Shadowball 90: Luke Easter
|Joe Posnanski||Aug 31, 2018|
There’s a Luke Easter story that goes like this: A smitten young man walked up to Easter one day, late in the big man’s career, and nervously asked for an autograph. In Easter’s too-short life, he never turned down an autograph request or just about any other request for that matter. He smiled his big smile, chomped on a big cigar, and scribbled is signature while the boy looked up at him in awe.
“Mr. Easter,” the boy said nervously. “I saw your longest home run.”
Easter looked down at the boy with interest. He had mischief in his eyes when he asked: “Did you see it land?”
“Yes sir. I saw it land way over the fence and … “
And with this Easter smiled again and turned back to his autograph. “Bub,” he said softly. “If you saw it land, you didn’t see my longest home run.”
* * *
Luke Easter would have turned 100 years old this August. Then again, he might have turned 101 or 94 or or 104 or some other age because Luke Easter was nothing if not adaptable. His friend Satchel Paige often said that age is mind over matter — if you don’t mind, it don’t matter. Easter lived the formula. He was whatever age he needed to be in the moment.
For instance, he was 26 in 1949 when Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck bought his contract from the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues. True, Easter could not really have been 26 because he had been playing professional baseball for a dozen or more years; heck It had been almost a decade since he and his pal Sam Jethroe (who was destined to become the first black Major Leaguer in Boston) wrecked a Buick driving from game to game as part of a St. Louis semi-pro team. The Easter birth certificate — along with the family bible — stubbornly claimed his birthdate to be August 3, 1915, which made him 33 years old when Veeck finally called. But, as mentioned, Luke Easter was nothing if not adaptable.
Then, perhaps “adaptable” is not the right word. Perhaps “invisible” is better.
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
That was how Ralph Ellison began his classic “Invisible Man,” published just three years after Luke Easter signed. And Easter, too, was a man of substance. He had already crushed what, at the time, was the only ball ever hit into the center-field bleachers at the Polo Grounds. On another day, he homered into the Susquehanna River. He led the Negro National League in homers, the Mexican League in homers, the Puerto Rican winter league in homers, the Venezuelan winter league in homers and the Hawaiian winter league in homers. One year he played for Abe Saperstein’s Cincinnati Crescents, a traveling team that beat many of the best Negro League teams of the day. He hit 70-something home runs over the course of the season. But this, alas, is the point: Nobody was really counting.
There have been so many mythical sluggers in that time before Jackie Robinson crashed through. Josh Gibson was the most famous, of course. He was likely the greatest home run hitter who ever lived. But he, too, was invisible, and so his feats of strength are not recorded in clear and widely known statistics the way Babe Ruth’s and Henry Aaron’s are. They are locked in mythical stories, my favorite being that one day in Pittsburgh he hit a ball that did not come down. The umpire stared at the sky and waited and waited and finally declared it a home run. The next day, in Philadelphia, Gibson’s Homestead Grays were playing a game and suddenly, in the middle of the game, a ball fell out of the clouds like a pellet of hail and dropped into an outfielder’s glove. “Gibson,” the umpire said as he pointed at Josh. “You’re out. Yesterday. In Pittsburgh.”
Turkey Stearnes carried his bats in violin cases and talked to them on nights before he games, and he hit so many home runs that after being asked for a number so many times he finally told a curious reporter, “I don’t count them. I just hit them.” Mule Suttles, playing in Cuba one year, hit a ball into the ocean. Willard Brown was called “Sonny” because of how much he loved to play on sunny days, and he had a standing bet with Josh Gibson over which one would hit the longer home run, a bet that Sonny often won.
All of them were mysterious legends because all of them spent their careers shrouded in Ellison’s invisibility. Only Sonny Brown among them played in the Major Leagues, and Brown’s experience in the sunlight was short and bitter. He was signed by the St. Louis Browns as a publicity stunt the same year of Robinson’s signing in Brooklyn, and he was the first African American to hit a home run in the American League. He used the bat of slugger Jeff Heath to hit that home run and, Brown said later, Heath promptly broke the bat in a racist rage. The crowds did not come, and the Browns were a mess, and Brown got just 21 games in the big leagues before he was released and returned to the anonymity of the Negro leagues.
This is why Luke Easter’s story matters so much. He, too, had built a legend as a young man. He hit so many impossibly long home runs when he played for a black factory team called the St. Louis Titanium Giants that teammates would sit on the bench and argue what was his longest. The home run he hit in the Polo Grounds while playing for the Grays was said to have traveled 500 feet. “The thing about it,” said Bob Thurman, who would later become the second African-American to play for the Cincinnati Reds, “is that it was a line drive.”
