Remember His Game, Remember His Name: Luke Easter
The hulking Cleveland Indians first baseman could have had a Hall of Fame MLB career were it not for the color barrier
As part of this weekly (hopefully) segment, I'd like to put a spotlight on an athlete who led an interesting life and career, yet is largely unknown by the average sports fan today.
Luke Easter, The Player
Only four men ever hit a home run out to dead-center at the Polo Grounds, which was measured at 483 feet away from home plate. They were Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Lou Brock, who, coincidentally, did it on consecutive days, Joe Adcock, a 6'4" first baseman who finished his MLB career with 336 taters, and Luke Easter, who did it during a Negro League game. The iconic ballpark was open for over 50 years and was the site of thousands of professional ballgames, yet only four players were able to muster up the power to hit one out of the farthest reaches of the Polo Grounds. Luscious "Luke" Easter was one of those players, and he did it first.
Luke Easter was built like a modern NFL tight end. At about 6'5" and a sculpted 240-250 pounds, one can only imagine the fear he instilled in those scrawny pitchers from the middle of the 20th century.
He backed up this intimidation too. Easter was 34 (allegedly) when he played his first full season in the big leagues in 1950 with Cleveland, yet he put up an .838 OPS and 127 OPS+ over the next four years, with 162-game averages of 33 home runs and 118 RBI. Easter was the first man to hit a ball over the right field scoreboard at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium, a feat he accomplished during his rookie year. Mickey Mantle was the only other player to ever do it. So yeah, Luke Easter had 80-grade pop.
He also earned what is undoubtedly the greatest nickname ever given to a player's home runs; Easter Eggs.
Sadly, like countless other great African-American players of his day, there are not many records of his exploits on the field before he made his Major League debut at the age of 33. Here's what we do know about this part of his career, though.
Easter was raised in St. Louis, which did not have any Negro League teams for him to play on.
He joined the St. Louis Titanium Giants in 1937, a semipro team with an absolutely marvelous name.
Easter played with Titanium Giants 'til the early '40s, when he enlisted in the Army as the U.S. was about to enter World War II.
He earned two tryouts with the Kansas City Monarchs and the Chicago American Giants, two of the top Negro League teams in the country, after the war finished in 1945.
Neither team signed him, but he was referred to Abe Saperstein, the legendary creator of the Harlem Globetrotters, who was looking for talent for his new traveling baseball club, the Cincinnati Crescents.
Saperstein signed him, and after raking in 1946, Luscious Luke was sold to the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues.
Between 1947 and 1948, Easter hit .338 with 23 bombs in about 100 total Negro League games. He helped the Grays win the final Negro League World Series in '48.
One of those home runs was the legendary Polo Grounds shot, the first to clear the fence in dead-center.
Easter was signed by the Indians heading into the 1949 season, though they first sent him to the Pacific Coast League for some grooming with their affiliate in San Diego.
He did...above-average in the PCL, to the tune of .363 with 25 home runs in 80 games. Easter slugged .722 and reportedly hit the farthest home runs several PCL ballparks had ever seen.
Luke Easter was pushing 40 after his short-but-successful six-year stint with the Cleveland Indians. This would seem like a logical time to hang 'em up, to most people at least. But not Easter. Luke Easter had plenty of power left in his bat. His legend would only grow after his MLB career was finished.
Easter became a Triple-A/Independent Ball folk hero after his big league stint, mostly with the Buffalo Bisons and the Rochester Red Wings. He led the league in HR and RBI for the Bisons in 1955, with 35 and 106, respectively. He did it again for Buffalo in '56, pacing the league with 40 homers and 128 RBI. It was more of the same for Easter in '57, as he mashed 38 "Easter Eggs" and knocked in 108, even as he entered his mid-40s.
Easter's time as the ringer for the Bisons came to an end after 1958, unfortunately, when the Phillies, their new big-league affiliate, decided to infuse Buffalo with some younger talent. Luke was let go and soon signed with Rochester, which would be the last team he would play for as a pro.
The big man finally started to slow down after he joined the Red Wings, for which he play in just under 500 games. During that time, he managed to put 67 balls into the seats, a respectable number for a man approaching his 50th birthday. Easter finally called it quits after six seasons with Rochester, capping off a nomadic, brilliant career that spanned four decades.
But oh, what could have been, had Luke Easter come up in better circumstances. Does he have a career similar to, say, Willie McCovey, who had a similar skillset? We'll never know for sure, but many seem to agree with me that he could have been an all-time great. As the great Bill James said about Easter:
"(Easter) had shoulders that crossed three lanes of traffic. If you could clone him and bring him back, you'd have the greatest power hitter in baseball today, if not ever."
Luke Easter, The Man
Luke Easter would be a noteworthy figure even without his off-the-field persona. That only adds to his mystique, though. As big as Easter was, his personality was even bigger, if you can imagine that.
Easter was inducted in the Buffalo, Rochester, and International League Hall of Fame, and not just because he hit a million balls into orbit. Easter was known as one of the most amicable players in the sport, who was beloved by teammates before, during, and after his MLB career. He could be counted on to be the last player or coach signing autographs after games, and would often chat up opposing players, umpires, and fans while he was coaching or playing 1st base.
Luke Easter started his own sausage business while playing for Buffalo, called the Luke Easter Sausage Company, as this entrepreneurship helped fund his lavish lifestyle of fancy cars and clothing. Like I said, he was the kind of teammate you want; he gave away a few pounds of sausage to any player that hit a home run. Now that is a good guy to have in the clubhouse.
As successful as he was as a player, Luke Easter had a knack for coaching as well. He coached for several years with Rochester following his retirement, and multiple prominent Major Leaguers give credit to Easter for helping them on their path to the bigs, including future-MVP Boog Powell and future Rookie of the Year winner Curt Blefary.
Luke Easter was a man ahead of his time, both on and off the field. A Luke Easter is likely a national superstar in today's game, with feats of strength nearly unrivaled by his peers and a disposition that unified teammates and fans alike, ala David Ortiz.
Easter was murdered by bank robbers in 1979, after refusing to give up the $40,000 in Aircraft Workers Alliance union money he was carrying. Easter, who had been named the chief union steward, lived and died trying to help others and bring happiness into this world. He might still be remembered by certain pockets of sports fans who had the privilege of watching him play or meeting him on the street, but I believe this man's life and career should rise above his cult-hero status.
Luscious "Luke" Easter was, quite simply, the man.