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.

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