Monday, August 5, 2019

Fred Hutchinson: The Man and the Hospital

Most Cincinnati Reds fans know Fred Hutchinson as the man who led the team to the 1961 pennant and then passed away just three years later; the first man to have his number retired by the team--the number one on the fa├žade. Many doctors know the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (above in red/orange) in Seattle as one of the world's best cancer centers. Most do not know the whole story behind both.

It's a tale of courage in the face of overwhelming odds, the bond between two brothers--one who had dedicated his life to the defeat of a disease destined to take his brother's life--and the unique legacy of hope and research that lives to this day.

Fred Hutchinson was raised in Seattle, the son of a prominent doctor. Fred's older brother Bill was a good enough baseball player to hit over .400 at the University of Washington and receive an offer from the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he felt another calling.

Accepted to medical school at the same time the offer from the big leagues came and informed by the school that he could not do both Bill, like the Field of Dream's Moonlight Graham, stepped over the baseline forever and took up his doctor's bag.

Fred became the biggest sports sensation the city of Seattle had ever seen. In a time when local school boy heroes were worshipped, Fred won 60 games and lost only 2 while leading his school to the city championship three straight years. He then signed with the hometown Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League for the 1938 season and went 25-7, winning the PCL Most Valuable Player Award and being named Minor League Player of the Year by The Sporting News. Fred's performance inspired such hometown sentiment that in 1999, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer named him Seattle Athlete of the 20th century. And when a new Seattle Mariners baseball park was built, Safeco Field, Fred's likeness was placed on the end of every row of seats.

Fred was then sent to the Detroit Tigers for $50,000 and four players.  It was called the biggest minor league deal in a decade (just two years earlier the Yankees had acquired a pretty good centerfielder named Joe DiMaggio for $25,000 and five players).

Unfortunately for Fred's big league dreams, World War II and arm problems rendered him a junk ball pitcher who survived a decade in the majors due to savvy and an intense competitive nature.

Competitive? The man absolutely hated to lose. He couldn't bear the tortured feelings of defeat. He left a string of battered clubhouses and broken runway lights around the league. Yogi Berra perhaps said it best: "When we follow the Tigers into a town, I can always tell how Hutch did. If the clubhouse is in good condition, he won. If all we find is kindling, I know he lost." One time (in a story I verified with his then 90+ year old wife) he lost a game and stormed out of Detroit's Briggs Stadium, walking the seven miles home in despair. In his anger, he forgot that he had driven to the game and his car was still in the parking lot. He also forgot that his wife had driven with him and she was still in the same lot, waiting for him.

Despite his temper, Hutch was popular with both fans and teammates. They understood that he was never mad at other players, only himself and they came to appreciate that he wore his emotions on his sleeves--there was never any attempt at deceit from the man who came to be known as Honest Hutch. He looked people right in the eye and told them what he thought.

After his playing days were over, Fred managed mediocre Tiger and Cardinals teams before arriving in Cincinnati midway through the 1959 season, brought in by Powell Crosley to rescue a talented but underperforming team.
"Hutch was just what we needed," said pitcher Jim O'Toole. "We had talent, but were rudderless. Hutch gave us direction."

A classic player's manager, Hutch treated his players like men. There were few bed checks and he didn't obsess over physical errors. But woe to the man who made a mental error or failed to hustle.

After leading the team to the pennant in 1961, Hutch was the toast of Cincinnati. In 1963 he took a chance on a hustling second baseman named Pete Rose and inserted him in the lineup, even though most observers felt he needed more time in the minors. Hutch was looking forward to the 1964 season when in December, 1963 he admitted to his wife that he had a troublesome bump on his neck that seemed to be growing. She convinced him to call his brother Bill.

While Fred had been making a name for himself in baseball Bill, who had remained very close to Fred, had been having similar success in the field of medicine. A surgeon who specialized in cancer treatment, Bill was recognized as one of the most prominent cancer doctors in the northwest. Recognizing the need for organized research for the devastating disease, Bill had been working for years to raise money for a center dedicated to research for cancer. In December of 1963, he had his goal in sight: construction for the center was planned for the next year.

While talking to his brother Bill's trained ears picked up troubling words that he knew only too well. He convinced Fred to fly to Seattle immediately. After a battery of tests, Bill was forced to tell his brother some heartbreaking news: it was cancer of the lung. And in 1963 there was no cure. Fred had less than a year to live. There would be no sugar-coating of the news. "My father [Fred] told him, 'Give it to me straight, I want to know,'" said Fred's son Rick.
"Bill laid it right on the line," said Patsy Hutcinson, Fred's wife. "He didn't hold anything back. Bill cried like a baby."
But there would be no crying from Fred. He took the news, followed his brother's advice and planned to lead the Reds throughout the 1964 season. Family members, sports reporters and his team were amazed at the way Fred conducted himself throughout the season. He answered every question in his usual straight-forward manner and was never heard to utter any complaints or ask for sympathy. Team members sadly watched as the powerful man literally wasted away before their eyes throughout the summer.

