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Luke Easter: Popular Slugger was Victim of Circumstance

Luke Easter: Popular Slugger was Victim of Circumstance

| On 29, Apr 2014

His birthdate is shrouded in mystery. His tape-measure home runs were legendary. His end was tragic.

Luke Easter played less than six years with the Indians, a victim of the color line and some bad luck with injuries. But those who saw him can’t forget him – and he remained a fan favorite wherever he went.

Luscious Easter’s birthdate was originally given on Aug. 4, 1921, and other sources have it in 1911 or 1914, but Census data and records pin it on the same date in 1915 in Jonestown, Mississippi. His mother died when he was 7, and the family moved to St. Louis.

Easter was 22 when he started playing for the St. Louis Titanium Giants, a semipro team funded by the American Titanium Co. When the United States got involved in World War II, the team disbanded. Easter joined the Army, but was discharged after 13 months due to the lingering effects of a broken ankle he’d suffered in 1941. After working in a chemical plant in Chicago during the war, he joined up with Abe Saperstein, the Chicago resident who started the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. Saperstein was starting a barnstorming baseball team called the Cincinnati Crescents, and Easter became a star attraction.

Records from the team are spotty, but it was estimated that Easter hit 74 home runs – including the first home run into the center field bleachers at the Polo Grounds in Harlem, 475 feet from home plate. The feat would be duplicated by Major Leaguers Joe Adcock and Lou Brock.

A Negro League contract had eluded Easter during his days with the Titanium Giants, but after his season with the Crescents, he was signed by the Homestead Grays in 1947. They were looking for a slugger to fill the void left by the untimely death of Josh Gibson.

Also in 1947, Major League Baseball integrated, with Jackie Robinson making his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and then three months later, Larry Doby debuted with the Indians. All of a sudden, the Negro Leagues looked ripe for the picking for talent, and one of the owners who made it a point to do so was the Indians’ Bill Veeck. In 1948, he signed Satchel Paige, and after the Indians won the World Series that year, he signed Easter.

Easter was sent to the Indians’ Pacific Coast League farm team, the San Diego Padres, where he was the second black player in PCL history. He was a huge draw, with his amiable nature and his mammoth home runs, called “Easter eggs,” including one that sailed 475 feet in Portland. The Padres set attendance records at home and on the road, as standing room only tickets were sold to see Easter mash the ball. Padres ownership estimated they lost $200,000 in revenue after Easter left.

After surgery to correct a broken knee sustained at the beginning of the season, Easter made his major league debut on Aug. 11, 1949. He hit .222 in 21 games, coming nowhere near the expectations fans had after hearing of his legendary exploits.

Easter had a good spring in 1950, and started the year in the outfield. On May 6, he hit his first career home run, off the Yankees’ Allie Reynolds. He would hit 27 more home runs that year, including the longest fair ball hit at Cleveland Stadium, sailing 477 feet, in a game against the Senators.

In 1951, he hit 27 home runs, and hit 30 round-trippers in 1952. But his eyes were starting to go, and was hit in the foot by a pitch early in the 1953 season, breaking a bone. He appeared in 68 games in 1953, and was on the roster when the Indians broke camp in 1954, but was sent to the minors in May of that year. His major league playing career was over.

But Easter found a home in the minor leagues. He was the first black player in Buffalo in nearly 70 years when he signed with the Bisons in 1956. He swung for the fences and made public appearances – vital since the Bisons had lost their affiliation and were then a community-owned team. In 1957, he launched a home run 550 feet, clearing the center field scoreboard at Offermann Stadium in Buffalo. He promised to do it again, and he did, two months later.

In 1959, the Bisons sold Easter to the Rochester Red Wings, an Orioles farm team, where he served as gate attraction, living legend and mentor to young sluggers, including future Indian Boog Powell. He finally hung it up in 1965, ending his career in baseball except for a brief coaching stint with the Indians in 1969 to secure a pension.

Easter and his wife returned to the Cleveland area. He owned a nightclub and worked for TRW Inc., an auto and airplane parts manufacturer in Euclid, where he was elected union steward. On March 29, 1979, he was going to the Cleveland Trust Company on East 260th in Euclid to cash $5,000 in payroll checks. He regularly made transactions of that size, and sometimes asked for a police escort. He didn’t that day, relying instead on the pistol he carried.

Two men with weapons – one a former TRW employee who knew of Easter’s routine – met him outside the bank and demanded he turn over the money. When he didn’t, they opened fire, and Luke Easter fell to the sidewalk. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The robbers led police on a high-speed car chase, culminating in a gun battle after they crashed their car.  Roderick Thomas went on trial for the shooting, where he was found guilty and sentenced to life plus additional terms. He remains imprisoned. After Thomas’ trial, his accomplice, Victor Pritchett, pleaded guilty. He died in prison in 1995.

Easter’s funeral was enormous. Thousands came from Buffalo and Rochester to pay their respects, and more than 150 cars were in the funeral procession. Pallbearers included former Indians Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia and Al Rosen. The year after he died, Woodland Hills Park in Cleveland was renamed for him. In 1985, Easter was inducted into the charter class of the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame, and in 1989, he was elected to the Rochester Royals Hall of Fame. He was also elected to the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 1997.

Easter was well over 30 when he made his major league debut, and the power he demonstrated left too many to wonder what might have been.

“Had Luke come up to the big leagues as a young man, no telling what numbers he would have had,” Rosen said. Bill James went so far as to say if Easter played today, the man described as having shoulders that could block three lanes of traffic would be the greatest power hitter ever.