Luke Easter: A legend of Halberstamian proportions

Luke Easter, most likely from 1952, in a picture taken for his 1953 Bowman card.

Editor’s note: Here’s an excellent guest submission from good friend Alex Painter, who recently published a book about the Negro Leagues in Richmond, Ind., which he and I discussed here. Alex has also written a book about the great Luke Easter, who is the subject of Alex’s guest article here. Enjoy the tale of “Big Luke”! (Alex also recently contributed this article about Bill Holland to this blog.)

I never met Luke Easter. Stated more aptly, I never had the chance to meet Luke Easter. He was tragically killed almost a decade before I was born. Even so, I think about him often. Like, every day. I think about Luke Easter every single day.

Sometimes, it even leads to striking up a correspondence with Rochester, N.Y., native and fellow Easter fanatic Randy Macpherson. We talk fairly frequently, and share many commonalities, but our affinity for Easter is without question our strongest tie. Now, Randy actually watched Easter play when he was growing up in Rochester, so I get the distinct pleasure of hearing his firsthand stories.

I know we aren’t the only Easter fanatics around (I’ve had the opportunity to meet quite a number of them), but I still like to fancy our little duo as something of a partnership – one tasked with keeping the memory and legacy of our hero alive. 

Sitting idly during a break at work conference, I fired off a question for contemplation to my compadre — how many home runs would a healthy Luke Easter have been able to hit if no color barrier existed in Major League Baseball? I believe we settled on “almost 500.”

Alex Painter, right, with his friend, Randy Macpherson, another Luke Easter fan, at Luke Easter Day in Cleveland. Randy is holding a Rochester Red Wings Luke Easter jersey.

Yet another time, Randy shared with me an anecdote from the early 1960s, when Easter was (literally) on the last of his legs, still suiting up for the minor-league Rochester Red Wings in his late 40s. The Columbus Jets were in town, and young Randy was in the stands.

In the late innings, a relief pitcher came in for the Jets. After the reliever worked a quick strikeout and induced a weak grounder, the swaggering Luke Easter came up to bat, settling in the left-hand batter’s box. The pitcher, as Randy remembers, looked smugly at Easter, seemingly viewing his presence as nothing more than a sideshow. Maybe even thinking why he had to take the time and energy to pitch to this man, the equivalent of a geriatric on a professional baseball diamond.

Easter, taking a mighty cut at the first pitch, came up empty. Undeterred, Easter takes a mighty cut at the next pitch as well. The ball catapults off the aging slugger’s bat, landing safely in the right field stands for a home run. “’Big Luke’ could still rake,” Randy fondly remembered nearly six decades after the fact. 

For Luke Easter, who was the 11th baseball player to break Major League Baseball’s long-observed and vile color barrier, the round-tripper was unequivocally his calling card. He hit them everywhere, by the hundreds, and they were the longest anyone had ever seen. His 477-foot shot at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium was the longest home run in the field’s history. He was the only player to clear the center field scoreboard at Buffalo’s Offermann Stadium. Folks, this constituted a 500-foot blast … and he did it twice, two months apart! I should probably note he was 42 years old when the trick was turned.

So how many home runs did Easter hit? Hell, he didn’t even know – “I hit ’em, and forget ’em,” he’d famously reply when asked. He did, however, have a good sense of how far his furthest one had traveled. After being told by one of his adoring child fans that he had seen his longest home run, Easter bent down at the waist, and with a twinkle in his eye, gently informed the youth, “Bub, if you saw it land, you didn’t see my longest home run.”

However, if you were to ask me the very same question — how many homers Easter hit in his career — I’d have a fairly specific answer for you: 635, but with an addendum. Luke Easter hit at least 635 home runs; all of those are recorded and counted, but in all likelihood he clubbed more. Between stints in the Negro Leagues, Hawaiian Fall League, Pacific Coast League, Venezuelan Winter League, Puerto Rican Winter League, Mexican Winter League, American Association, International League and, of course, with the Cleveland Indians, counting all contests played, Luke Easter hit at least 635 home runs.

None of these recorded home runs were hit until he had reached the 31st year of his life.

I had the distinct pleasure of writing a biography on Easter, published in 2018, titled Folk Hero Forever: The Eclectic, Enthralling Baseball Life of Luke Easter. I believe Easter’s numbers speak for themselves – once you have a full grasp of them, that is. I also believe if the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was as equitable as I am sure they’d like to think, Easter should absolutely have a plaque adorning the walls.

However, I couldn’t shortchange the capturing of the man’s aura and magical presence on and off the baseball diamond. How much everyone adored “Big Luke.” How kind and giving he was. Just how improbable his entire baseball career seemed, literally, from Day One. 