Determined to finish the season, despite constant pain, Fred made it into August before he was forced to take a seat and allow coach Dick Sisler to take the reins the rest of the way. Reds players would have loved nothing more than to win one for Hutch, but sometimes real life doesn't match Hollywood. A late winning streak brought the club into the last game with a chance to force a tie for the pennant, but the Reds lost to Philadelphia and Jim Bunning. There wasn't a dry eye in the clubhouse as Fred appeared in street clothes, thanked his players for the season and promised to see them in the spring. "And you just knew to look at him that we weren't going to see him next spring," said rookie Billy McCool.

Fred passed away in early November. His stoic struggle against the fatal disease had been an inspiration to all. Sport magazine named him its Man of the Year for 1964. "Sometimes the world of games is a setting for an act of courage which glitters with meaning when measured by any yardstick," the accompanying article stated.

Bill Hutchinson stood by his brother until the end. In 1965 ground was broken for his long-awaited cancer center. There was little discussion when he decided to name it after his brother and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center was born. Today it is recognized as one of the top facilities of its kind in the world. 

Friends and sports writers instituted the Hutch Award which is still given yearly in Seattle for the major league baseball player who best exemplifies the honor, courage and determination of Fred Hutchinson.

Fred Hutchinson, 1919-1964. "Hutch taught us all how to live, and when the time came, he taught us how to die." Gene Mauch.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Book Review: Phinally!: The Phillies, the Royals and the 1980 Baseball Season That Almost Wasn't

There are some books that are just fun to read. They bring back memories, good and bad, of a particular moment in time. Phinally! by J. Daniel is one such book. It focuses on the events of the summer of 1980, providing a perfect time-capsule of the baseball season and popular culture. The 1980 season certainly contained it's share of memorable events and personalities and Daniel does a good job of covering them all.

The book opens with an entertaining review of the Philadelphia Phillies history of ineptitude, to prepare the reader for what the fans and players of the 1980 Phillies team were up against, battling not only other baseball teams, but the weight of ingrained institutional incompetence. Although the Phillies had experienced success in the late 1970s with several divisional titles, they had won only two pennants (none since 1950) and zero World Series championships in roughly a century of professional baseball.

In addition to baseball, Daniel also supplies an ample amount of cultural nostalgia to help set the scene. He opens spring with the "Who shot J.R.?" phenomenon and intersperses tales of the Blues Brothers, The Empire Strikes Back and Airplane!.

On the baseball field, the 1980 season was momentous for a number of reasons. Nolan Ryan became the first major leaguer to sign for the now-quaint sum of one million dollars. Billy Martin resurfaced in Oakland, took a team of underachieving no-names and drove the American League crazy for four months with Billy Ball. A curious rookie named Joe Charboneau showed up in Cleveland opening beer bottles with his eyelids, snorting jello (and other things) through his nose, all while lighting up American League pitchers and generating an excitement in Cleveland that would not be seen again for a rookie until Willie Mays Hayes and Rickie "Wild Thing" Vaughn. Despite having a player break the million dollar mark, players and agents were not happy as owners sought to re-establish control of both the game and their own checkbooks. The result was a labor unrest that hung heavy over the season and would result in the catastrophic strike that wiped out a third of the 1981 season.

George Brett mesmerized the nation throughout the summer of 1980 with one of the greatest hitting seasons of the last half-century, carrying a .400 average as late as September 20. He finished with more RBIs than games and more home runs (24) than strike outs (22). As fate would have it, Brett, sitting on more hype than any other player, developed a hemorrhoid that knocked him out of a World Series game. After emergency surgery, he quipped, "Hopefully my problems are all behind me."
Mike Schmidt shook off a sometimes testy relationship with Philadelphia fans and had a monster last month to finish with 48 home runs and 121 RBIs. He won the MVP award in the finest season of his Hall of Fame career and took the World Series MVP as well.

The NLCS between the Astros and Phillies was one of the most exciting postseason series in history. The last four games of the best-of-five series went into extra innings and the championship was not decided until the tenth inning of the final game--after the Phils, playing on the road, had dropped 5 runs on the Astros in the eighth, only to watch the Astros come back and tie it and send it into extra innings.

Daniel not only allows the reader to closely follow the pennant races, but gives ample time to the brawls, the oddities and the other aspects of the season. He presents the season in an organized, chronological style that moves quickly, preventing the reader from getting bogged down and shows a good eye for an anecdote.
Overall, this is a well-written, fun read. It's not just a book for Phillies fans, but baseball fans in general, particularly those who remember the 1980s or enjoy the history of the game.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

How Ernie Banks Revolutionized the Position of Shortstop*

*And where did those home runs come from?

One of the unfortunate byproducts of Ernie Banks' Mr. Cub image being so great is that sometimes it obscures exactly how good of a player he was in his prime, before bad knees forced a move to first base. The present generation may not realize how he single-handedly revolutionized the position of shortstop.

Before Ernie joined the Chicago Cubs in September of 1953, shortstops were valued for their fielding and intrinsic virtues, but little was expected of them offensively. They were almost uniformly quick, feisty, pesky little guys with names like Scooter or Pee Wee (some were even named Pesky). They were respected leaders on the field and on offense might draw a walk for you, steal second base or slap a ball to right on a hit and run. Anything more was a bonus. If their team happened to win a pennant while they were hitting .267 with 6 homers and 63 RBIs (as Marty Marion did in 1944) or .324 with 7 homers and 66 RBIs (as Phil Rizzuto did in 1950), they walked away with an MVP trophy.

