Happy (Luke) Easter

There’s a beautiful Easter story that goes something like this:

A smitten young man walked up to Luscious Luke Easter one day, late in the big man’s career, and nervously asked for an autograph. Easter smiled his big smile, chomped on a big cigar and scribbled his signature.

“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 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 be 101 years old. Or 104. Or 98. Easter was nothing if not adaptable. His friend Satchel Paige said that age is mind over matter — if you don’t mind, it don’t matter. Easter lived it.

For instance, he was 26 when Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck bought his contract from the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues in 1949. True, Easter could not have been 26; he had been playing professional baseball for a dozen or more years. Heck, It had been almost a decade since he and pal Sam Jethroe wrecked a Buick driving from game to game as part of a St. Louis semi-pro team. The Easter birth certificate — along with the date inside 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.

There were so many mythical sluggers in that time before Jackie Robinson crashed through. They were mythical because they were invisible, invisible because there was an unspoken oath between Major League Baseball owners to keep black ballplayers out. Josh Gibson hit home runs that boggled the imagination, but so few people saw them that in the end only myth can comes close to describing him. There’s the tale of Gibson hitting a ball in Pittsburgh that did not come down. The umpires waited and waited, but it would not reappear and so they called it a home run.

The next day a ball fell out of the sky in Philadelphia. An outfielder caught it. “Gibson,” the umpire shouted, “you’re out. Yesterday. In Pittsburgh.”

Turkey Stearnes carried his bats in violin cases and talked to them at night, demanded that they hit more home runs. How many did he hit? “I don’t count them,” Stearnes said. “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, used to have a standing bet with Josh Gibson over who would hit the longest home run of the game. Sonny Brown, the stories go, won his share of bets.

Luke Easter was this sort of mythical slugger … he too began in the shadows. He estimated that he hit 70 home runs one year while playing for Abe Saperstein’s Cincinnati Crescents, a traveling team in that time before Jackie. He crushed the only ball ever hit into the centerfield bleachers at the Polo Grounds. (“And the thing about it,” his teammate and future big leaguer Bob Thurman would say, “is that it was a line drive”). He hit a ball into the Susquehanna River. He led the Negro Leagues in homers, led the Mexican League in homers, let the Puerto Rican winter league in Homers, led the Venezuelan winter league in homers, led the Hawaiian winter league in homers.

And so he might have been destined to be folk hero like his predecessors.

But Jackie Robinson came along. The unspoken oath between owners was finally broken. And unlike Gibson and Brown and Suttles and the rest, Luke Easter had a second career. When he was 33 years old — the year Luke Easter claimed to be 26 — Veeck purchased his contract and sent him to San Diego to play for a Pacific Coast League team called the Padres.

Easter was the second African American to play in the PCL after a college-educated catcher named John Ritchey. He was the first African American in the PCL, however, 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.”

Easter was bigger than life, he had a mesmerizing way about him, and he had a beautiful swing. He could run fast in those days (“like the proverbial scared rabbit,” according to one sportswriter). Most of all: he hit baseballs impossible distances. Everyone wanted to just catch a glimpse of him.

Attendance swelled all over the Pacific Coast League. Sellout crowds followed him to San Diego, to Los Angeles, to Seattle. In Hollywood, they added a special grandstand and box seats for Luke Easter. In San Francisco, 5,000 people were turned away at the gate. In Los Angeles, several fights broke out as people tried to get into the stadium to see Easter play baseball.

In June, the Pacific Coast League was on pace to set an all-time attendance record for one reason: Luscious Luke Easter.

Well, you had to see him. Easter hit .400 the first month of the season even though he could barely walk after his kneecap was shattered by a pitch (a pitch that may have been purposely thrown at him; this remains a point of contention). He was a show, on and off the field. 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.

Every day, it seemed, he created another legend. He cracked three homers over the Gilmore Field scoreboard in Hollywood during batting practice. A few days later a lifelong baseball man from Georgia named Jo-Jo White, who had played in the time of Ruth and Gehrig, watched him mash two triples and told reporters he had never seen anyone hit a baseball that hard before.

In a 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. Easter blasted that one 450 feet to straightaway centerfield.