But unlike Gibson and Brown and Suttles and the rest, Luke Easter had a second career. When he was 33 years old — he was willing to play 26 — Veeck purchased his contract and sent him to San Diego to play for a Pacific Coast League team called the Padres. Now, he stopped being a myth. And, in the plain view of America, he became something more.
Easter was just the second African American to play in the PCL after a college-educated catcher named John Ritchey. But he was the first African American in the PCL to stop time.
“When he takes his turn in batting practice,” wrote longtime Los Angeles sportswriter Frank Finch for The Sporting News, “the other players, the sportswriters, goober salesmen and fans rivet their eyes on the batting cage to watch Luke powder the ball with a free-wheeling southpaw swing that’s smooth as silk. I’ve seen only three other batters paid that singular compliment — Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Ernie Lombardi.”
“The big Negro,” wrote the United Press wire service, “who towers six feet, four inches and tips the scales at 240 pounds, is one of the greatest natural hitters ever to perform on the Western slope — and that’s covering a lot of territory because this is the place where such great batsmen as Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Paul Waner and many others got their start. But that’s the kind of company Easter travels in.”
He was big, he had a mesmerizing and beautiful swing. He could run fast in those days (“like the proverbial scared rabbit,” according to one sportswriter). And he hit baseballs impossible distances. Everyone wanted to just catch a glimpse of him.
This is documented. Attendance swelled all over the Pacific Coast League. Sellout crowds followed him in San Diego, in Los Angeles, in Seattle. In Hollywood, they added special grandstand and box seats just for when Easter came to town. In San Francisco, 5,000 people were turned away; so many fans showed up that special ground rules were put into place (If a ball hit a fan it would be ruled a ground rule double). In Los Angeles, several fights broke out as people tried to get into the stadium just to see Easter play baseball. In June, the Pacific Coast League was on pace to set an all-time attendance record even though overall attendance was down in the parks of the top teams. Luscious Luke Easter was, more or less, the sole reason.
He did not disappoint. Easter hit .400 the first month of the season even though he could barely walk after his kneecap was shattered by a pitch (the pitch that may have been purposely thrown at him; this remains a point of contention). Every other day, it seemed he was doing something awe-inspiring. The newspapers breathlessly reported that he bought the biggest Buick he could find — Luscious Luke loved big cars — and then celebrated by mashing a 420-foot home run that night. He cracked three homers over the Gilmore Field scoreboard in Hollywood during batting practice, something that must have been like watching Mark McGwire hit batting practice in 1998. A Georgia man named Jo-Jo White, who had played for a couple of World Series teams, told reporters he had never seen baseballs hit harder than two triples Easter hit against his Seattle Rainiers one game.
In one game against Portland, a crotchety old pitcher named Ad Liska — who had been hurling since the Roaring Twenties — repeatedly threw at Easter. Luke kept ducking and dodging until Liska’s final pitch caught too much of the plate, and Easter blasted that one 450 feet to straightaway centerfield. Supposedly, it almost hit Liska in the head on the way out.
In 80 games in San Diego, Easter hit .363/.460/.722 with 23 homers and 92 RBIs even with a busted kneecap.
“Ahm the type o’ gentulman,” the newspapers quoted him saying, cringeworthy spelling and all, “which feels embarrassed if, with the bases loaded, ah don’t get a hit.”
It’s easy and tempting to think of baseball’s integration story in simple lines with clear dividers. The story taught in the classrooms is that there was a gentleman’s agreement among baseball’s owners to keep African-Americans out of the major leagues, Branch Rickey chose to ignore the agreement, he asked Jackie Robinson to display the strength not to fight back and Robinson played baseball with such passion and brilliance that baseball fans everywhere found themselves inspired, perhaps grudgingly, and ready to admit that black players could be the equal of white players.
And there is much truth in that story, but the full story is much messier, as full stories always are. In June 1949, when Luke Easter was called back to Cleveland to have surgery on his knee, there were only four black players in the Major Leagues, and only two teams were integrated — Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers and Larry Doby’s Cleveland Indians. This was more than two years after Robinson had crossed the line, but baseball was not integrated. It would be five more years before even half the Major League teams had a black player, and ten more years before Hall of Famer Tom Yawkey deigned to let a black man wear a Red Sox uniform.