And then Ernie Banks started hitting. He had a solid rookie season in 1954 with 19 home runs and 79 RBIs--well above what was normally expected for a shortstop. The next year, he loosened up and the position was never viewed the same.

Ernie hit 44 home runs (including a major league record 5 grand slams) in 1955--a year in which he would not turn 24 until December. The previous National League record for home runs by a shortstop was 23--Ernie had that by the first week of July.

He proceeded to top 40 home runs in 5 of the next 6 seasons (a wrist injury in 1956 cost him 15 games and his power over the last two months).

Ernie was no slouch as a fielder. He didn't have the range of Aparicio, Reese or Wills, but he had sure hands and rarely threw a ball away. In 1959 he set a record for fewest errors in a season by a shortstop, with 12 and in 1960 he won a Gold Glove. These were nice accomplishments, but his value as a slugger in the middle of the infield would forever be unsurpassed.

Manny Machado, with his 37 home runs, generated a lot of talk last season of what an asset he was when installed into the lineup at shortstop because of his offense. Many modern writers mistakenly note that Cal Ripken is the prototype of the modern offensive-minded, slugging shortstop. While Ripken, at 6-4 and 200+ pounds, towered over Ernie's 6-1, 180 pounds (if he had 10 pounds of sweat in his flannel uniform), Ripken never hit more than 34 home runs in a season, even as he played half his career in a decade in which 66 home runs in a season wouldn't even win you a title.

In fact, until the steroid era, the top five slots for home runs by a Major League shortstop were all held by one man: Ernie Banks. And only one other player has ever topped Ernie's slugging numbers for a shortstop and that player is a documented serial steroid-abuser.

Only one other shortstop has ever hit 40 home runs in a season (Rico Petrocelli, 1969). Ernie remains as the most potent non-steroid-aided offensive force ever to take the field at shortstop in the major leagues.

But Where Did the Home Runs Come From?

Until the past few decades, amid the weight training, launch angles, walk/strike out/home run mentality and other factors, it was relatively difficult for any man to consistently hit major league pitches over the fence. While most players could hit home runs, only a few on each team did so with any regularity, say at a clip of 30 or more a year, and only a handful in each league did so for as much as a decade.

The men who were able to hit those home runs were all very impressive physical specimens. While muscles are certainly not the only requirement--extraordinary reflexes, eyesight and practice were also required--there was little doubt as to the source of the home runs of behemoths like Gehrig and Foxx.

The newer generation of power hitters in the 1950s, with Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson, used overall athleticism and bat speed rather than raw brute strength.

But, again, seeing these guys up close--looking at the menacing layers of muscles, the guns, the brawny forearms, the six-packs--leaves little doubt that you would never want to throw a mediocre-fastball in the same zip code as these mashers.

In modern times, we had the confluence of talent and science to help provide even more home runs:

And then there was Ernie Banks.

Granted, Ernie towered over traditional 1950s shortstops like Pee Wee Reese by several inches. But check out this next picture:

This was taken in Vietnam in 1968. Ernie, 37 years old and coming off a season in which he was third in the National League in home runs, is the one in the middle. The other two were 19-year-old GIs. Without the Cubs hat and familiar face, it would be difficult to predict from their builds which one of these guys was closing in on the top ten in all-time home runs. Look at Ernie's chest. He doesn't seem to have pectoral muscles--his chest is as flat as his stomach. Other than abnormally large hands, Ernie may have been the least imposing man to ever hit 500 home runs in a Major League career.

But consider the six years from 1955 to 1960:

Banks:      248 home runs,     693 RBIs
Mantle:     236                        589
Mathews:  236                        605
Mays:        214                        611
Aaron:       206                        674

Ernie was clearly the top slugger in the game over that period.

The source of Ernie's power, given his unimpressive physical attributes, sparked spirited debate during the last half of the 1950s. No one came up with a good answer. Ernie himself, along with most so-called experts, always gave credit to his wrists. But beyond basic anatomical facts (the wrist is composed of skin, bones and tendons--the muscles are in the forearms) that seems much too simplistic of an answer.

Most likely, the answer lies in the combination of many things--abnormally acute vision, a perfect weight shift, an abundance of fast-twitch muscle fibers and the carefully-honed ability to pull most pitches into his power field. It was a natural phenomenon like the Grand Canyon or Niagra Falls; beautiful to behold but impossible to recreate in the lab or on a field.

But few could do it better with less.

Friday, September 14, 2018

When Spock Met Casey and Leo: The Birth of Baseball Analytics

While Moneyball and the Sabermetric revolution have swept baseball in recent years, I have discovered that the origins can be traced to a unique meeting of minds that took place decades earlier. A recently released classified document, previously stored at a government facility in Roswell, New Mexico, shed light on this.

