refer to him as a good-natured practical joker. He owned and operated a sausage company while in Buffalo, and gave five pounds of sausage to every teammate who hit a home run. He was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 1997, with that body citing his "grace and dignity on and off the field" and his "legacy as a friend to the community, a generous soul with plenty of time for any cause."[7] He had already become a charter member of the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985,[8] and of the Rochester Red Wings Hall of Fame in 1989.[9]

In "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," baseball writer and statistician Bill James rated Easter as the second-best first baseman in the history of the Negro leagues, behind only Buck Leonard. He described Easter as "an amiable, fun-loving man who gambled, wasn't 100% honest, and had a temper," with "shoulders that crossed three lanes of traffic," but also claimed that "if you could clone him and bring him back, you'd have the greatest power hitter in baseball today, if not ever."

Sources[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f Christensen, Lawrence O. Dictionary of Missouri Biography, University of Missouri Press, 1999. Pg. 269
  2. ^ a b Krajcek, David (6 December 2008). "Death of a Baseball Great". New York Daily News website. Retrieved 24 August 2012. 
  3. ^ National Archives and Records Administration
  4. ^ a b c "Luke Easter’s Career and Murder in 1979". Misc. Baseball. December 16, 2010. 
  5. ^ Luke Easter, Myth, Legend Superstar; Baseball Almanac[dead link]
  6. ^ "Luke Easter Park". Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. August 25, 2008. Retrieved February 11, 2012. 
  7. ^ "Class of 1997: Luke Easter". Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. Retrieved February 11, 2012. 
  8. ^ "Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame". Retrieved 29 August 2012. 
  9. ^ "Luke Easter". Red Wings Baseball. Retrieved February 11, 2012. Archive copy at the Wayback Machine[dead link]

External links[edit]