Big Luke’s Rochester legacy

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Photo courtesy Joe Territo Photography

My hometown of Rochester has always been a source of pride and comfort for me, and part of that mutual love between me and my native turf includes the Rochester Red Wings, the oldest continuously operating minor-league professional sports franchise in the country.

The Wings have existed in some form since 1899, and during the ensuing 117 years, the squad has seen some fantastic players and managers come through the ranks, including National Baseball Hall of Famers Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Walter Alston, Earl Weaver, Johnny Mize, Eddie Murray, George Sisler, Cal Ripken Jr. and Red Schoendienst.

Also on the roster at various points were stars like Ken Boyer, Don Baylor, Bobby Grich, Mike Mussina, Bill Virdon, Curt Schilling, Boog Powell, Justin Morneau, Mike Flanagan, Jason Kubel and Paul Blair. There was also football star Sammy Baugh, screenwriter Ron Shelton, and enigmatic folk hero Steve Dalkowski.

The Wings have retired only four numbers, though. Ripken is one (although he shouldn’t be, he played less than one full season in Rochester). Another is Joe Altobelli, a player/coach/manager/general manager/special assistant/color commentator who has become a legendary baseball not just in Rochester, but the entire International League. The third is owner/executive Morrie Silver, whose brilliant and innovative idea of selling shares of the team to the public and creating the landmark Rochester Community Baseball saved the franchise from oblivion in the 1950s.

The third Wings figure to have his number retired is Luke Easter, a Negro League slugger who, well into his career, went on to star at the AAA level before shining as a powerful slugger and first sacker for the Cleveland Indians after debuting as a 34-year-old rookie.

Unfortunately, by 1954, Luke’s bum knees forced him out of the major leagues and back to the minors. Because of that, his story, at first glance, seems like a tragic one – an immensely talented and jovial and loved by teammates and fans who got his big break so late in his career that he never achieved the potential that remained hidden in him for years. Luke Easter’s is a classic “what could have been” story.

Or maybe not, because that wasn’t the end of the tale of Luke Easter.

Luscious Luke made the best of his situation by turning into one of the greatest minor league ballplayers of all time. Even with wobbly knees that reduced him to a virtual limp on the basepaths, his sweet, sweet swing remained, and he ended up clobbering home runs like a kid half his age. His moonshots were stuff of legend, especially in Western New York with the Buffalo Bisons and then the Wings, and his slot at first base was halfway easy on his wrecked legs.

Luke was named the IL’s MVP in 1957 while a Bison, and, after finally putting his prodigious bat on the rack permanently in 1963, he served as a coach for several more years.

For his entire body of work, Easter was inducted into the International League Hall of Fame in 2008, and both the Bisons and the Red Wings retired his number.

It’s truly difficult to underestimate Luke Easter’s place in the pantheon of Rochester sports, a fact of which I was reminded when I attended a Wings game last week with my buddy and Sports & Leisure Magazine writer Mike Sorenson. On the left field wall of Frontier Field is a huge picture of Luke sporting his trademark eye glasses and a huge, hearty laugh, the kind that endeared him permanently to both fans and teammates – and just about everyone who met him.

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In addition, he was a charter member of the Rochester Red Wings Hall of Fame, his beautiful silver plaque hanging next to other baseball greats. As a 40-something, nearly crippled black man from Jonestown, Miss., Easter is a most unlikely legend for upstate New York.

And yet he is. And hall of fame inductions and number retirements still fail to do justice to Luke’s legacy in Rochester. In 1972, Larry Bump of the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper posed in a headline, “Luke Easter: Better Than Ruth?” Quoting Easter himself, Bump speculated that Luke could have bested the Babe’s 714 homers if given the chance.

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Dec. 27, 1972, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Then, in 1999, a fans poll named Easter the favorite player in Red Wings history, prompting longtime D&C columnist and Rochester fixture Bob Matthews to pen:

“Easter ranks only 10th on the team’s all-time list with 66 home runs, but he’s No. 1 in the hearts and minds of most Red Wings fans who saw him play – including me – and many others too young to have seen but admire his legacy.”

That was 37 years after the franchise sponsored a Luke Easter Day in which the International League president honored him with an IL plaque, and Sisler (at that time the team’s GM) presented the silver-haired slugger with a literal blank check as a reward for Easter’s amazing contributions. The accolades prompted Luke to say:

“I thought 1962 would be my last year, but after tonight I don’t know how I can ever leave Rochester.”

