Few players in the rich history of baseball left a greater heritage of fact and legend than Luscious Luke Easter. A star at every level - Negro League, winter league, majors, and, above all, minor league - Luke generated copious memories of a power hitter of mythical proportions and of a gentle humanitarian.
This article, since it is included in a collection of works concerning the minor leagues, will focus on Luke Easter's minor league career. A number of pieces have been written about his days in the major leagues. The reader is encouraged to consult them for additional information about that aspect of his career.
Like Dizzy Dean, Luke was born in several places on different dates. For much of his professional career, he was born on August 4, 1921, in St. Louis, MO. When he could no longer fool mother nature, he admitted to having arrived on August 4, 1914, in Jonestown, MS, about an hour's drive south of Memphis. In later years he also admitted to being born in 1911 and 1915. Without benefit of a birth certificate, we will use the 1914 date as being the most convincing.
Like Babe Ruth, he had trouble remembering names. Only relatives (there were many) and enemies (there were few) escaped being called "Bub". And like the Babe, Luke and a good cigar were never far apart.
Like Mark McGwire, he was a huge man, standing six feet four and one-half inches and weighing between two hundred forty and two hundred fifty pounds. The result of size and strength was a collection of home run titles and a number of record-setting distances. When a fan told him that he had seen Luke's longest homer, the response was "If it came down, it wasn't my longest".
Baseball history accounts for only fifteen years of Luke's life, beginning shortly before his thirty-third birthday. Prior to that, tales are told that he played softball, but no evidence has been found to verify the claims. In 1947 and 1948, Negro League records show that he played for the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League. During those two seasons, he hit .336, including 23 home runs, in just over 100 games. Among those home runs were allegedly the most prodigious in Negro League history, including the first ball hit into the center field bleachers in New York's Polo Grounds in any league at any level.
For three seasons in the 1940's and 1950's he played in various Caribbean winter leagues, each time winning the home run championship.
As the 1949 season approached, only the Dodgers, Browns, and Indians had integrated at the major league level. Slowly doors were opening for the Negro League stars, and Luke was acquired by Cleveland for seasoning with their San Diego affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. Luke instead seasoned the PCL pitchers while batting .363 in 80 games. Among his ninety-nine hits were 23 doubles and 25 home runs, enough to earn him a .722 slugging percentage. Once again, new records were set for the longest home runs in several PCL parks. The only thing that could stop Luke in 1949 was a broken kneecap, and even that did not prevent him from joining the Indians shortly after his thirty-fifth birthday.
Luke's major league accomplishments are well known to historians and fans of that era. In a league dominated by the likes of Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Whitey Ford, Billy Pierce, and Mel Parnell, Luscious Luke approached his fortieth birthday by hitting nine-three home runs and slugging at a rate of .481 over a span of four full seasons and a few games in each of two more. In 1952, he missed the American League home run title by one, and many of those clouts were of prodigious proportions. The most famous of those occurred on June 23, 1950, when he hit the longest ball in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium history, a shot of 477 feet.
An apparent end to a career came in early 1954 when the Indians chose Vic Wertz and Bill Glynn to be their first basemen and sent Luke to San Diego once again. Nearly forty years old, Easter faced a future either as a short-term minor league journeyman or in a career outside of baseball. Choosing to remain in the game, he reported to the Padres. After losing the starting first base job to major league veteran Dick Sisler, he found himself in the International League with the Ottawa Athletics. Between the two triple-A teams, Luke managed to hit 28 homers.
When the Junior A's moved to Columbus in 1955, many veteran players were let go, including Luke. He then joined the American Association's Charleston Senators, a last-place team destined to finish 42 games out of first place. One of the few bright lights for Charleston, he finished the home run race tied with Rocky Colavito for third place behind leader Marvelous Marv Throneberry. At 41, Luke's best days were still to come.
The Buffalo Bisons, a long-time resident of the International League, ended their four-year affiliation with Detroit after the 1955 season. Having had only occasional success with their major league affiliates, the Bisons became a community-owned team with no major league source of talent. Whatever players were available - usually either former major league players such as Bill Serena, Joe Caffie, and Johnny Blatnik, or minor league veterans such as Lou Ortiz and Freddie Hahn - were brought together as player-manager Phil Cavarretta made the best of what he had. Included in this group was a forty-one year old, still strong but never mobile, first baseman named Luke Easter. The old man helped out more than a little, as he led the league in home runs (35) and RBI's (106) while hitting .306 and playing in all 154 games.
