Easter had a grand time playing baseball
By Justice B. Hill
CLEVELAND -- The tale goes like this: A fan walks up to Luke Easter and tells him that he'd seen Easter's longest home run.
Easter, a man not shy about boasting, isn't so sure the fan is right.
"If it came down," he says to the fan, "it wasn't my longest."
True story or not, who's to say? Easter had more tall tales spread about his life than almost anyone else who earned a living playing hardball.
Perhaps that's what has long intrigued people about Easter, the late Negro League and Indians slugger. They seem unable to sift through the myth and decide what is the reality.
The myth might include labeling Easter the black version of "Mighty Casey." The reality might be that Easter was more a Babe Ruth or a Josh Gibson in terms of home run power. But a tiny bit of all of these baseball legends might have been in Easter.
Now, no one has ever claimed that Easter was one of the all-time greats. His talents were too one-dimensional to merit such high acclaim. He was slow afoot, and he had a weak arm and no range on the field.
But under different circumstances, in a much different era, Luscious Luke Easter might well have combined those glaring shortcomings with his power to achieve a superstar's status.
Baseball, though, wasn't as open to men like Easter in the 1930s and 1940s. So he bounced between the California softball circuit, various minor leagues, the winter leagues in Latin America, the Negro Leagues and, finally, the big leagues for almost three decades. Everywhere Easter played he left behind stories about his awesome power.
He hit baseballs so far, the myth goes, that it might have been easier to measure them in miles than in feet.
"He hit the farthest ball anybody ever hit at Cleveland Stadium -- 477 feet, upper right-field deck," said Hal Lebovitz, a longtime Cleveland sportswriter who covered baseball during the Easter era. "I measured it."
If you believe other tales, the 240-pound Easter, a left-handed hitter who was in his mid-30s when he made it to the Majors in 1949, hit home runs farther than anybody else who ever swung a Louisville Slugger.
But his greatest achievement might simply have been being Luke Easter. That was, indeed, some accomplishment.
"Luke Easter was as fine a man as I ever met," said former Indians teammate Al Rosen. "He was the epitome of a good guy.
Few men touched people's lives the way Easter did. His size masked an easy-going manner. He had a big smile for anybody who crossed his path.
He loved people, and people loved Easter.
"He was a happy-go-lucky guy, always smiling," Lebovitz said. "People liked him, contrary to what you may have heard anywhere else. He was a lot of fun. I enjoyed his company."
Wanted somebody you could bank on, turn to Easter. Needed a helping hand, you could count on Easter for it. He was a teammate's teammate, no matter whom the man was.
Lebovitz can remember how Easter had bailed out two Indians teammates. On a train from Boston, pitchers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn found themselves in a card game with two cheats.
Having lost his stake, Wynn stood on the edge of the game and watched. He noticed that one of the two men was dealing from the bottom of the deck. Once caught, the men tried to flee, but Easter, a hard-core gambler, caught one of them.
He then challenged the man to a game of gin. With Lemon, Wynn and others watching, Easter won all the money. Easter then gave Lemon and Wynn back what they had lost, Lebovitz said.
"I said to him afterwards: 'Here's a guy who can deal from the bottom of the deck, how did you know you could beat him?'" Lebovitz recalled telling Easter. "He said, 'I can deal from the middle of the deck.' "
Vintage Easter -- just one more story that expands the myth of the man.
Somewhere myth and reality do merge, and what develops is a Technicolor vision of the charismatic Easter, a hulk of a man who lived an extraordinary life inside and outside of baseball.
However, Easter's life came to a tragic end.
Working for TRW Inc. in the Cleveland suburb of Euclid, he was returning to work March 29, 1979, after going to the bank to cash payroll checks for his co-workers.
Outside the bank, two men shot Easter with a sawed-off shotgun and a pistol. The gunmen then fled with about $11,000 in cash.
Easter, 63, lay dead in a pool of blood, another $30,000 in cash near his body.
"I remember the day he got shot and killed," Rosen said. "I broke down and cried."
He said Easter -- a husband, a father and people's friend -- had died the way he played: He had refused to give in.
Easter was a fighter, not a quitter -- even at the end.
"He had this bag of money for the people who worked his shift, and he was gonna get that money back to 'em," Rosen said. "He wasn't gonna give it up. He gave up his life."
Justice B. Hill is a senior writer with MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.