It seems that the 22nd-century Starship Enterprise, in an effort to study primitive culture, used a warp-slingshot maneuver around the Sun to travel back in time and landed in mid-1950s New York City, where one member of the crew encountered and became enamored with the American game of baseball.

The scene opens as men are standing around a batting cage before an exhibition game between the Yankees and Giants:

Spock (talking to a funny-looking catcher wearing pinstripes): . . . and so, it is not logical for anything to be completed until it is, indeed, over.

Yogi: Yeah, I never thought about it like that. But that makes sense.

(Leo Durocher and Casey Stengel walk up.)

Leo: Hey, who's the elf? Get a load of those ears.

Yogi: Meet my new friend, Mr. Spock.

Spock (addressing the group): I have to say that I find myself strangely drawn to your game of baseball. It induces a curious emotion of enjoyment. We do not have anything similar on Vulcan.

Casey: Say, is that where you got those ears? I remember a feller on my team in Brooklyn back in '13 had ears like that. Couldn't hit worth a damn.

Spock: I've spent the last hour analyzing your scorebooks from the previous ten years and I believe I can help improve the efficiency of your decision making. Most importantly, I find that your reliance on human emotions, intuition and so-called tradition does not allow you to make the most logical of choices. I have compiled some facts which should help you. As you know, without facts you cannot decide with logic.

Casey: All that analysis is well and good, but what I need right now is a left-handed batter who can hit the ball over the shortstop's head.

Leo: I'm all for anything that will give me an edge. What do ya got?

Spock: First, the selection of players for your roster is most illogical. That can be improved immediately by proper statistical analysis to allow you to identify the most efficient players.

Leo: I don't need no numbers to tell me nothing like that. I know a ballplayer when I see one. And I also know the ones that ain't got the guts to play when things are tough.

Spock: Regrettably, history suggests that you do not. Not only that, but you  are guilty of using a double negative. It does not make sense to play the same players in the same spots in the batting order every day, making no allowance for the pitcher or other variables.

Leo: That's a pile of crock. I know ball players. I can tell a winner from a loser just by looking at him. And I know how to make out a line up card. I play the hot hand, see. I got 30 years of experience to tell my gut what to do. Give me some scratching, diving, hungry players who come to kill ya. That's what I want.

Spock: Your experience actually prohibits you from making a rational decision as it reinforces mistaken assumptions based on anecdotal evidence. The human brain possessed an infinite capacity for making it believe what it wants to believe. An example is your erroneous preoccupation with diminutive second basemen. Though the newspapers call them fiery sparkplugs, I fail to realize how an elevated basal temperature can help win games. You would be much better served by playing a larger man with an elevated launch angle in his swing at that position.

Leo: I don't want any of those big, slow guys--they can't help you win even if they do hit one outta the park every now and then.

Spock: Take your former man Stanky, for example. He could not hit, he could not run, he could not field . . .

Leo: Yeah, all the little sonovabitch could do was beat ya.

Spock: The little, to borrow your colorful metaphor, sonovabitch, could do one thing however: get on base. In 1950 he walked 144 times. That allowed him to reach first base in 46 % of his at bats. This, more than any nebulous intrinsic factor or annoying antics, was responsible for his value to winning games. This leads me to the next point: simply dividing the number of hits by the number of at bats is a poor evaluation of a batter's efficiency. I would submit that the percentage of times a batter reaches base, by either a hit or a walk, termed the on-base percentage, represents the highest good. 
Leo: So you're saying that a walk is as good as any kind of hit?
Spock: Obviously not. This is where the OPS, or On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage comes in. A hitter is rewarded for extra-base hits.

Leo: Aw, you're just throwing out an alphabet soup. Give me a good pair of binoculars in the centerfield clubhouse, a bunch of scrappers and I'll win ya a damn pennant. I want guys who hustle, bunt, hit and run and steal. That's the type of club that wins.

Spock: I fail to understand your fascination with the so-called hit and run. First, it is an obvious misnomer as the runner runs, then the hitter hits. It should be called the run and hit. Second, according to my analysis, the risks far outweigh the benefits. I can find no plausible reason to employ this tactic.

As far as the bunt is concerned, I find it to be a most inefficient maneuver. While logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the individual, which would seem to favor the sacrifice, my research shows that a man on first with no outs has a 32.0381 % chance of scoring, whereas a man on second with one out has only a 27.57286 % chance.

Leo: But you're not taking into account who's at the plate and who's coming up behind him. Or whether the man on the hill is tired or can't field bunts. And what the crowd is doing. There's a lot more going on that your stats can't tell.

Spock: Also, it can be shown that unless you can be certain that a runner will be safe 72.95398 % of the time or more, it is illogical to attempt a steal. The advantage of gaining the extra base is simply outweighed by the risk of losing the all-important out.

Leo: But stealing unsettles the pitcher, moves the fielders and gets your team into the game. Not to mention the fans. Once they all get on their feet, everybody starts playing better. We get momentum.

Spock: I find your insistence on the archaic notion of rallies and momentum to be quaint, if not misguided. These concepts simply do not exist in nature.

