The Courier comes through, but the statues are gone

I know the conference was several weeks ago, but this article about the event just came out in the New Pittsburgh Courier. I talked with the writer of the story, Michael B. Rose, who ended up doing a pretty good job with the article. This is from the Courier’s Aug. 27 article:

http://newpittsburghcourieronline.com/2015/08/27/negro-leagues-baseball-convention-held-in-pittsburgh/

Also, you might have seen this already — is was, quite understandably, a hot topic at the Malloy conference in Pittsboig — but the Pirates recently removed the statues honoring local Negro League legends. This is from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/brian-oneill/2015/07/30/Brian-O-Neill-Statues-honoring-Negro-Leagues-gone-from-PNC-Park-entrance/stories/201507300007

 

Talk about completely floored …!

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That’s me on the left receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from Mr. Roger Webb. I chose this picture because the “deer in headlights” look on my face perfectly sums up the state of shock I was in. Many thanks to James Brunson for the photo.

For about two weeks, ever since the Malloy conference in Pittsburgh, I’ve been fomenting a post about receiving the conference’s Tweed Webb Lifetime Achievement Award, one that talks a bit about Mr. Webb himself and why the SABR Negro Leagues Committee has an award named after him.

However, life has predictably gotten in the way, and I’ve been conducting a great deal of personal introspection and examination lately, so I’m just now writing the post.

I reflect back to the recent conference’s concluding dinner and awards banquet, and, for me, there were two very moving facets of the event. One was the beautiful tribute to the late Dick Clark, who co-founded the Negro Leagues Committee and for so many years had been its heart and soul.

The other touching moment came when committee co-chair Larry Lester — who has been mourning the loss of Dick Clark, one of his closest friends and biggest inspirations — also speak of traveling to St. Louis and meeting Tweed Webb at Mr. Webb’s home.

Larry spoke about how much meeting such an important and influential black baseball historian — someone who was so widely respected and admired by his peers for his tireless and often thankless work in preserving the legacy of the Negro Leagues and African-American baseball greats — impacted the course of his own life and the trajectory of his own incredible (and incredibly influential in its own right) career as a researcher and chronicler of the American pastime.

It made me wish badly that I could have met Mr. Webb myself and learned from the feet of the master, because he seems to be the type of man and type of person who had so much to teach and so much knowledge to impart to those who were willing to listen.

How esteemed was Mr. Webb? In July 1975, Atlanta Daily World columnist Chico Renfroe succinctly and properly described him as “Black Baseball’s historian.”

Mr. Webb’s close friendship with another St. Louis great, Hall of Fame speedster James “Cool Papa” Bell, whose life and career was almost peerlessly supported and chronicled by Mr. Webb, led the latter to be sought out by Associated Press scribe Butch John for comment and input in a July 1990 article about the Negro Leagues, especially the blackball activity in Mississippi, Bell’s home state.

Tweed always maintained that Cool Papa played two decades to soon; if Bell had come along after the integration of the Majors, he could have set base-swiping and run-scoring records that might very well still be standing today, Rickey Henderson be darned.

Last week I asked Larry and SABR Negro Leagues committee do-it-all’er Leslie Heaphy, via email, for their thoughts on Tweed Webb. Here’s what Leslie wrote:

“I never had the pleasure of meeting him like Larry did but have always heard of him and been aware of his work as a historian and story teller. He worked hard to provide info for the early Negro Leaguers elected to the Hall of Fame.”

And this is what Larry wrote:

“Meeting Tweed Webb was a major turning point in my sports life. As a life-long baseball fan, I enjoyed the surface knowledge about the game, and knew little more. Upon meeting Mr. Webb, he taught me how to research, how to interview athletes, and also how to separate their facts from hyperbola. On one occasion I watched him correct a player several times as the player tried to taffy the truth. He knew his stuff … because he had seen them all.

“Webb introduced me to SABR, and encouraged me to join the organization in the 1980s.  Joining SABR connected me with other like-minded aficionados of the national pastime. He was a humbly proud man with great attention to detail and emphasized accurate accounts of baseball history in every capacity.

