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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The Lost Career of Luke Easter, and the Missing Black Hall of Famers

Luke Easter hit 93 home runs in the major leagues, but he could have hit many, many more.
Luke Easter hit 93 home runs in the major leagues, but he could have hit many, many more.
Image: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

He’s much like the fictional superstar Roy Hobbs in the American Arthurian legend of a baseball book and movie The Natural — a left-handed hitter with incredible power, known for hitting towering home runs whose entry into the majors was delayed until his mid-30s. He’s a bit like Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis of Bull Durham fame, a prolific minor-league home run hitter. He’s even a little bit Satchel Paige, who was always coy about his real age.

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Luke Easter played in the majors, he played in the Negro Leagues. But a series of incidents beyond his control prevented him from having a full career. Bill James once noted that Easter didn’t really do much in either league, but if you could clone him and bring him back, he’d be as good a power hitter as anyone.

Illustration for article titled The Lost Career of Luke Easter, and the Missing Black Hall of Famers
Graphic: Eric Barrow
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Easter’s lost career is not uncommon for Black players of his generation.

There are 15 Hall of Famers in Cooperstown from the Negro Leagues who were born between 1896 and 1910. These include the men who made the Negro Leagues famous: Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, Willie Wells, Buck Leonard, and their contemporaries.

Between 1911 and 1925, the Jackie Robinson generation, there were only eight Black Hall of Famers born. That set includes Josh Gibson, who died before Robinson joined the majors, Willard Brown, who got only 67 at-bats in the majors, as well as Leon Day, a two-way player three years older than Robinson, and Ray Dandridge — who hit .362 as a 35-year-old on a AAA team for the Giants, but never made it to the big leagues. Monte Irvin’s career is split between the Negro Leagues and the Giants. The three guys from this group who had substantive major league careers are Robinson, Roy Campanella and Larry Doby.

Easter was born, well, somewhere in that time frame. More on that later.

The post-integration group of Black and Latin Hall of Famers, born between 1926-1940, include many of the greatest to ever play the game: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Willie Stargell, Lou Brock and Billy Williams – 12 players. This is also the generation of athletes who began to be lured away by the NBA and NFL. It’s possible that Jim Brown or Oscar Robertson could have been baseball stars, had they been born earlier.

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Why is there a dearth of Black Hall of Famers from the Jackie Robinson era?

There is one clear omission: Minnie Minoso, who Barack Obama referenced as a deserving Hall of Famer upon Minoso’s passing.

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At the border between generations is Don Newcombe, born seven years after Jackie Robinson but five years before Willie Mays. Newcombe, a major league-caliber Negro Leagues pitcher, was kept in the minors for a year and lost two years of his career to military service. But he was sensational, and clearly had Hall of Fame talent.

Newcombe won Rookie of the Year in 1949, winning 17 games, and followed that season with 19- and 20-win years. After coming back from the service, he was even better, going 20-5 in Brooklyn’s only World Series championship year and posting one of the greatest hitting seasons ever for a pitcher, batting .359 with 7 home runs. In 1956 he went 27-7, winning both MVP and the league’s inaugural Cy Young Award. He declined quickly after that, suffered injuries and battled alcoholism. After his major league career was over, he spent two years in Japan, primarily as a hitter.

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Eric Chalek, who has spent more than a decade on major league equivalencies for Negro Leaguers, thinks Quincy Trouppe should be one of them. Trouppe was born in 1912, and was 39 years old by time he got to the majors, playing in only 6 games for the 1952 Indians. Trouppe was a tremendous power hitter and defensive catcher, but the majority of his best years were spent in Mexico.

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“Trouppe is definitely a guy I’d put in my Hall,” Chalek said. “In large part, the players who were a little older than Jackie migrated primarily to the minor leagues because the majors primarily wanted to emphasize youth more. So their careers are fractured. For a group of players like that, the Veterans Committee, who are not experts on the Negro Leagues, they’re ex-ballplayers. Monte Irvin is kind of the one guy they got right from that era, and even he had an extremely fractured career between Mexico and the minor leagues and the major leagues. It’s really difficult to pin that era down.

What about Luke Easter?

Comparing Easter to other sluggers

Easter was an enormous man, 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, a powerful left-handed slugger who could be compared to Wilie McCovey or Ryan Howard.

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McCovey himself did not really have a full career, despite playing in the majors from age 21 to 42. He was platooned early in his career because the Giants also came up with Orlando Cepeda around the same time. McCovey won the Rookie of the Year despite only playing 54 games in 1959, as he hit .354 with 13 home runs. He didn’t become a full-time starter until 1963, and he promptly led the league with 44 home runs. That was in the middle of the second deadball era, and when the rules were changed to favor hitters in 1969, he exploded with a .320, 45-homer season and an MVP Award. McCovey also suffered a lot of injuries, and only tallied 500 at-bats four times in his career.

Let’s compare Easter and McCovey, ages 34-36. We can throw in another Hall of Famer, Willie Stargell. And let’s add the guy who was often compared to McCovey, Fred McGriff, and the guy some compare Easter to, Ryan Howard. Eddie Murray is a different type of player, hitting for a higher average without the 40+ home run seasons, and a switch-hitter and better athlete in his younger days. But he had the consistency of a metronome with a long career and normal aging pattern, kind of what we’d like to see Easter have in an idealized world where he can be in the majors and be healthy.

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Illustration for article titled The Lost Career of Luke Easter, and the Missing Black Hall of Famers
Graphic: Rich O’Malley

First off, apologies to Ryan Howard for highlighting the miserable seasons he had to finish what was a wonderful career. But, hey, he won an MVP and a World Series and made $190 million for his efforts.

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Second, it’s easy to see why McCovey and Stargell are Hall of Famers. This “stretch” includes the worst season of McCovey’s career, and he and Pops are still a notch above this group.