Leo: You're full of it. Why, I've seen games won merely because the boys in the dugout got on the pitcher and he lost his edge. I've seen great hitters go into a slump after a pitcher sticks one in his ear. I've seen an entire Series lost by a rally that started with only a ground ball hitting a pebble. How do you and your numbers account for that?

Spock: The question is irrelevant. The facts are the truth merely because they are. No amount of arguing can change that. Once we eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is indeed the truth.

Another erroneous assumption is that of the so-called clutch hitter. Logic dictates that a .300 hitter will be successful in 30 of 100 clutch situations, while a .250 hitter will be successful 25 times. The result is pure math. Human emotion and collective euphoria provide the impression that some men are better in tight situations than others, but in reality, they are not. Also, the RBI is perhaps the most flawed of your statistics. RBIs are merely the result of a man coming to bat with many men on base, nothing more.

Leo: Don't tell me that bull. I know in my heart that some guys are better when the chips are down. Take a nice guy. He won't win you as many games because he doesn't want it as much.

Spock: If you continue to rely on emotion, sir, you will forever be incapable of making a rational decision. You must accept the fact that many of your tactics are simply not supported by logic.

Leo: I'm getting tired of this guy. He ain't said nothing that makes any sense yet.

Spock: Sir, your disregard for simple grammatical rules is becoming alarming. As far as pitching, your insistence on keeping the statistic of Wins is not logical. A Win for a pitcher is a most ineffective measure of his success as it is dependent on far too many variables of which he can not control. Alternatively, I would suggest Walks Plus Hits Per Innings Pitched or WHIP.

Leo: I'll whip you, you pointy-eared freak. I've heard just about enough of your . . .

Spock: Also I would like to suggest a new measure of effectiveness for all players: Wins Against Replacement, or WAR. I would not expect someone with your primitive math skills to understand how it is calculated. You should just accept the efficiency of it.

Leo: Okay Tinkerbell, that's it. (Leo lunges for Spock and takes a swing. Spock side-steps the punch, places his hand on Leo's shoulder and squeezes. Leo slumps quietly to the ground).

Casey: (looking at Leo's prone body) There's a lot of guys in this game that have been trying to do that for years. You know young feller, a lot of what you're saying makes sense and then some of it is pretty darn sound. I've always said that sometimes it's better to understand things than it is to figure them out. Why, as far as what you said about lineups, I've been doing that for years. Now, take my guy over there. There's a chance he'll hit off this guy pitching for them today and he probably will. But take this other guy. He'll probably hit him better because he always has and what's more, he's a lefty.

And another thing, they say that some of my players drink whiskey, but I've found that them that drink milkshakes don't win many ballgames. You could look it up.

Now look at this feller over here. He's twenty and in ten years he's got a chance to be a real superstar. Now that feller over there, he's twenty and in ten years he's got a chance to be thirty.

Spock: Fascinating. You have a most remarkable ability to speak at length and yet say virtually nothing. Also, your ability to completely destroy the English language is unsurpassed. But somehow, there is a certain perverse logic to your speech and your recent history of success in the postseason is undeniable.

Casey: Now there's them that will tell ya they knew me before I wuz a genius and they probably did. And also they'll tell ya that them things can't be done, but sometimes that don't always work. Now I've always thought that good pitching beats good hitting and vice a versa .  .

Spock: I must return to my ship now. Live long and prosper Old Perfessor.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Luke Easter: The Gold Rush of 1949 and What Might Have Been

He was Paul Bunyan in a baggy flannel uniform with a number on the back. Like Bunyan, he spawned tall tales of superhuman feats and was a pioneer. But instead of a giant blue ox, he rode a massive Buick, and instead of an axe he carried a large hunk of Pennsylvania white ash. For Pacific Coast fans in 1949, two things were certain: 1) they had never seen the likes of Luke Easter, and 2) they couldn't get enough of him.

While there have been many great players in the annals of baseball, only a handful sparked genuine box office sensations, bringing fans out to ballparks in staggering numbers single-handedly: Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Mark Fidrych, Hideo Nomo, Fernando Valenzuela. These men combined transcendent talent with charisma and a never-before-seen "It Factor." When Luke Easter hit the Pacific Coast League in 1949, he caused a turnstile phenomenon every bit as impressive as anyone else in history.

In the days of a mere 16 major league teams--and none west of the Mississippi--the Pacific Coast League was more than just a AAA minor league, it was as close to the bigs as possible. It was generally felt that the top PCL teams could compete with lower-level teams in the majors and it was not uncommon for players to remain on the coast rather than go east--preferring the lifestyle and the fact that often they made more money.

The PCL had possessed plenty of great players in the not-so-distant past; men with names like Lazzeri, Doerr, DiMaggio and Williams who had stepped straight into the major leagues and, with very little adjustment period, launched Hall of Fame careers. But none of them ever drew the crowds Luke Easter was to draw in 1949.

The PCL had integrated the preceding year with a solitary player. San Diego, with its recent affiliation with the Cleveland Indians and integration-minded owner Bill Veeck, had signed hometown product John Richey. A catcher by trade, Richey had been met with few theatrics and little fireworks. While he was a solid player, a regular .300 hitter, and drew quite a few curious whites and many more proud blacks to games, he was a workmanlike player and could not remotely be called a star. Easter, on the other hand, was a super nova.