“It was truly an honor to meet this unheralded St. Louis historian.”

What more can be said about Tweed Webb? That pretty much sums up how incredible a journalist, historian and man he was.

Add in to Webb’s immeasurable influence the heft of a lifetime achievement award named in his honor, to say the least I was never expecting to receive the award at the Malloy conference.

In fact, I spent much of the banquet taking notes on the proceedings, with the intent of reporting on the comments, presentations and awards, with nary a glimmer of thought to the prospect of receiving an award. That was especially true because just two conferences earlier, I had been thrilled and humbled to received the John Coates Next Generation Award. That, in itself, was extremely gratifying.

So at the banquet a couple weeks ago, I was taking notes on Larry’s introductory thoughts about Mr. Webb as a lead-up to the bestowing of the honor. As Larry paused to announce the name of the recipient, I had my pen in my hand and my eyes trained on my notebook in preparation of writing down the name of the winner.

So when I heard my name, everything kind of, well, went foggy for a moment. I glanced up from my notebook, and for a fleeting moment simply looked straight ahead and blinked me eyes. I then turned my head slowly toward the podium and almost blurted out with incredulity, “Umm, excuse me?”

Then I saw Leslie looking at me with a big smile on her face, and the clapping snapped me back into focus. But I was still a little physically unsteady when I got up from the table and walked slowly to the front of the front, my mind just repeating, “Don’t trip, don’t trip, don’t trip,” with one additional thought of, “Oh man, I really hope my fly is up.”

After that, it was all kind of a blur. I just remember shaking the hand of Tweed’s son, Roger Webb, thanking him profusely and telling him what an honor it was. We posed for pictures briefly, I shook his hand again, then scurried back to my table, where I took my seat next to — this is true — SABR Executive Director Marc Appleman and across from Pirates Director of Player Personnel Tyrone Brooks!

My tablemates congratulated me, and while I had to practically hold my jaw in place lest it fall to the floor, my thought was, “I don’t deserve this.”

I thought that not because I didn’t believe I have done good, worthy work as a journalist and Negro Leagues historian, but because I felt there are so many other committed, dedicated, hard-working and deserving Negro Leagues devotees, researchers and writers who have been doing this much longer than I have.

That was the truly humbling notion of the whole thing — that out of such a great number of extremely worthy people, the SABR Negro Leagues Committee chose me.

Because of that, I felt, feel and will always feel completely honored, grateful and humbled to receive the award, and my deepest and eternal appreciation and gratitude to those people who were behind the honor. Thank you very, very much.

But now, back to work. There is still limitless African-American baseball history to explore and discover, and I, along with all of my esteemed and wonderful colleagues, still have a challenging, thrilling and gratifying task ahead of us.

So, to wrap this all up, I say, “Let us all keep up the fight and continue to proudly carry the Negro Leagues banner, and see you in La Crosse in 2016!”

Mr. Paige and Mr. Veeck

Sorry for a little lag there between posts — I’ve been getting back in the groove after returning to NOLA from my little jaunt north. I have a couple more posts stemming from the Malloy conference — one on Tweed Webb later in the week, and this one today based on the interview I had with Robert Paige at the conference.

CLEVELAND - 1949. Satchel Paige shows Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, his new fastball grip before a night game at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland in 1949. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images) (baseball pro) (Decade 1940s) ** TCN OUT **

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PITTSBURGH — In 1948, around about the time fabled Indians owner Bill Veeck signed legendary Negro Leagues pitcher Satchel Paige to the latter’s first Major League contract, Veeck personally hauled Satchel with him to Paige’s hometown of Mobile, Ala., quite a trip for the pair.

Veeck’s mission? To solve, once and for all, how old Paige actually was. Because ever since Paige began his paid baseball career in 1924 with his hometown Mobile Tigers, and as his legend as a hurler supreme grew into almost mythical proportions, Paige frequently provided reporters and other members of the public with a birthdate range of almost a decade, anywhere from 1900 to 1908.