That comment reflects how much Rochester meant to Easter as well. There was, without a doubt, a high level of mutual affection. (Such a symbiotic bond existed between Easter and Buffalo. In fact, Luke even owned a sausage company there.) Easter often, in official documents, listed a Rochester address as his home, including the passenger registers below:

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(500 Norton Street was actually the address of Rochester’s old Silver Stadium, which served as the Wings’ home from 1929-1996, so that’s where Big Luke did his horsehide crushing. By the time I started going to Wings games in the early ’80s, Silver Stadium was, well, horrible. Iron girders blocked views at several spots in the stands, the concourse was grimy and a bit smelly, and one of the parking lots was so close to the stadium that several cars a game would lose their windshield thanks to foul balls The Norton Street neighborhood was in swift decline, making it treacherous on occasion to park on local streets and walk to games. While it was somewhat tough to see Silver go away, most Wings fans were ecstatic when Frontier Field opened up.)

Tales of Easter’s prowess and impact with the Wings have almost become canon and made their way into the national media. In 1964, for example, Pittsburgh Courier columnist Bill Nunn reported on Luke’s assumption of coaching duties with the Wings, as did other pundits in the African-American press.

But for me, one of the most incredible occurrences in Easter’s Red Wings career came in April 23, when he showed up a dictator. Reported the Norfolk New Journal and Guide:

“Fidel there, as was the president of the league, two or three ambassadors, some lesser officials and over 12,000 fans. But it was Big Luke who stole the show.

“Big Luke, of course, is Luke Easter, veteran infield baseball performer who is now the big bat swinger with the Rochester Red Wings of the International League.

“The former Cleveland Indians’ first baseman emerged as the biggest hero of IL openers Wednesday by belting a 10th-inning home run that gave the Red Wings a 4-3 victory over the Sugar Kings at Havana.”

Among a crowd of almost 12,490 was none other than Cuba Premier Fidel Castro, who, despite throwing out the first pitch and allegedly being greeted by “wildly-enthusiastic applause and cheers,” was outshined by Luscious:

“But Big Luke ruined it all, when he broke up a 3-3 tie in the 10th frame with a towering blast off Luis Arroyo, the third Havana hurler. …”

Ultimately, though, the Luke Easter saga does end with tragedy – after returning to and retiring in Cleveland, the locale of his fleeting major league exploits, he was eventually murdered in March 1979 during a hold-up as he was leaving a bank with $40,000 for his fellow employees at TRW Inc., where he was a union steward.

I wrote this article for the Cleveland Plain Dealer a couple years ago to mark the 100th anniversary of Easter’s birth. In the article I inaccurately described the time and situation of the murder, which you’ll see.)

When the news reached Rochester – it didn’t take long – my hometown took it extremely hard. The loss of one of the city’s biggest legends was a crushing blow to a city that had prized its baseball team for decades.

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March 30, 1979, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

But local reporter Bump found a silver lining in Easter’s death by noting that the slugger died a hero by working for his fellow TRW employees. Bump also interviewed a slew of journalists, baseball men and other friends of Easter, several of whom uttered touching elegies to Big Luke.

Towering Rochester sports journalist George Beahon:

“Luke always acted like baseball was doing him a favor for allowing him to play. He couldn’t wait to put on his uniform and get out there.

“He was a great ballplayer and a great person. He always loved people.”

Silver Stadium groundskeeper Dick Sierens:

“He was very popular on and off the field. It’s hard to imagine anything like this happening to old Luke.”

Longtime Rochester sports journalist Scott Pitoniak, in his book, “Baseball in Rochester,” wrote about Easter at length and included several vintage photos of the gregarious Wings hero, describing him thusly:

“Although Luke Easter was past his prime, few players ever captivated a city the way he did Rochester. A mountain of a man at 6 feet 4 inches and 250 pounds, ‘Big Luke’ was as exciting swinging and missing as he was hitting balls over the light towers. He was a gentle giant with an infectious smile and engaging sense of humor. The Wings acquired him in 1959 from Buffalo for the paltry sum of $100. He spent parts of six years with the team as a player, coach, and goodwill ambassador. It was one of the best investments the Wings ever made.”

Many current Red Wings fans – the young ‘uns – don’t know much, if anything, about Luke Easter. For them, he’s just a picture and number on the left field wall at Frontier Field, a name they hear in passing – maybe in the yearly program, maybe in chatting with the city’s old guard of hardball fans – that doesn’t register like it should.