This is just to give context to 1949. As Buck O’Neil used to say, this was before Brown vs. Board of Education, before Martin Luther King Jr. had graduated from college, before Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. This was a less than a year after the Democratic Party split in two over what now seem to be mild and basic civil rights legislation proposed by president Harry Truman. Jackie Robinson’s story inspires to this day, but in truth, Jackie Robinson’s war was waged again and again all over America. The sensation that Luke Easter created on the West Coast in 1949 was a baseball pioneer story all its own.
When the Indians called him to Cleveland for surgery, there was outrage in California. That’s how much people loved him. Daily stories in the papers freaked out about how he might not return to the Padres. Pacific Coast League team owners shouted that his absence could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. Minor league teams were still fighting for some control of their players, a fight they would lose badly. Veeck had no intention of sending Easter back to San Diego. The Indians needed offense.
On Aug. 11, 1949, Luke Easter became the 11th black player in the modern history of Major League Baseball. He was 34 years old. Newspapers reported him being 27. He grounded out to third base in his first at-bat. His early days were marked by such failures; his body was a wreck. Cleveland fans booed him mercilessly. They had heard about this baseball wonder, and now in June of of 1950, the wonder was hitting .220. The Indians’ other first baseman — a one-time batting champion named Mickey Vernon — was hitting around .180. Still, Cleveland’s anger focused entirely on Luscious Luke.
“His hitting was no worse than Vernon’s,” The Sporting News reported. “But the fans were resenting the let-down in their expectations. The 240-pound giant always looked as if he should hit the ball out of the lot and when he didn’t the crowd reacted in an ugly mood.” Finally, Cleveland general manager traded away Vernon, and Easter breathed easier. He hit .348 and mashed 12 home runs over the next 34 games. The Indians went 24-10 over those games.
During the stretch, Easter had a two-homer game against the Yankees and followed it by hitting two more homers against Washington the next day. The second of the Senators homers was on a 3-0 count against Joe Haynes and it landed in the box seat area of Section 4 in the right-field, upper-deck bleachers. It landed some 447 feet away. Case Tech Engineers were called to measure how far the ball would have traveled — they came up with the tidy sounding total of 477 feet. It was by all accounts the longest home run ever hit at Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
Luke Easter ended up hitting 28 home runs and driving in 107 RBIs in 1950. That was pretty special for a rookie. He (along with teammate Al Rosen and Boston sensation Walt Dropo) became the first rookie since Ted Williams to hit 25 homers and drive in 100 RBis in a season. But Indans general Hank Greenberg was generally unimpressed. Greenberg was one of the greatest home run hitters in baseball history, and the way he saw it Luke Easter had the same ability. “He should be the most feared batter in the game,” Greenberg moaned. “And he would be if only he would pull the ball.”
“Lord knows I’ve tried to pull the ball, but I can’t,” Easter said. Maybe I’ll get the knack of it next year … But all I’ve done so far is strike out. I’ve never missed so many in my life.”
The next year, Easter did strike out quite a bit less. He hit 27 homers with 103 RBis — finishing fourth in the league in both totals. And then in 1952, the year of Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Luke Easter had perhaps his most miraculous season.
He was almost 37 when the year began. His legs were shot. He’d had so many knee injuries, he could barely stand some days. Easter’s lifestyle big cars and big cigars and big poker pots seemed to be catching up. As June ended, he was hitting .208 and he looked all but helpless. The boos returned. The Indians were floundering. And Cleveland management did what they had to do; they sent him down and went looking for another first baseman. The outfield was rearranged. The remarkable baseball story of Luke Easter seemed to be at an end.
Only thing, Easter went down to Indianapolis and in 14 games smashed six home runs. He seemed more limber; he even stole a base. Cleveland tentatively called him back up. And the assault began. In his first game back, at Yankee Stadium, Easter clubbed a long home run. He homered in back-to-back games in late July. He homered in consecutive games at Fenway Park, smashed a three-run homer off Allie Reynolds in New York two days later, hit two home runs at Griffith Stadium in Washington two days after that.
In his last 64 games, Easter hit 20 home runs, drove in 64 RBIs, and he led the Indians on one of the craziest pennant chases in baseball history. On September 3, the Indians trailed the Yankees by three and a half games. In the last 21 games, Easter hit .325 with seven homers, three doubles and (somehow) a triple. The Indians won 18 of those 21 games and made a desperate rush at the Yankees. Unfortunately for Cleveland, the Yankees responded by winning 16 of their last 20 games to take the pennant.