Paige did that, actually, largely because he didn’t know himself. In fact, that chronological slipperiness was part and parcel of the mythology surrounding the tall, lanky man whom many believe was the greatest pitcher of all time, regardless of race or era.

When they got to Mobile, Veeck rounded up the rest of Satchel’s family and personally accompanied them to the local health department to pull Satchel’s birth certificate and unlock the mystery of Paige’s birthdate.

The answer: July 7, 1906.

That made Leroy “Satchel” Paige just over 42 years old when he first took a Major League mound during that ’48 championship season for the Tribe. And it heaped massive pressure on the shoulders of a middle-aged man with proving the naysayers wrong and justifying Veeck’s seemingly madcap decision to sign a 42-year-old rookie pitcher whose arm had probably tossed thousands of games by then.

“The expectations to go out and perform had to be massive,” said Satchel’s eldest son, Robert Paige, last week as he was attending the Society for American Baseball Research’s 18th annual Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues conference, held this year in Pittsburgh. “I can only imagine.”

“The whole world is looking at you,” Robert continued. “You’re a 42-year-old rookie, and you’re expected to go out and compete with these teenagers and prove that you’re still capable and able.”

But, according to the son, his father — just like during his entire, 20-plus career in the Negro Leagues — never had any doubt in his abilities or his famous arm.

“There wasn’t a thought [about failure],” Robert Paige said. “There was nothing he knew more. He knew he could pitch. And when you know what you can do, you do it.”

Oh, Satchel did it all right. Over the last half of the 1948 season, Paige went 6-1 with an incredible 2.48 ERA with two shutouts and 43 strikeouts. Many historians believe Paige played a crucial role in the Indians’ World Series triumph that year, which remains the team’s last title.

Paige had repaid Veeck’s faith in him, and the experience bonded the two exquisite showmen for life. The pair was so close that when Veeck purchased a majority share of the St. Louis Browns in 1951, he once again inked Paige to a Major League contract.

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As a result of that lifelong friendship, while Robert Paige and his siblings heard their father frequently talk about the man who took a chance on him.

Robert Paige’s comments came while he was waiting in the lavish lobby of the Wyndham Grand Downtown in Pittsburgh to travel to PNC Park with other Malloy Negro Leagues conference attendees to watch a Pirates-Dodgers game.

Paige was the conference’s special guest, and it was a rare occurrence for the 62-year-old Paige, who for many years has been reclusive, private and reluctant to open up about his knowledge of the life and legacy of his famous father.

Robert and his sisters had long since placed their guard up against the type of money-hungry, attention seeking journalists, memorabilia dealers and other self-centered parties who had tried to gain the family’s trust, only to exploit and take advantage of them for personal gain.

But recently, thanks to the encouragement of Negro Leagues researchers and historians, Paige has slowly come out of his shell. However, he is still very careful about his public appearances and speaking engagements, as he told the audience at last week’s Malloy conference in Pittsburgh.

“I don’t do this,” he said. “This is not me.”

But as he spoke, Robert Paige gradually opened up and regaled the crowd with stories from his childhood, recounting the challenges, trials and joys of growing up — going hunting for rabbits with his dad and Hall of Fame third baseman Judy Johnson; playing in the backyard with another Hall of Famer, Warren Spahn, who loved his mother’s cooking; having breakfast with Negro League greats like Cool Papa Bell, Double Duty Radcliffe and Goose Tatum; being known simply as “Satch Jr.” into his adolescence; not fully understanding how important his father was until Robert’s sister showed him an entry about their father in an encyclopedia.

Or, as Robert revealed in an interview that evening, hearing about how high a regard in which his father held Bill Veeck, the man who rolled the dice on a 42-year-old pitcher, a gambled that paid off in World Series rings for owner and hurler.

“Our father spoke nothing but praise about Mr. Veeck,” Robert said last week.

