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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