His life and career seem almost Shakespearian when looking at its entirety, or, at the very least, thrillingly episodic. While recently reading a book from one of my favorite baseball writers, I couldn’t help but constantly think about my hero.

********

The summer of 1949 as it pertains to baseball has been forever immortalized by the late David Halberstam, possibly one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His book, Summer of ’49, written 40 years after the fact, is an expertly-told treatise on the memorable 1949 pennant race between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, the rise of a classic rivalry, as well as a character study on the titanic figures involved in one of the most bitter battles for the American League crown in baseball history.

Halberstam’s voice on the events is dripping with authenticity, perhaps even at times a boyish romanticism. Of course, you’d expect nothing less from a generational writer, but this one wasn’t even fair – he was a 15-year-old coming of age in New York City that very summer, watching the events unfold himself as an adolescent. The result is a classic tale that rests in the ever-growing pantheon of baseball books. 

Now, if Halberstam had grown up on the other side of the country — let’s say San Diego — but all the other factors were the same and he was again penning an account of his experience with the 1949 season, he obviously wouldn’t be writing about the aging “Yankee Clipper,” Joe DiMaggio, battling off salvo after salvo from a Red Sox team led by “The Splendid Splinter” Ted Williams, who was firmly in the prime of his career.

No, Halberstam would be detailing how, all of the sudden, it was nearly impossible to find a seat at Lane Field, the home diamond of the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League in 1949. Hell, he would have most certainly relayed how it got to the point where folks were lining their cars up around the stadium fence, even standing on their hoods for a better view, craning their necks, just to watch the Padres take pregame batting practice. 

Halberstam, being a youngster at the time, may have written about the throngs of young boys, among them future baseball Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson, crowding around holes and cracks in the stadium fence, taking turns squinting their eyes through them, just to catch a glimpse of the action.

Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1949

Well, in actuality, the sudden demand and hubbub surrounded just one Padre — new, gigantic, former Negro Leagues first baseman Luke Easter. Standing a hulking 6-foot-4 and tipping the scales at 240 sinewy pounds of raw power, Easter certainly had a presence on the baseball diamond, to say the least. He was unwaveringly confident, yet always kind. Even through his extraordinary affability, his irresistible smile, make no mistake — Easter was not showing opposing pitchers any mercy in his first season of “organized baseball.”

Easter was the absolute toast of the city. “Brother Easter has to be seen to be appreciated,” Frank Finch of the Los Angeles Times wrote shortly after Easter got into town. “His shoulders are so broad that when he wears one of those racy pinstripe suits you think, at first, that he forgot to remove the coat hanger.”

Finch continued:

“Easter is a St. Louis boy, and he’s just as much of a showboat as the old sidewheelers that used to steam up and down the Mississippi … He sports a diamond ring that looks like a headlight on the Santa Fe Chief, [and] is also the owner of one of the longest loudest Buicks ever built.”

Luke laid it on pretty thick; he even asked teammate Artie Wilson, a shortstop and a fellow former Negro Leaguer, to drive the Buick up and down the streets while Easter sat in the back, to make it look like he had a personal driver. Easter would wave to folks, stopping off at the sandlots to give children some batting tips and to sign autographs. Always having a soft spot for children, it seemed like he signed a neighborhood’s worth of autographs every time he stepped out of the Buick. 

Unfortunately, given the focus of Halberstam’s work, Easter garners nary a mention in Summer of ’49. However, it was Easter who took 1949 by brute force, the same manner in which the ball was blistering off his bat, safely landing on the other side of the seven-foot fences at Lane Field. This included one that was slugged over the scoreboard in center field, some 500 feet from home plate. It has been written, perhaps apocryphally, that on that particular blast the pitcher actually ducked, thinking it was a shot back up the box, destined to be a screaming line drive single. Imagine his incredulity when he shot up off the grass only to see a triumphant Easter circling the bases — and probably flashing the pitcher a cunning smile, as if he’d just performed a magic trick on the hapless hurler.

Easter had an extraordinary path to even arrive at the 1949 minor-league baseball season. 

He was born in 1915 on the Mississippi Delta, an area of the country that became much more famous for producing blues musicians than baseball players, but when Luke was 9, his family moved to St. Louis as part of the Great Migration in an attempt to find better-paying jobs and to outrun the South’s widespread Jim Crow laws.

Easter came of age during the Great Depression, and worked odd jobs shining shoes and pressing suits at a dry cleaner. He fell in love with the baseball culture of St. Louis during the 1920s and ’30s. Though he and his brother didn’t have any money for proper baseball equipment, it is said that young Luke developed his batting eye by taking cuts at bottle caps pitched by his brother with a broomstick handle. 