A wonderful night

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From left, that’s my friends and two of my research inspirations James Brunson and Phil Ross, and that balding ginger on the right is me, face still somewhat frozen in shock. It’s after the wonderful Malloy banquet on Saturday.

OK, back in action and writing again after a couple days off. This post will be about the banquet Saturday night that concluded the 18th annual Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference, and I’ll try to talk a little bit about the presentations at the conference over the next day or two.

It was a night of wonderful words, good food, fellowship and, at least in my case, some surprises. My two roomies, Ted Knorr and Lou Hunsinger, staked out spots at a table in the very front of the room, not knowing that a part of it had been reserved for special guests, like Pittsburgh Pirates Director of Player Personnel Tyrone Brooks and SABR Executive Director Marc Appleman, both of whom, actually, were very gracious to say a few words before dinner.

“Every year this conference continues to get better,” Appleman told the crown of about 70. “It just goes to another level each year. Like Larry [Lester] said, it does feel like a family reunion. I feel like I know everyone here. This is something that Larry, Leslie [Heaphy] and this year George [Skornickel, chair of the local Forbes Field Chapter] just did so great this year, and the home office [of SABR] really plays just a supporting role.”

Brooks related to the group how eager the Pirates were to donate a great deal of time, effort and funding to help pull the conference together.

“I’m so pleased to be here,” he said. “I see the passion for baseball in everybody here. I’m completely blown away by the knowledge base here in this room. Keep up the great work you’re doing. This is just tremendous.”

Before dinner, a few awards and honors were presented, and it began with Robert Paige, the eldest son of the legendary Satchel, being giving a plaque in the shape of a home plate as thanks for his enlightening and delightful presentation and Q&A Friday. Also honored was Skornickel for his tireless efforts to make sure this year’s Malloy conference came together at the last minute.

Then we had some tasty grub for dinner — bistro steak with wild mushroom sauce and pesto rubbed chicken with tomato sauce — as a PowerPoint photo show honoring the late, great Dick Clark, who for so many years co-chaired the SABR Negro Leagues committee with Larry Lester and was the heart and soul of the conference in many ways.

Also taking place was a silent auction on some fantastic memorabilia and collectibles, as well as music by local keyboardist and singer Larry Beile.

After we finished chowing down, so to speak, more awards and recognitions were given out, including nods to this years college scholarship winners, high school seniors Jeff Boelter and Kari Whiteside. The Dick Clark Significa contest winner grabbed a second ring — Karl Lindholm of Cornwall, Vt.

The big awards began with the Robert Peterson Recognition Award, named after the author of the groundbreaking book, “Only the Ball Was White.” The honor recognizes outstanding research in the form of published books over the last year. This year’s talented twosome were William Plott, for his comprehensive and trailblazing tome, “The Negro Southern League: A Baseball History, 1920-1951”; and Jim Overmyer for the outstanding “Black Ball on the Boardwalk: The Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City, 1916-1929.”

Both books were published by McFarland Publishing, which specializes partially in baseball history, including dozens of releases about African-American hardball. Every year the conference is supported by McFarland, including the attendance of the fantastic Gary Mitchem.

The John Coates Next Generation Awards, which honor young, up-and-coming researchers, historians and writers, were bestowed upon Shawn Morris and Robert MacGregor.

The biggest, highest honor of the evening was the Fay Vincent Most Valuable Partner (MVP), named after the man many baseball fans, journalists and historians call “The Last Commissioner.” Vincent was always a tireless supporter of the Negro Leagues and did so much to increase public knowledge and understanding of black ball, including playing key roles, too many to mention, in getting numerous segregation-era African-American players in the Hall of Fame.

The award went to, and quite rightfully so, to Roy Langhans, who for decades has embodied the spirit and devotion to the Negro that Fay Vincent himself possessed so deeply.

A hearty congratulations to all the award winners for an incredible job well done. For more information on the doings of this year’s conference, go to the Malloy Web site, and for some great posts and pics of the weekend, check out everything on the Facebook page.