Signing with Bll Veeck after helping the Homestead Grays win the final Negro League World Series (the Negro National League disbanded soon after, throwing the rosters of its teams into limbo), Easter was joined on the 1949 Padres by fellow Negro League alumni Artie Wilson and Minnie Minoso.

Although Wilson was a slick fielder and Minoso a Hall of Fame talent, Easter quickly overshadowed them both by force of personality and deeds, in addition to sheer size. But then, the 6-foot-4, 240 pound man had the natural gifts to do so. Easter arrived toting an already-impressive legend. He was accustomed to being a headliner. In addition to his dominating heroics during winters playing in Puerto Rico and Venezuela against many major leaguers, there was the home run he hit in the Polo Grounds while playing with the Grays that landed in the distant center field bleachers--a spot reached by no man in the stadium's more-than-half-century of existence [it would later be reached by Joe Adcock and Lou Brock].

Luke had a past that was complicated by both mystery and hyperbole. He had told Bill Veeck he was only 26 when he signed (a little fudging was not uncommon in those days by men for whom segregation had robbed their youth), but his true age was uncertain, even, at times, to Luke. Later research of census reports, his social security application and an old family Bible confirmed that he was born in 1915, making his 1949-age 34 years old, past the prime of most baseball men of the era. Although some said he had only played softball until 1947, in reality he had played on a topnotch St. Louis black industrial semipro team, a teammate of Sam Jethroe, from 1941. After a stent in the Army, he played for an Abe Saperstein traveling baseball club before joining the Grays in 1947, replacing the tragically short-lived Josh Gibson as the resident power-hitting legend of the lineup.

Luke Easter was a colorful player in a time in which the game, like television and society, was strictly black and white. He liked living the way he liked his cars, cigars and the length of his home runs: large. A card-playing, back-slapping slick dresser with a constant smile and a deep-throated chuckle, he lit up more rooms than Con Edison.

While there were those who questioned the honesty of his card-playing, he was generally given a pass due to his exuberant personality (of course there was that story of the time on the Homestead Grays' bus that 5-foot-2-inch pitcher Groundhog Thompson took exception to Luke's winning ways with the cards and, challenging his integrity, pulled a knife and offered to cut him down to size, but that story merely added color to the legend). Luke was the kind of guy who could take all your money and have you walk away thinking you enjoyed yourself and, what's more, that he was a good guy. How else to explain the fact that he won so much dough from Homestead Gray owner Cumberland Posey that by midseason teammates learned to collect their pay early on road trips, lest they find the owner tapped out and unable to make the payroll, thanks to Loveable Luke.

Upon arrival with the Padres in the spring at their Ontario, California camp, Luke quickly served notice that the stories about his prowess were true--if not actually understated. He hit exhibition pitching to the tune of .474 with four home runs in 38 at bats. And he began a tradition of launching awe-inspiring 400+ foot home runs. Equally as impressive as the home runs were a succession of savage line drives that witnesses swore would have carried forever had they not collided violently with fences. When he stepped into the batting cage teammates, opponents, vendors and fans all stopped what they were doing to watch, hoping they would see something they had never seen before. They were seldom disappointed. Luke was nothing if not a showman with impeccable timing.

Like any new hotshot in any league, Luke had to prove he was impervious to assaults--both verbal and with weaponized horsehide. Due to his physical size, the immensity of his preceding press and, especially, his color, Luke was forced to handle more than the usual dose of both, but handle them he did. Soon pitchers learned that it was best to let sleeping giants lie as stories of what he did to hapless baseballs after getting up from being brushed back only added to his legend (the most impressive, which survived years, was that he mashed a line drive home run to center field that, seemingly defying the laws of physics, narrowly missed the terrified pitcher's head on it's trajectory toward the fence).

The press, which uniformly loves anyone who makes easy copy, immediately fell in love with Luscious Luke. They ate up his act. They were thrilled when, soon after he received his signing bonus, he drove into the ballpark in the "longest, loudest 1949 Buick that's built--one of those racy models with four portholes on each side amidship." They all laughed when manager Bucky Harris enviously told them his new Buick only had three portholes. They reveled in the story of Luke sitting in the back of his new car while diminutive roommate Artie Wilson drove, telling everyone Wilson was his chauffeur (and also when the story morphed to Wilson riding in back and telling everyone the large man driving was his chauffeur and body guard--the better to keep away the throngs of Wilson's admirers).

They loved it when Luke, asked by a reporter where he got the large diamond ring he wore "that looked like the headlight on the Santa Fe Chief," replied (with a wink?) "I stole it."

Luke got off to a fast start once the season began. After a 15-game hitting streak in May, he was batting over .400 and he and teammate Max West were neck and neck for the league home run lead.

Soon, it was reported that attendance was up drastically all over the league compared to 1948 and there was little doubt about who was responsible. Coast fans turned out to see Luke in numbers that far surpassed those that had turned out for guys like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio and, instead of fading after the initial curiosity was satisfied, only increased. It was a genuine spectacle. A frenzy. Like a century before, news began filtering back east of the gold rush, causing excitement and dreams of riches (among owners). The May 25, 1949 headline in the Sporting News informed the sporting nation, "Giant Negro First Baseman of San Diego Padres--The No. 1 Coast League Box Office Draw."