“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. First there was segregation. Branch Rickey found Jackie Robinson, Jackie Robinson turned the other cheek. Baseball became the national pastime in fact as well as name. End of story. Roll the credits.

The full story is much messier, as full stories always are. In June 1949, Luke Easter was called to Cleveland to have surgery on his knee. It was two years after Jackie had “integrated” baseball, but there were only four black players in the Major Leagues. Only two teams were integrated — Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers and Larry Doby’s Cleveland Indians. It would be five more years before even half the Major League teams had a black player, ten more years before Tom Yawkey deigned to let a black man wear a Red Sox uniform. Luke Easter was very much a pioneer.

And a beloved one: When the Indians called him to Cleveland for surgery, there was outrage in California. That’s how much people out West loved Luscious Luke Easter.. Daily stories 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. They were right to be panicked. 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.

“His hitting was no worse than (teammate and rival Mickey) 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.”

As it was, Vernon was part of the problem. He was a popular player who had led the league in hitting in ’46, and Easter did not feel comfortable splitting time. He hit .222 in 21 games without a homer in 1949. He got off to a terrible start in 1950 when finally, Cleveland general manager traded away Vernon.

Easter immediately breathed easier. He hit .348 and mashed 12 home runs over the next 34 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 last of those four homers was a 447-foot blast. Case Tech Engineers were called to measure how far the ball WOULD HAVE traveled had it not slammed against seats, and 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 hit 28 home runs and drove in 107 RBIs in 1950. That was pretty special for a rookie. But Tribe general Hank Greenberg was generally unimpressed. The negotiating sessions between Greenberg and Easter were legendary; Greenberg was a Hall of Fame slugger, Easter a relentless poker player, and the two dueled repeatedly. “He should be the most feared batter in the game,” Greenberg moaned to the press. “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 he hit 27 homers with 103 RBis — finishing fourth in the league in both totals. And then in 1952, Luke Easter had perhaps his most miraculous season in a miraculous career.

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 to Indianapolis.The remarkable baseball story of Luke Easter seemed to be at an end.

Well, Easter went down to Indianapolis and in 14 games smashed six home runs. 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 in 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.

Easter was named The Sporting News Most Outstanding Player anyway. His negotiations the next year with Greenberg are worth mentioning:

“You had a good year,” Greenberg conceded. “You 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.

Easter’s body could not hold up much longer for big league baseball. He broke his foot in April of 1953 and was never right after that.

“We soon realized,” longtime Associated Press sportswriter Gayle Talbot wrote, “that the huge Negro first baseman had fudged on his official age and was somewhere around the 37–38 bracket.”

The day that story appeared, Easter was 38. He hit a homer off Duane Pilette in St. Louis. Two innings later, he hit a second homer off Mike Blyzka. And that was the last home run of his big league career.

But it was not the end of his baseball career, not even close.

Easter 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 home runs sailed over the Offerman Stadium scoreboard in Buffalo, flew some 550 feet, and crashed on the roof of Irene Luedke’s house.

“I thought for sure someone had dropped an atom bomb on the roof,” Irene told reporters.

Two months later, Easter hit Irene Luedke’s roof again.

He kept hitting home runs in Buffalo until he was 44 — helped by a local ophthalmologist who determined that Easter needed glasses. Then he went to Rochester and kept on hitting home runs for another five years. He retired when he was almost 50 years old. Easter claimed then to be 53 — older than he actually was.

As mentioned, 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. If there was such a thing as “most home runs worldwide,” Luke Easter would probably have that record.

And people loved him. He showboated a little, smiled a lot, signed every autograph. The papers kept calling him amiable and affable and pleasant, words that drip with racial condescension, but Luke Easter did have the gift of being both modest and boastful at once. And what a hitter. And, as his teammate Al Rosen once said, he could hit a baseball as far as any man who ever walked on earth.

“Had Luke come up to the big leagues as a young man, there’s no telling what numbers he would have had,” Rosen said.

After baseball, 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. Easter was 63 years old, by the birth certificate in the family bible. Easter was carrying a 38, but one of the men shot him first with a sawed-off shotgun.

Luke Easter died in the street some 13 miles away from where he had once hit the longest home run at Cleveland Stadium.

But he would not want the story to end sadly.

* * *

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.”

This story, in slightly different form, appeared on NBC SportsWorld.