Well, there is one more thing I should add, and it’s something I just wasn’t sure how to approach because, umm, it involved me. At the banquet, I was so extremely humbled, honored and completely stunned to receive the Tweed Webb Lifetime Achievement Award. I didn’t want to brag about getting it, but I also wanted to note that I received it, especially because I was given it by Tweed Webb’s son, Roger Webb.

What I’ll do in my next post is to discuss Tweed Webb himself and why he and his legacy have been so crucial in the preservation of the memory and knowledge of the Negro Leagues. You’ll see why I’m so humbled to receive an award named after him.

 

There’s no chance we’d miss this

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“Welcome to the 18th annual Negro Leagues family reunion.”

With those words, SABR Negro Leagues Committee co-chair Larry Lester launched this year’s Jerry Malloy Conference yesterday morning bright and early at 9 a.m. at the Wyndham Grand Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh.

Then, this morning, my day began by meeting with Michael Rose, a reporter from the New Pittsburgh Courier, who had contacted me about doing a story about this family gathering here where the three rivers come together. When Michael’s story comes out in the Courier, you can be sure I’ll post a link to the story on this blog.

Thus, it’s been an eventful and quite exciting start to a conference that’s without a doubt a major highlight of my year every time I come, which now stands at four years and counting.

But, as we found out yesterday morning, this event almost didn’t even happen. In fact, I don’t think many of us here in attendance realized how close we came to not gathering at all this year.

As Larry told us in his introductory statements yesterday morning, the death of our longtime and beloved co-chair Dick Clark, who for so long was the heart and soul of the Malloy conference, hit everybody hard, but Larry especially took the news with great difficulty. Larry’s sorrow, as he told us, drained him of the desire and emotion needed to organize the conference by himself, nearly leading him to cancel the event for this year.

“I didn’t want to do it without Dick,” Larry told us. “With Dick missing, I decided not to move forward. I just didn’t think I’d be able to do it. Many of you knew him. He was a great guy, and there wasn’t a racist bone in his body. He’s the one who really put this conference together.”

Into the void stepped George Skornickel, the chairman of the local Forbes Field Chapter of SABR, who felt that he had to do something to help Larry out and make sure the Malloy conference soldiered on in 2015.

“George said, ‘I’ll do it,'” Larry said. “And I’ll tell you, he did it.”

Larry said it costs about $35,000 to put on a Malloy conference, and after all the registration and fees are in, the officials planning and hosting still have to raise about $25K of that to make it happen. But SABR members and other baseball historians and fans came through this year with donations to the Society home office in Arizona with all ranges of checks — $100, $1,000, you name it — and it happened.

There will be a tremendous presentation at tonight’s conference-ending banquet and awards ceremony in honor of Dick Clark, and you can be sure none of us will miss it.

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So far, the event has been a thrill, and I’ve gotten to see so many old friends — Larry, Leslie Heaphy, Ted Knorr, James Brunson, Karl Lindholm, Phil Ross — and meet a bevy of new ones, such as Miss Michelle Freeman, a Malloy first-timer, a native of Kansas City who now lives in suburban Baltimore and heads up the wonderful Leon Day Foundation, which promotes and honors the legacy of that legendary Negro Leagues pitcher and Hall of Famer. Michelle was also instrumental in starting up the brand new SABR Babe Ruth chapter in Baltimore.

Mr. Knorr and I are roomies at the conference for the third year in a row, and this year we’re joined by Lou Hunsinger of Williamsport, Pa., who thus far has been a sterling addition to our little room at the Wyndham Grand. Lou is actually the public address announcer at the Little League World Series every year, which is pretty darn cool, if you ask me. I must apologize right off the bat here to Ted and Lou for waking them up after 1 a.m. Thursday because I was writing my last blog post about Luke Easter’s time with the Homestead Grays at that ungodly hour!