Initially, there was little hiding of, dare we say it, the elephant in the room: "Easter, Padre Negro From St. Louis . . ." began one headline, "Luke Easter, the giant St. Louis Negro . . . " led off another article. It was always up front--reminding fans of the obvious--throughout the early season.

May 22, with the Padres in San Francisco for a Sunday double header against the Seals (in the former House of DiMaggio), 23,366 fans showed up. In addition, it was reported that more than 5,000 were turned away and another thousand stood on car tops to peer over the walls. It was the largest Sunday crowd in PCL history. While the papers stated that an "estimated 8,000 Negroes were in the stands to see the Padres' sensational colored star, Luke Easter," that left almost 16,000 non-Negroes in the stands, no less enthusiastic to see Luke. His appeal crossed all boundaries.

All reserve and box seats were sold out two weeks in advance of the initial appearance of Easter and company at the Hollywood Stars' Gilmore Field. That series, June 7-12, produced the largest single-series count in the history of the field. "Any way you analyze the record series crowd at Gilmore Field," a newsman wrote, "Luke Easter, the Padres' Negro first baseman, was the magnet." And Luke didn't miss the opportunity to show off: he hit .393 with four home runs for the week. For good measure, he pounded three balls over the 18-foot-high center field scoreboard (which stood 400 feet from home plate) in batting practice one day. At the time, only two players had ever cleared it in games.

Through the first ten series of the year, the third-place Padres had drawn almost 350,000 fans at home and on the road--far outdistancing the next-closest team.

Sniffing something more than a baseball story, Life magazine dispatched photographers to the coast for a photo-chronicle of Easter, further increasing Luke's legend to the rest of the country.

Luke continued his furious hitting: he had 19 home runs and 72 RBIs by June 3 (after 62 games). But there were now worries. Alarming reports of trouble with Luke's right knee started popping up and it was noticed that his speed on the bases and agility around first base, which had been described as amazing for a big man, were now diminished. He had injured the knee during a first base-collision with Larry Doby in the Indians spring camp before joining the Padres and the knee was also hit with a pitch early in the season. Although doctors were contemplating surgery on the knee (x-rays showed the kneecap was chipped) Luke insisted he would play, "as long as I can stand the pain, 'cause I shore likes to play and I likes the money I'm making."

Although the headlines and articles, which invariably invoked his race in the first sentence, seem anachronistic and the phonetic spelling of Stepin Fetchit-grammar patronizing if not insulting, there is no mistaking the impact Luke had for his race: there in the first sentence about a player packing stadiums and hitting dramatic home runs, and inspiring deep concern about his health, was the fact that he was an African-American. All could see that men of his race could not only play, but play with the best, and make money for owners at the same time (which is always nice).

It could be said accurately that Luke Easter single-handedly made black players acceptable on the Pacific Coast. After Luke hit the coast, only the most bigoted idiot would suggest that blacks weren't able to compete, or welcome, or couldn't be serious drawing cards for white fans. Soon, other coast teams signed black players.

"Prompted by the record-breaking box office draw of Luke Easter, the Portland Beavers became the third Coast league club to bid for the lucrative patronage of colored fans by adding two Negro players to their roster . . ." the Sporting News reported after they signed two Newark Bears, Frank Austin and Luis Marques, June 1. In mid-season the Angels signed Kansas City Monarch pitcher Booker McDaniels, becoming the fourth PCL team to integrate after San Diego, Oakland (Wilson had moved to the Oaks early in the season) and Portland. The Padres added another black player, Venezuelan short stop Parnell Woods, in June.

While it was nice that Luke made black players acceptable in the league, he was much more than just a black man who played baseball; he was a man who played baseball great, who just happened to be black. His fame and appeal was due to much more than just his color. Or his home runs. It was the way he hit them. And also his charisma. He had the charming ability to be at once humble and cocky; possessing an easy-going, down-to-earth disarming humor that allowed him to fit, and be liked, everywhere. He could aw-shuck his way through an interview with the best of them, but there was little doubt that he recognized, and appreciated, his own talent. Years later when someone told him, "I saw your longest home run," Luke answered, "Did you see it land?" When the answer was affirmative, Luke shook his head. "If you saw it land then it wasn't my longest."

As Luke continued to hit (after 75 games, he was hitting .357 with 23 home runs and an astounding 87 RBIs), he was compared with the very best, the Holy Grail of all baseball comparisons--the Great and Powerful Bambino--and, somehow in view of his impact, no one laughed at the comparisons. "His power is prodigious," wrote one reporter. "There aren't many like him. . . Like the late Babe Ruth, Easter attracts record-breaking crowds wherever he goes."

Sacramento manager Del Baker, who had played, coached and managed in the PCL and major leagues for for 37 of his 57 years, and had literally seen them all, said, "I've seen alot of powerful batters in my time, but for sheer ability to knock a ball great distances, I've never seen anybody better than Easter--and I'm not excluding Babe Ruth."