In the mid-1930s, Easter began working for the Titanium Pigment Company and quickly began starring on the company’s baseball team, the Titanium Giants. His power at the plate was absolutely unmistakable. It was said that his teammates would sit on the bench long after the game was over, arguing about which one of Easter’s home runs traveled the farthest. 

Inexplicably, Easter never really got a chance to play in the Negro Leagues during this time. 

In 1941, World War II broke out, and Easter was drafted into the army the following year. Easter, who was still recovering from injuries suffered in a 1941 car accident, was honorably discharged and entered back into civilian life. He spent the remainder of the war working in a war-chemical plant, a naval shipyard and also as an evening security guard. 

Sacramento Bee, May 25, 1949

Purportedly, between 1942 and 1945, when Easter was 27-through-30 years old — ages typically not considered the prime of a baseball career — he did not play a single game of organized ball. Not a single game. 

Serendipity intervened when Easter was noticed while playing in a St. Louis softball tournament in early 1946. He was then invited to try out for the Cincinnati Crescents, the equivalent of a Triple-A Negro Leagues team, owned by Abe Saperstein (who also famously owned the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team). He made the team outright during its spring training in New Orleans

Finally, in 1946, at nearly 31 years of age, Luke Easter was playing professional baseball for the first time in his life. Though he had taken most of the wartime years off from baseball, his power at the plate awoke from any perceived slumber. The Sporting News reported that Easter hit .415 at the plate with 152 RBIs. It has also been widely reported in multiple contemporary accounts that he hit 74 home runs during the season. When Saperstein took his Crescents to Hawaii for the island’s fall league, Luke led the circuit in round trippers.

Easter’s late-blooming, upstart professional baseball career received another break, albeit as the result of a tragedy. On Jan. 20, 1947, famed Homestead Grays slugger Josh Gibson died of a stroke at the age of 35. The Grays, needing a new power hitter, one who could prove to have some box office pull, turned to Luke Easter. With future Hall-of-Fame first baseman Buck Leonard already installed at the first sack, Easter learned left field. Grays ownership even handed him the No. 20 jersey, Gibson’s old number, as a not-so-subtle reminder of his expectations as Gibson’s heir apparent. 

And he delivered. According to Collier’s Magazine, counting all contests, Easter hit 43 home runs in 1947 and another 58 in 1948. He did it all with a swagger that wouldn’t quit. 

Once, according to Baltimore Elite Giants catcher Frazier “Slow” Robinson, after Easter had hit a home run against the Giants, he slowed up right before he got the plate, looked at Robinson, and said, “Hey Slow, I’m the greatest, ain’t I?” He then touched home plate and went back to the dugout.

After Easter led the Homestead Grays to a Negro League World Series title in 1948 and proceeded to lead the Venezuelan Winter League in home runs that offseason, it was then the big leagues were bound to catch up with “Big Luke” Easter, now 33 years old.  

After Major League Baseball’s long-observed color barrier fell in 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians were, by far, two of the most aggressive teams in signing Negro Leagues talent. The latter came calling for Easter. The Indians owner, progressive maverick Bill Veeck, even flew down to Puerto Rico to offer him a contract in person. When Indians representatives asked him his age, he quickly gave a birth year of “1921.” This was, of course, six years younger than he actually was, but the Indians bought it. The suddenly on-paper 27-year-old signed a $10,000 per year offer sheet with the Indians. 

Given Easter’s actual age, and that he didn’t play any baseball wartime, and that he had spent nearly his entire life working in factories, plants and shipyards while merely moonlighting as a baseball player, now having a major league contract in-hand is rather astounding.  

Easter would begin the 1949 season with the Pacific Coast League San Diego Padres. 

During spring training, Indians star prospect (and eventual breaker of the American League color barrier) Larry Doby collided with Easter in one of the last exhibition games before the season began. It was assumed by everyone in the stadium that Doby, three inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter than Easter, bore the brunt of the collision, and thus received all the medical staff’s attention.

Easter waved off any attention, but he found that he could barely move his right leg. The pain was incredible, and one he kept secret. He later discovered that the collision had broken his kneecap. But, seeing no recourse, and knowing an injury could get him released, and his shot at the big leagues up in smoke, Easter played on.

Luke Easter, far right, with his 1950 Cleveland Indians infield mates, from left, Al Rosen, Bobby Avila and Joe Gordon.

Given the severity of the injury, I’ll never understand how he then did what he did. By the end of May, 57 games into the season, Easter was hitting .400 with 18 home runs and 67 RBIs. Twenty-thousand people were routinely packing into Pacific Coast League stadiums to watch Easter play. With the intensity the ball was flying off his bat, he put every fielder on notice. “I wish they’d get him out of here before he kills every infielder in the Coast League,” Hollywood Stars manager Fred Haney lamented. 