I was also able to get my hands on my prized purchase from this conference — a custom-made Rap Dixon for the Hall of Fame T-shirt (size XXXL so it can fit over my way-too-large belly) from Ted:

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These fantastic comrades, plus the fantastic presentations, are what makes these Malloy conferences so special for me. As Larry said, “We have the best baseball minds in the country right here today.”

I’ll get more into the presentations themselves in a later post, maybe tomorrow (Sunday) evening, because there’s already been so many incredible ones, with more to come.

But right now I need to truly thank Robert Paige Jr., the son and eldest child of the great Satchel Paige, who made a rare public appearance yesterday for an hour-long Q&A session that was by turns both touching and uproarious. Robert, or Bob, is a towering fellow — he stands at 6-feet-8 — and one of the most gregarious and talented storytellers I’ve been witness to in a while.

Bob graciously granted me a one-on-one interview before he headed over to be honored at PNC Park before the Pirates-Dodgers game for an article I wrapped up last night for the Kansas City Star. As of now, the story is scheduled to appear in tomorrow’s paper, and I tried to capture the essence of Bob’s talk, his experiences growing up with the best pitcher in baseball history as his father, and what it’s like carrying on his dad’s legacy. I’ll post a link to the article when it’s out.

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University of Pittsburgh Professor Dr. Rob Ruck (standing on left) discussing his Negro Leagues documentary, “Kings on the Hill: Baseball’s Forgotten Men.”

I’m also looking forward to meeting with members of Jimmie Crutchfield’s family, who are attending this year’s conference. Crutchfield, a member of the great Pittsburgh Crawford teams of the 1930s, was the very first beneficiary of the nationally known blessing and foundation known as the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project.

Yesterday’s introductory comments also included a few words from SABR Executive Director Marc Appleman, who’s attending his fifth Malloy conference this year.

“It’s always a highlight of my year to come to it every year,” Marc said. “It’s great to see everyone. I see a lot of familiar faces. This really is a big part of SABR. Out of all the hundreds of calls we get to our home office, most of them are for the Negro Leagues Committee.”

On that note, I’ll humbly sign off for the evening and do my best to post something after tonight’s banquet, then discuss some of the presentations that were made this weekend in a post that’ll hopefully come Monday.

Luscious Luke, a centennial and Pittsburgh

luke

Coming to ya live from the Three Rivers, the Steel City, the capital of ketchup (or is it catsup?). That’s right, Pittsboig! The site of the 2015 SABR Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference. The presentation lineup looks pretty spectacular, highlighted by a Q&A session with Robert Paige, eldest son of the great Satchel.

I got to the hotel — the Wyndham Grand Downtown, no less — much later than I wanted to (late start from my hometown of Rah-cha-cha), so I was hoping I could enjoy the welcome reception more, but I just ran out of steam. But I’ll get back to some serious reporting on the conference presentations and seminars tomorrow.

But for now, I’ll do something Pittsburgh Negro Leagues-related tonight — Luke Easter, the man who swatted Herculean home runs and toted a wide smile and dry sense of humor but had his promising career derailed by almost-unattainable expectations and terrible knees.

Actually, my interest in Luscious — that was actually and truly his real first name — began waaaaaay back in my childhood growing up in Rochester as a Red Wings fan. The Wings have retired three uniform numbers in their long history — Cal Ripken Jr., Joe Altobelli and … Luke Easter, who finished out his pro baseball career with the Red Wings before retiring to Cleveland, where he played for the Indians for years.

But at the time, when I was a kid at Silver Stadium, I had no idea what the Negro Leagues even were, let alone that Luke Easter played and starred in them. With whom did he star in the Negro Leagues?

The Homestead Grays right here in Pittsburgh.

But starring in the Negro Leagues — which, by the time Easter got to Homestead in 194y, were already in the initial stages of becoming a feeder system to the Major Leagues — also brought huge expectations to Easter, about whom I just did this story for cleveland.com earlier this week on Easter’s roots in the Mississippi Delta:

http://www.cleveland.com/tribe/index.ssf/2015/08/luke_easter_looking_back_at_th.html

The article was timed for what would have been Luke’s 100th birthday, and it was a fun, challenging search for his ancestry. However, regardless of the enjoyment I got from that challenge, the end of the Luke Easter story — his murder at the hands of cowardly robbers — remains depressingly tragic.