Reporters, learning that Easter had been given a $2,000 signing bonus and was earning a salary of $4,700 for the year, observed the massive crowds he was drawing throughout the league, quickly did some basic math and sensed something was amiss. They began badgering Padre President Bill Starr with annoying questions about bonuses and pay raises. "At no time has Easter mentioned salary to me," Starr told them in June. "As far as I know he's well satisfied."

When asked himself, Luke denied any concern, told them that Starr had assured him he'd be given a sizeable bonus at the end of the season, and added amiably, "His word is good enough for Ol' Luke."

But suddenly, it was all over. In spite of hopeful news that the trainer had devised a new knee brace to help Luke, his condition continued to worsen. He could still hit, but he was in obvious pain moving around the bases or playing first base. In late June, Dr. Worth Martin, San Diego team physician, consulted an orthopedic specialist who took further x-rays and exams and recommended that Luke stay out of the lineup for a few days to rest the knee.

And then he was gone. Luke left for Cleveland June 24 at the request of team vice-president Hank Greenberg to have his knee examined. As if to underscore the fears of PCL owners, only 6,769--the smallest Sunday crowd of the season--turned out to San Diego's Lane Field June 26.

A great cry of gnashing of teeth and wailing was heard from owners up and down the Pacific coast.

An operation was performed on Luke Easter's knee at the Cleveland Clinic July 1. It was announced that he was expected to be out for six weeks, but there was growing suspicion on the coast that he was gone for good. Still, the hearty still held out hope. Two weeks later, it was breathlessly reported in the papers that Luke had started walking after an 11-day stay in the hospital and had wired that he hoped to return to play with San Diego by mid-August.

But it was not to be.

The Indians, American League pennant winners in 1948, had struggled all season, particularly with their hitting. Owner Bill Veeck was in serious trouble and reportedly entertaining offers for the purchase of his team. He needed some help. Veeck announced on August 11 that he had purchased Luke Easter from the San Diego Padres.

PCL owners, realizing that their cash cow was not coming back, grumbled that the purchase cost them at least $200,000 collectively in lost gate receipts. The Coastal Gold Rush of 1949 was over.

Luke Easter had played in 80 games and hit .363 with 25 home runs and 91 RBIs. He had drawn more fans to stadiums in the Pacific Coast League than anyone in history. And he had done it all while playing with a broken knee cap.


Luke spent the next three seasons as a mainstay in the lineup of the Cleveland Indians. He hit 28 home runs and 107 RBIs in 1950, then followed with seasons 27 and 103 and 31 and 97. 
A series of injuries to his legs slowed him in 1953 and finally in 1954, at the age of 39, unable to play defense in the major leagues, he was cut loose by the Indians. Luke made his way to Buffalo and proceeded to pound AAA pitching--leading the International League in home runs and RBIs in both 1956 and 1957. In 1959, at the age of 45, he went to Rochester, another AAA team, and played another five seasons.

At each stop, Luke was loved by both teammates and members of the community. He was known as a man who would do anything to help someone out. Teammate need a buck, a good laugh or an introduction to Luke's buddy Louis Armstrong at a jazz club? Community member need a favor, an autograph or an appearance for charity? Big Luke was the man. He never disappointed.

"Easter was a big, strong happy guy, the kind of guy you wanted on a ballclub." said a Cleveland teammate in 1994.

"Luke, who was still a star in the minors, was a great person," said a teammate from his later years in the minors. "I loved him. He was an everyday guy who was good for young people. He gave me more encouragement than my manager. He told me, 'You'll be there. Don't worry about it. You'll make it.'"

After finally giving up baseball, Luke returned to the Cleveland area and took a job in the auto industry. He was elected Union Steward and, as a favor to fellow workers, often took a load of payroll cash to the bank. On one of those trips in 1979, he was confronted by two men, one of whom pulled the trigger of a sawed-off shotgun aimed at the big man's chest. More than 4,000 people paid tribute to him at his funeral, many making the long drives from Buffalo and Rochester.

Luke Easter left behind a pile of smiles in ballparks and clubhouses across the country:

And awe: everywhere he went, he deposited baseballs in previously unexplored places. There was the one at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium over the auxiliary scoreboard in right field (the longest ever hit at the stadium). There was the one over the center field fence scoreboard in Buffalo's Offerman Stadium (only person to ever do that) that was so dramatic in it's majesty that it was immortalized on the plaque commemorating the stadium when it was torn down:

He left a legacy in every city. Consider:

"Few have ever attained the near-mythical status accorded by Luke Easter. Never in the city's sports history has an athlete made such an impact on the community."--statement at the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 1997.

"He was considered the most popular baseball player in the Rochester Red Wings' History,"--1979 Rochester newspaper article.

One of the largest park and recreation centers in Cleveland was renamed Luke Easter Park in 1980. Today it remains a popular site for activities in the African-American community.

Luke Easter:

If the designated hitter rule had been adopted earlier, he might have played in the majors until he was 50.

If he had joined the Negro Leagues ten years earlier, he might have been as celebrated as Josh Gibson.

If the major leagues had integrated ten years earlier, he might have been . . . . .