I didn’t ever fully realize who massive a legacy Luke left in my hometown until after college, when I started learning about the Negro Leagues and the integration of Organized Baseball. That’s when I started taking to heart the many words D&C sports columnist Matthews dedicated to Easter. From what I recall, Big Luke was Bob’s all-time favorite Wing, and the writer spoke of and wrote about Easter with a reverential tone that, as I aged, finally struck home with me.

Luke Easter is indeed a Rochester legend. He’s the greatest Red Wing, and, I dare say, always will be.

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John Bissant: A muddy, shambled reminder of the past — and the present

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Walking through Carrollton Cemetery in New Orleans in 92-degree heat at 1 p.m. in August is rough enough. But doing it after several days worth of rain in the cemetery’s potter’s field — where little grass and no paved walkways exist and your feet slip and slide in the mud — is even more of a challenge.

So why would I do that this past Monday? Because somewhere in that section of one of NOLA’s many historic burial grounds is the grave of John Bissant, one of the Big Easy’s best baseball products, Bissant played for the Chicago American Giants and Birmingham Black Barons, among other teams, in the 1930s and ’40s before retiring from professional ball by the end of that decade..

In 1942, for example, the New Orleans kid joined with Jimmie Crutchfield and Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell in the American Giants’ outer garden to form what wire columnist R. S. Simmons deemed “one of the greatest combinations of fly ball chasers in the league.”

But Bissant wasn’t just a diamond of a player; his leadership abilities also garnered the respect of his teammates and other peers. In 1947 he was named the American Giants’ team captain under manager Quincy Trouppe, a role to which he returned in 1948.

One particularly twist of fate brought Bissant together with another Big Easy native, Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport, on the Chicago roster. Bissant was 29 and Ducky was just 32 when he took the managerial reins of the Giants. That pairing might be especially poignant — like Bissant, Davenport appears also be in an unmarked grave, this one in Holt Cemetery, which is almost entirely a potter’s field at this point. I’m also trying to find Ducky’s final resting place.

 

(I’m very much hoping to eventually check out several years of the Louisiana Weekly, NOLA’s multicultural paper, from the 1930s onward to discover coverage of Bissant by the local black press. The Weekly is only available on microfilm.)

Unfortunately, memories of Bissant are fading rapidly into the burgeoning haze of passing time. Younger generations, even those with intimate connections to the blackball scene in the Crescent City, are simply not old enough to have any memory of him.

For example, I recently asked my good friend Rodney Page, the son of legendary NOLA team owner/promoter/executive/entrepreneur Allen Page, who told me this by email:

“Concerning John Bissant, I did not know him nor have any family connections. I’ve heard his name in long ago conversations and know that he was also a member of the New Orleans Creoles when my dad owned the team. Lots of familiar names, but no personal knowledge or experience like Wesley Barrow, who I still think of very often.”

How much has the New Orleans community — including African-American residents — let John Bissant’s legacy slip away? When I looked through issues of the Louisiana Weekly (the city’s multi-cultural paper) published in the weeks and even months after his death in 2006, I couldn’t find a single word about his passing.

Bissant died in Houston in April of that year — he relocated there after that year’s devastating hurricane  — and was brought back to his hometown for burial in Carrollton Cemetery, which is nestled in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, just a few blocks from the Tulane University campus and maybe a half-mile from where much of his family lived during the first half of the 20th century.

The Bissants were clustered in the blocks just north of famed St. Charles Avenue — a thoroughfare known for its overhanging willow and cypress trees and ambling streetcar line — on Clara, Cadiz and Howard streets. (Later generations of the family shifted a bit to the east, settling in the Garden District, located adjacent to downtown on the east.)

Bissant seems to have been a source of pride for the Carrollton neighborhood; in fact, he has an entry on a New Orleans museum’s page on baseball in Carrollton.

So it was probably natural that the Bissants would be interred in Carrollton Cemetery. But’s it’s also depressing as well — founded in 1849 when the Carrollton neighborhood was its own city, the burying ground was one of the few Catholic cemeteries in the area to be sectioned off by race and by class. As a result, the vast majority of the African-Americans buried there were relegated to the “colored” section — which, as one might guess given the harsh socioeconomic realities of segregation, is described by modern cemetery employees as the indigent section.

The Carrollton Cemetery has a long, 160-plus-year history as one of the cornerstone landmarks of the neighborhood. The burial ground’s managerial duties passed through several institutions and officials, from the Church to sextons to volunteer organizations to, finally, the City of New Orleans. Right now, it seems like maintenance of Carrollton Cemetery is primarily a city duty, but doubtless many volunteer organizations and church groups lend a significant hand as well, as with every historic cemetery on the city. (Originally its own incorporated city — in effect, a suburb of New Orleans — Carrollton was annexed by NOLA in 1874, shifting control of the burial grounds as well.)