The next year got better as the Bisons affiliated with the Kansas City A's and finished second. At 43, Luke led the league with 40 home runs and 128 RBI, in addition to finishing first in total bases, walks, and strikeouts. Just to keep things interesting, he also set a record for the longest home run in Offerman Stadium history and became the only player to clear the center field scoreboard, accomplishing it twice during the season.
1958 was much the same, as he slugged 38 homers and drove in 109 runs. However, his time was running out in Buffalo as the Bisons ended their relationship with Kansas City and hooked up with Philadelphia after the season. The Phillies promised an infusion of young talent, including power-hitting first baseman Francisco (Pancho) Herrera. Pancho was strong and not mobile, but Luke was nearly stationary as he approached his 45th birthday.
Buffalo was looking for a diplomatic way to say good-bye to Luke, and another team, only sixty-five miles down the Thruway, was only too happy to say hello.
As the 1959 season began the Rochester Red Wings, nearing the end of a productive, but increasingly acrimonious relationship with the St. Louis Cardinals, were in need of a left-handed hitter with power. Even a defensively-challenged occasional pinch hitter would be welcomed. And when Buffalo gave Easter his pink slip, Rochester general manager George Sisler, Jr., and manager Cot Deal agreed that he could help their troubled ship. Thus, minor league stop #6 was about to become Luke's final venture in professional baseball. And, like all the others, it would be a memorable one.
During Luke's years in Buffalo, fans in Rochester and other opposing cities treated him with admiration and respect - even the occasional boos were good-natured. In his new home the chorus changed to "Luuuuuuuuuke" as he won the hearts of the city with a booming bat, a big smile, and a willingness to cheerfully sign autographs as long as there was someone who wanted one. Civic appearances and playground clinics became commonplace as the community-owned franchise sought local support.
On the field, the huge numbers of the past would not be repeated in a Red Wing uniform. But for six seasons Luke continued to be a long-ball threat as he pounded another 67 "Easter Eggs" in 499 games. Equally amazing is the fact that, over the same period, those nearly fifty-year old legs lumbered through 76 doubles and six triples. Alas, there were no stolen bases as the last one had came in 1958 with Buffalo.
At first base, Luke's range dwindled although his glove could still pick up the short hops. With one of baseball's most defensively challenged lineups, the 1963 Red Wings featured a first base platoon of the immobile Luke Easter and the inert Steve Bilko. Not only did this duo claim first, but their presence sent the sure-handed but speedless Joe Altobelli to right field. It is unlikely that an entire league was ever more proficient at hitting to the right side than the 1963 International League.
Throughout his playing days in Rochester and after his retirement, Luke was also a coach, assisting in the development of the young sluggers sent to the Wings by their new major league affiliate, the Baltimore Orioles. Future major leaguers Boog Powell, Curt Blefary, Pete Ward and others attributed much of their success to the gentle giant. In addition, local fans reveled in watching their first base coach as he engaged opponents, umpires, and the fans themselves in conversation and laughs. Among his biggest fans were the men he played with. Rochester manager Cot Deal remembers, forty years later, that "He was very popular with his teammates wherever he played".
For someone who found that Cadillacs and expensive clothes were essential components of his lifestyle, Luke was aware that income from outside baseball was necessary. Thus, during his days in Buffalo, he ventured into the business world with the Luke Easter Sausage Company, specializing in two varieties, hot and extra hot. Teammate Bobby Morgan recalls Luke's generosity in giving free sausage to his teammates. That same spirit of sharing may well have contributed to the demise of the business during his days in Rochester.
Finally, during the late seventies, the Easters returned to their former hometown of Cleveland. It was there that Luke performed his final humanitarian act on March 29, 1979. Employed as the chief union steward for the Aircraft Workers Alliance, Luke was approached by two robbers in a Euclid, Ohio, bank parking lot. Refusing to hand over $40,000 in union funds, he was shot in the chest with a shotgun blast and died immediately. The same loyalty and integrity he gave to baseball remained with him throughout his life.
Baseball fans remember Luke Easter as a power-hitting first baseman who hit some of the longest home runs in the game's history. Those who knew him remember him as pleasant man with an easy smile and time for anyone who asked. Communities remember him as a unifier and humanitarian. In the words of Buffalo baseball historian Joe Overfeld, "Never in the city's sports history has an athlete made such an impact on the community". Myth, legend, superstar - Luke Easter was all these and more.