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But in this post, as I prepare to enjoy the annual Malloy conference in Pittsburgh this year, will center on Luke’s happy days in Homestead.

Luke Easter moved with his family from rural Mississippi to urban St. Louis when he was a teenager, and the St. Louis sandlots are where Luke truly cut his baseball teeth and, in so doing, earned the attention of Cum Posey and the Homestead Grays before the ’47 season and after Easter’s successful stint the year before with the barnstorming Cincinnati Crescents.

Unfortunately, that’s when the whopping expectations began to be piled onto Luke Easter’s shoulders. Why? Because the legendary slugger and future Hall of Famer Josh Gibson died in January 1947, and when the Poseys zeroed in on Luke, many observers — regardless of whether Cum Posey and his team did as well or not — immediately viewed Luke Easter as Gibson’s “replacement” or “the next Josh Gibson,” something that was both horribly unfair to Luke by also dishonoring Josh and his legacy.

Why do I think many people viewed Easter as the next Josh Gibson? Because the April 19, 1947, issue of the New York Amsterdam News ran a picture of a swinging Easter underneath a header saying, “Another Josh Gibson?” The text under the photo read the text:

“Luscious Easter, heavy-hitting Homestead Grays first baseman, who is believed to be another Josh Gibson with the stick. He’ll be in the lineup Sunday against the Black Yankees at the Stadium.”

So right off the bat, so to speak, the game was stacked against Easter as soon as he was introduced to the Negro Leagues big time. AN columnist Joe Bostic wrote:

“Big Luke Easter, the new home run threat who comes here Sunday with the Grays, is being billed as the man most likely to fill Josh Gibson’s batting shoes.”

Luke, however, almost heroically came through, at least at first — in that first exhibition game against the Black Yankees, Easter clouted a round-tripper. Wrote Pittsburgh Courier reporter Ric Roberts on May 3, 1947:

“Off to an explosive start, the 6,000 fans saw Luke Easter live up to advance billing when, in the first frame of the opener, he sledged an awesome 435-foot home high into the left-field stands …”

Easter continued to clobber the horsehide, continuing to both build on mighty expectations and to attract unfair comparisons to Gibson. In July, Luke slugged a 490-liner into the stands in a contest against the New York Cubans at the Polo Grounds, and Amsterdam News sports scribe Dan Burley wrote thusly:

“If the six-foot 230 pound … Easter isn’t under scrutiny by major league scouts, they’re not on the job. …

“Old-time park attendants at the Polo Grounds and fans who have been Giants followers over the years could not recall a similar clout. Josh Gibson, the late Homestead Grays home run king, was credited with hitting the ball 400 feet for home runs, but no one, and veteran PG patrons included major league players, had ever put a ball in the right center field bleachers.”

A week later, historically lauded Baltimore Afro American sports editor Sam Lacy authored a gushing, lengthy feature story on Easter under the head, “Luke Easter: NNL Home-Run King Crazy About Baseball.”

Lacy noted that Easter had just clubbed eight homers in the previous 10 days and had amassed, between league and non-league games, about 40 on the season, according to Grays management.

But Luke, as then quoted by Easter, tried to be modest in evaluating his own achievements, perhaps hoping to play down the enormous expectations that were still piling on his shoulders. When Lacy asked if Easter knew how many circuit clouts he had accumulated, Luke said, “Oh, I don’t know. I just hit ’em, let somebody else count ’em.”

In a sidebar story, Lacy wrote:

“Veteran baseball minds see a bright future for the Homestead Grays’ Luke Easter, despite the fact that, at 28, the big homer-hitter is considered old for a rookie.

“Says Manager Vic Harris: ‘He seems to have what it takes. He’s got a lot of power, isn’t easily fooled, and will break up a game at a moment’s notice. Best of all, he seems to be improving with each game.’