Easter is in the same class as a hitter at this age as McGriff — who was McCovey with a flatter career trajectory — and Murray, a 3,000-hit man and 500-home run guy. It does not necessarily follow that a player who is as good as Fred McGriff or Eddie Murray at age 34 will be as good as they were at age 22-33, but it is suggestive.

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We should also note that there are Hall of Fame sluggers who are MUCH WORSE than Easter at age 34. Eddie Mathews is a 500-home run member who was effectively finished as a star player at age 33. Jimmie Foxx, who had eye-popping numbers in his 20s, is another 500 home run guy; he didn’t hit more than 19 home runs in a season after age 32.

He’s history great ‘What if’

Luke Easter once told Cleveland owner Bill Veeck he’d been born in 1922. At Luke Easter Night in Rochester, N.Y., in 1963, he actually told the crowd he was 52. However, the official record seems to be that he was born in 1915.

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Signed by Veeck, he played a half-season in the Pacific Coast League, where he became a fan favorite, and players stood around to watch him launch batting practice home runs in awe. He hit 25 home runs in 80 games.

Easter became the Cleveland Indians’ first baseman in 1950, joining Larry Doby on one of the few integrated American League teams. As a 34-year-old rookie, he hit .280 with 28 home runs and 107 RBIs. He missed quite a bit of time the next season, playing 128 games, but still drove in 103 runs with 27 homers.

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Harry Simpson, another promising Black power hitter, joined the team in 1951. Even though there was integration at that point, there was still no equality in baseball, and even teams that signed Black players had unofficial quotas, according to Stephanie Liscio, author of the book Integrating Cleveland Baseball.

Easter had “absurd power,” says Lisico. “I think it’s kinda what ended up writing Minnie Minoso’s ticket out of town,” she adds. “The Indians felt like, no more than 4 or 5 (Black players), that’s more than we are willing or comfortable to go to. They had to decide who to trade. They felt like with Luke Easter’s power and Harry Simpson’s power, you can’t deny that.”

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Someone had to go, and it ended up being Minoso.

“They traded him to Chicago, where he went on to have a Hall of Fame-caliber career,” Lisico said.

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Luke Easter shakes Casey Stengel’s hand at an old-timers; game at Anaheim Stadium in the 1970s. Other players, from left, are the DiMaggio brothers:  Joe, Dom and Vince.
Luke Easter shakes Casey Stengel’s hand at an old-timers; game at Anaheim Stadium in the 1970s. Other players, from left, are the DiMaggio brothers: Joe, Dom and Vince.
Image: AP

Easter’s true talent level in his 20s lies beyond our grasp, even for Chalek. Easter spent years playing for unaffiliated teams in St. Louis, including the American Titanium Company; and the Cincinnati Crescents, a barnstorming team. He took a service-time job during World War II. He suffered countless injuries along the way, including a car crash while driving to a game with Sam Jethroe (who later played for the Boston Braves).

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Details are scant on Easter’s early days, Chalek says.“We have nothing before age 31. He had so many injuries that just cascaded over the years, foot and leg ankle injuries. One from a car accident in 1941 where they’re driving to a game with a bunch of guys on his team. That wouldn’t have happened in the major leagues.

“I expected that his Negro League numbers from 1947, 1948 would be amazing. His 1948 numbers were good, but his 1947 numbers were just bleh. He was tremendous in the minor leagues as an old player. I don’t see evidence yet that he’s a truly special player. He’s a good player and a guy I want on my team.”

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Easter’s last semi-full major league season came in 1952, as he hit 31 home runs in 486 at-bats. The Indians lost the pennant race by two games to the Yankees. Simpson didn’t develop into an impact player, while Minoso, who hit .281 and led the AL in stolen bases, might have pushed them over the hump.

Even in Cleveland, the most “progressive” team in the American League at the time, life wasn’t perfect. Teams were willing to sign Black players if they were stars. Sometimes they had one Black star, and if you had a Black star, you’d need another guy to be his roommate. What you didn’t often see were teams with multiple Black players in the starting lineup, and then Black bench players.

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That makes the story of Ernest Fann more understandable.

In 1953, Easter suffered a series of injuries and despite hitting .303 in 68 games, was sent to the minors. In 1954 Cleveland acquired Vic Wertz, a similar player to Easter but he was white and much younger. Easter got 6 at-bats that year and never played in the majors again.

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But he could still hit.

Splitting time with Ottawa of the International League and San Diego in the Pacific Coast League, Easter hit .315 with 28 home runs in 122 games. The next year he played for Charleston and hit .283 but with an on-base percentage over .400, and 30 home runs.

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It was around this time, ironically, that Easter appeared to be healthy for the first time in his career.

At 40 years old, he moved on to Buffalo, and he hit .306 with a .433 on-base percentage and 35 home runs. He played two more full seasons there, hitting 40 home runs as a 41-year-old and 38 more at age 42.

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He finished up his career in Rochester, where he was a part-time but still above-average player, and finally retired at age 48.

He ended with 247 home runs in the minors, which, incidentally, is the same number that Crash Davis supposedly hit to break the minor league record.

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(The real record was 432 home runs, held by Buzz Arlett, who played in the Pacific Coast League when it was an independent league and not a farm league. It was broken by Mike Hessman in 2015.)

Easter died in 1979. It’s difficult to figure out what he actually did as a player in his younger days, and it’s impossible to know what he could have done had his career not been impeded by racism, World War II and injuries.

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“To me he’s one of the great ‘What ifs?’ You can dream on him a lot,” Chalek said. “There are these weird contexts to his career in the way that no one else was affected.”

Managing editor. Former N.Y. Daily Newser. Former broke poker player.

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