Easler was named The Sporting News Most Outstanding Player anyway. In his happy negotiations with Greenberg, he was happy to say that he’d hit 31 home runs …
“Thirty-seven home runs,” Easter corrected.
“No, you hit 31 home runs,” Greenberg said during.
“You forgot the six I hit in Indianapolis,” Easter said with a big smile. He loved negotiating for more money. It was like playing poker for him.
Easter’s body could not hold up much longer for big league baseball — he only played 74 more games for Cleveland after that 1952 season. He broke his foot in April the following year and was never right after that. “Why didn’t we realize (in spring) that Luke Easter was too old and too brittle to supply, day in and day out, the kind of power hitting the Indians would need to stick in the race?” longtime Associated Press sportswriter Gayle Talbot wrote. “We soon realized that the huge Negro first baseman had fudged on his official age and was somewhere around the 37-38 bracket.” The very day Talbot wrote that, Easter was 38 and he hit a homer off Duane Pilette in St. Louis. Two innings later, facing Mike Blyzka, he hit another. That was the last big league home run of his career.
But it was not the end of his career. Easter could not give up the game. He also could not stop hitting homers. “When the kids quit on me,” he once said, “I’d quit, too.”
He went to West Virginia and crushed 30 homers for minor league Charleston. He then went to Buffalo and hit 35 homers one year, 40 homers the next, and 38 more home runs in 1958. One of those Buffalo home runs crashed on the roof of Irene Luedke’s house on Woodlawn Avenue. “I thought for sure someone had dropped an atom bomb on the roof,” Irene told reporters. That home run had flown some 550 feet over the scoreboard, something that had never happened before at Buffalo’s Offerman Stadium.
Easter then promised to do it again and, two months later, he did.
There’s another wonderful story about Luke at Buffalo; he was supposedly struggling terribly when a local ophthalmologist determined that Easter was swinging late because he could not see. Luke Easter was fitted with a pair of glasses and his batting average jumped 100 points within the month. He kept hitting home runs in Buffalo until he was 44.
Then he went to Rochester and kept on hitting home runs for another five years. He retired when he was almost 50 years old. An irony: At the end, he claimed to be OLDER than he actually way (he claimed to be 53) because that sounded better. Well, yes, Luke Easter was nothing if not adaptable.
In all, he hit 269 minor-league home runs, 93 major-league home runs, countless more home runs in Latin America, the Negro Leagues, and ballparks where local pitchers tried to throw their best stuff past him. He was always beloved. He showboated a little, smiled a lot, signed every autograph. The papers kept calling him amiable and affable and pleasant, words that perhaps dripped with racial condescension, but Luke Easter was friendly. He had the gift of being both modest and boastful at once. And, as his teammate Al Rosen once said, he could hit a baseball as far as any man who ever walked on earth.
Bill James, in his Baseball Historical Abstract, has a category called “Could I try this career over?” where he talks about players who, had circumstances been different, might have been so much greater. Luke Easter fits the category about as well as anyone.
“Had Luke come up to the big leagues as a young man, there’s no telling what numbers he would have had,” Rosen said.
“The two most powerful men I ever saw at the plate were Babe Ruth and Luke Easter,” Bob Feller once said.
“I’ve seen a lot of powerful hitters in my time,” said a lifelong baseball man named Del Baker. “But for sheer ability to knock a ball great distances, I’ve never seen anybody better than Easter. And I’m not excepting Babe Ruth
“How many home runs could Luke Easter have hit?” Buck O’Neil asked. “Shoot. As many as he wanted.”
Luke Easter always had something going. He opened up his own sausage company for a while; he ran a jazz cafe in Cleveland called the Majestic Blue Room. He also went to work for an airplane company called TRW. He was cashing some payroll checks for TRW in March of 1979 when two men approached to rob him. He was 63 years old, by the birth certificate in the family bible. Easter was carrying a 38 for just such as possibility, but one of the men shot him first with a sawed-off shotgun. He died in the street some 13 miles away from where he had once hit the longest home run at Cleveland Stadium.
In the sadness afterward there was a lot of talk then what Luke Easter might have been. But there was even more talk about what a player he was.
* * *
There’s a Luke Easter story that goes like this. One day late in Easter’s remarkable 1952 season, Cleveland’s preeminent sportswriter Hal Lebovitz saw him sitting on the dugout bench just looking out on the field. Lebovitz walked over and sat down.
“Who invented baseball?” Easter asked suddenly.
“Abner Doubleday,” Lebovitz said. “Why?”
Easter smiled happily. “This,” he said, “is a good game.”