Luke’s flashiness, race and propensity to absolutely destroy the baseball (surely leaving the pitcher sheepish, pissed or a combination of both), made him the constant recipient of brushback pitches, even leading PCL president Clarence Rowland to issue a league-wide memorandum to managers to implore their pitchers to stop throwing at Easter. 

The memo was written in response to Easter taking a fastball off his problematic kneecap in early June, which sidelined him for several games. Due to the excruciating pain, he elected to have what looked to be season-ending knee surgery. A one-inch bone chip would ultimately be removed from his knee. Yes, the man whose physical condition had him honorably discharged from the armed services, who had spent most of his life in a rugged, blue-collar factory background, had absolutely owned Pacific Coast League pitching, with a broken kneecap.

Less than four months into the season, “Easter Mania” in the PCL had concluded. His batting average stood at .363, and with the 45 walks he was issued, his on-base percentage ballooned to an otherworldly .460. In just 80 games, Easter had clubbed 27 home runs and driven in 92 runs. 

PCL owners later claimed the loss of Easter to the league had cost them over $200,000 in gate receipts.

As it would be, the “season-ending” status of Easter’s surgery would not keep him off the diamond. The defending World Series champion Cleveland Indians, sinking in the standings and in desperate need of an offensive boost, practically peeled Easter out of his post-operation wheelchair and thrust him into action. The Indians were hopeful Easter’s bat in the middle of the lineup would give them a bit of juice down the stretch in a close pennant race.

On Aug. 11, 1949, one week after Easter’s 34th birthday (err, 28th birthday!), he made his debut with the Cleveland Indians. Still sporting a noticeable limp, and weighing nearly 20 pounds over his regular playing weight, Easter could not deliver on the impossibly high expectations set for him, particularly just five weeks post-operation. He hit just .222 in 1949 (10-for-45) for the Indians down the stretch.

I’ll still maintain .222 was pretty damn good all things considered. The Cleveland fans, disheartened by the team failing on its preseason expectations, found a convenient target in Easter. He was booed incessantly every time he came up to the plate, by the home fans. 

Easter, however, showed the same resiliency he had his entire life, only this time on the biggest stage, by averaging 29 home runs and 102 RBIs over the next three seasons for the Indians. His 1952 campaign, a story for perhaps another time, was nothing short of a miracle. 

After his baseball career ended, Easter took a job in the Cleveland TRW plant, beginning his time there polishing the airplane parts on the night shift. Eventually, he was named union steward by his peers in the factory. It was common practice at the plant to give your hard-earned paycheck to “Big Luke” on payday, who would faithfully and loyally cash it and return it to you. 

On March 29, 1979, during this act of kindness for his fellow workers, Luke Easter was murdered during an attempted holdup outside of the Cleveland Bank and Trust. One of the perpetrators was a former, disgruntled TRW employee who knew of the arrangement. Easter was 63 years old.

********

I never met Luke Easter. Stated more aptly, I never had the chance to meet Luke Easter, but I absolutely love him.  Whenever that nod to Cooperstown finally comes for my hero, I hope someone calls me. I’ll be sure to give my buddy Randy a call, too.

Editor’s post-script: Many thanks to Alex for this top-notch contribution. For more info about Luke Easter’s connection to my hometown of Rochester, here’s a post I did a couple years or so ago.

Alex Painter is a passionate, lifelong baseball fan. His particular areas of baseball interest and research include the Cleveland Indians, Negro Leagues, baseball’s integration history, Civil War era baseball, Indiana-based baseball and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. A proud Hoosier, Alex was born in Fort Wayne, Ind., and educated at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., where he studied History with an emphasis in 19th-century American history and politics. He currently lives in Richmond with his wife, Alicia, and three children, Greyson, Eleanor and Harper. 

12 thoughts on “Luke Easter: A legend of Halberstamian proportions

  1. I was very fortunate to see Luke play in Offerman stadium in Buffalo, NY in the 1950s while in my early teens. He played 1st base for the AAA Bisons and was an outstanding fielder as well as a prolific slugger. Besides hitting an HR over the scoreboard, he hit many over the right field wall and on to the porches of the homes across Glenwood Street. A true legend!

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  8. My Grandma told me a story about them taking a trip to Chicago to see the White Sox play in a doubleheader. They were playing the Indians. A very friendly African American family sat next to them who were Indians fans. When Easter would come up they would holler “Come onnnn Luke! Come onnn Luke!”. My Dad was born in ‘38 so it made sense it would be in the early 50’s when they went. No idea how Luke did or who won, but I remember Grandma telling me the story.

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