“Says Buck Leonard, captain and road secretary: ‘You never know when a newcomer is going to get the idea he’s a star and lose his value to a ball club.

“‘But with Luke, you don’t have to fear that. He seems to be taking all his successes in stride. I think he can go far.'”

Easter then again came under Joe Bostic’s gaze in September before the Grays’ big showdown against the mighty Newark Eagles — and Luke’s home run rival that year, Monte Irvin — when the reporter wrote:

“Long Luke Easter, the loping picket man came to the Grays after a a sensational fencebusting career with the Cincinnati Crescents and promptly stepped into the massive homerun shoes of the late Josh Gibson. It was a big order to fill but Luke has done it with a vengeance, having already poled thirty six circuit blows. …”

So where do you go from there if you’re Luke Easter? Physically and geographically, you follow up your 1947 NNL rookie campaign by swatting .363, tying for the league lead in home runs and leading the NNL in RBIs for the Grays in their ’48 Negro League World Series championship season. Then Bill Veeck signs you up, you spend a season crushing the ball in the minors’ Pacific Coast League, and you join the big-league Tribe for the 1950 season.

But what about metaphysically? What do you do for an encore with such a heavy burden on your baseball soul? How do you possibly continue to handle the massive pressure that came with being the next sure thing and a can’t-miss Major League superstar?

Well, we might never know what went through Luke Easter’s head when he arrived in Cleveland after landing on the big leagues’ radar in Pittsburgh with the Homestead Grays. By all accounts, including by longtime fans and reporters in Rochester who witnessed Easter’s magical minor-league curtain call in my hometown firsthand, you handle it with grace, dignity, a hearty laugh and a big heart.

easterlukebio

But no matter how willing the spirit is, the flesh will inevitably and gradually weaken, and when you’re a Major League rookie at an aging 34, and when your knees deteriorate into powder over the course of many seasons, what your mind and soul want to do simply can’t square themselves with what your disintegrating body can — or can’t — do.

Luke Easter had a solid first couple seasons with the Indians, but he faded quickly, and by the end of 1954 he was out of the Majors. What followed were numerous near-mythical seasons as a beloved gentle giant in the minors in Buffalo and Rochester, a pointless, tragic death at the barrel of shotgun, and a posthumous induction into the International League Hall of Fame in 2008.

Every time I come back to Rochester during the baseball season, I try to catch a Wings game at Frontier Field. As I sit in the stands there, I can’t help by gaze in respect and admiration at the white baseball painted on the outfield fence, emblazoned with “Easter” and his Rochester number, 36.

But I’m also saddened, because Luke Easter’s career — and indeed, very life, because baseball was his life, in many respects, as Lacy noted all those decades ago — was truly one of blood, sweat and tears. He had to fight to catch a break at the the beginning, being rejected by the Kansas City Monarchs and the Chicago American Giants before being taken up by the traveling Crescents and then the Grays.

At the time, many viewed him as a flawed player because he was “too big” and “too awkward” to make it in the pro game, and his trials and tribulations in the American pastime only deepened and extended from there. Luke Easter, in the course of a career, first defied expectations, then had them heaped upon him, then ultimately couldn’t meet those expectations in the end through no fault of his own.

That, at least to me, is the definition of tragedy worthy of Sophocles.

The other trailblazing Walker

Again, nothing fresh for the blog … As I noted last time, lots and lots of deadlines, and getting ready for a nine-day trip north to visit my maternal unit and attend the Malloy conference.

And speaking of, my plan is to start doing some heavy blogging again once I get to the conference (and hopefully if I’m not coming down with a cold) and get into the presentations and, hopefully, a few interviews. That’ll hopefully start up Thursday.

In the meantime, here’s an article that just came out this week (I think) in the Oberlin Alumni magazine about Weldy Walker, Fleet Walker’s younger bro …

http://oberlin.edu/alummag/summer2015/issue/?page=28