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 1937.to 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 . . . . .







1 comment:

  1. Great article about a name I had heard but never really knew anything about. Thanks Doug for the education.

    ReplyDelete