Residents Upkeep occurred regularly as well into the 20th century — a wooden shed was approved in 1903, and in 1912, efforts began to extend city water service to the burial ground.

On that note, Carrollton Cemetery is quite unusual for the Crescent City, too — it’s located on remarkably high ground (at least for NOLA), which allows underground burials along with tombs and mausoleums. But, alas, most of the underground graves are guess where? Yep, the indigent/colored section. The rest of the yard is graced with the type of tombs and structures that make “cities of the dead” New Orleans landmarks and tourist stops.

That became the case early on, too — in a November 1879 edition of the New Orleans Times-Democrat, the writer described the cemetery thusly:

“While life flowed into the graveyards in the other portions of the city, the neat graveyard at Carrollton, situated on Adams street, was visited by a large number of persons throughout the day and the evening. The floral decorations also compared very favorably with those considered most prominent in thus beautifying the homes of the silent majority.”

You want quirky and creepy? We got that too. Stated the March 8, 1885, Times-Picayune, after an unusual overnight occurrence at the cemetery:

“… some persons broke into the Carrollton cemetery and destroyed the tomb of F. Carrouleau. The tomb contained the remains of a man named Dominick Fosse. There was quite a sensation Carrollton last summer over the supposed appearance of Fosse’s ghost at Carrollton avenue and Fourteenth street, and the ghost business is said to have some connection to the strange destruction of the tomb.”

Zoinks, Shaggy!

While the most well known New Orleans historical figures buried in Carrollton are white, there have been several celebrated black interments as well. For example, in November 1896 the Times-Picayune reported of the interment in Carrollton Cemetery of a towering figure in the city:

“The colored population of the city mourns the loss of one one of its most intelligent and worthy leaders in the person of Rev. Stephen Priestly, one of the most prominent ant able colored preachers in the state, and it might be even be said in the south. … It was the largest [funeral] that ever was witnessed among the colored people of this city. It was a tribute of an appreciative people to a worthy man who has devoted all the energies of his life to the education and good of his race. For thirty years he has been their counselor and minister, and has figured conspicuously in every movement for their betterment.”

Of course, the paternalistic and somewhat condescending tone of that article does reflect the attitudes of New Orleans’ white population at the time, but it’s still significant that Rev. Priestly’s burial in a city-owned location would garner so much attention.

Unfortunately, it’s now 120 years later, and things are a bit different in Carrollton Cemetery’s “colored” section. There’s no more famous African Americans buried there, no more ballyhooed funeral services, no chances for the local black (and white) population to celebrate important figures in the ever-evolving social nature of the city.

Now, this “indifent” portion of the cemetery plat, located in the south corner of the facility, stands as a depressing chunk of a bleak history that, quite frequently, is a muddy, bleak, rubble-strewn mess. While the other (i.e. white) section of the cemetery picturesque and tidy — with massive, ornamental crypts and organized, marked rows — the indigent section is a crowded, haphazard mess composed of graves that are either sunken into the earth and marked with cracked, faded or toppled tombstones, if marked at all. In some places, the graves are squished literally back-to-back and side-to-side, or often at odd angles that leave very little, if any, room to walk around and over them without stepping on the graves. When I quizzed a staffer about Bissant’s grave, she said the “indigent” section doesn’t even have a written, mapped out layout. “It’s just empty space,” she said.

It’s hard not to be completely deflated and blown away by that statement. It’s just really, really depressing. quite.

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When I visited earlier this week Carrolltom Cemetery was devoid of any people (living ones, I mean) except a single, African-American employee who was power-washing the tombs in the white section. With no on-site office — the cemetery is owned and maintained by the city from downtown — and almost no tourists or family visitors at the site, maintenance workers are often the lone people in the facility. When I asked this employee, a middle- to older-aged African-American man wearing a sun hat and rubber boots, where Bissant might be, he pointed to the south corner. When I told him the plot number for Bissant’s grave, he said he didn’t recognize it.

“Maybe if you just walked up and down and see if you can find it …,” he said with a twinge of resignation. He knew history’s reality. He knew why things are the way they are.

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By this time, my tubby ass was already sweating as I shuffled down toward the “colored” section. It would by an exasperating task. I knew that. But I was determined to find John Bissant, slugger for the Chicago American Giants and local hardball legend — one that had disappeared in death.

The story will continue in my next post. Keep up the good fight.