Death of a Baseball Great

BY David J. Krajicek

SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

 

 

The big man was barely out the bank door, hobbling on tender knees, when two thugs sidled up.

 

One leveled the beam of a stubby shotgun at his sternum.

 

He knew what they wanted: the payroll cash in his bag.

 

He may have smiled - an old habit. Or he may have reached for the .38 in his pocket. Whether induced or not, the gunman twitched his right index finger, and the gun belched a volley of lead that opened a hole in the man's chest.

 

As the victim crumpled to the sidewalk, the bang provoked someone in the bank to sound an alarm that sent police cars scrambling. The thugs grabbed the cash and sprinted to a car.

 

They would not get far. Justice awaited them - a couple of sad-sack nobodies from the bleak side of a rundown town.

 

And the man they left bleeding outside the bank near Cleveland on that day, March 29, 1979? His name was Luke Easter, and he was somebody.

 

He was a baseball player, and from 1949 until 1963, schoolboys in Cleveland and Buffalo waited in line for a chance to touch his uniform - just like they did for DiMaggio and Mays.

 

A diamond great

 

Born in 1915 in the Mississippi Delta and raised in St. Louis, Easter matured into a striking physical specimen - 6-feet-4 and 240 pounds, with shoulders that "spanned three traffic lanes," as a sportswriter put it, and rippled forearms that seemed sculpted from ironwood.

 

He was a baseball natural. A left-handed slugger, his prowess in sandlot games earned him a spot with the St. Louis Titanium Giants, a semipro factory team that gave black players a chance to play when segregated pro teams didn't.

 

A first baseman, Easter starred for five seasons with the team, from 1937 to 1941. Among fans, he was known for towering home runs and an electric smile. In the clubhouse, he was known as a cigar-chomping, sharp-dressing, rummy-playing cutup who made a habit of relieving teammates of their wages.

 

After a broken ankle and a stint in the Army took him out of baseball for a few years, he was signed in 1945 by Abe Saperstein - founder of the Harlem Globetrotters - for his barnstorming black ballclub, the Cincinnati Crescents.

 

That exposure led to a spot with the Homestead Grays, and in 1948 Easter led that team to the final Negro League championship.

 

But baseball was changing. Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947, ending the conspiracy that kept blacks out of the major leagues.

 

Three months later, Larry Doby broke the American League color barrier, and over the next two seasons more talented blacks made it to the majors: Hank Thompson, Dan Bankhead, Roy Campanella, Satchel Paige, Minnie Minoso, Don Newcomb, Monte Irvin.

 

Luke Easter got his chance in 1949, the 11th black big-leaguer, when he was signed by the Cleveland Indians, a rookie at age 34.

 

Easter proved he belonged - slugging 28, 27 and 31 homers from 1950-52. One of his bottle-rocket homers was the longest ball ever hit at Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium.

 

Bum legs and advancing age cut Easter's major league career short, after 114 home runs and 353 RBI in three full seasons and parts of three others.

 

He went on to AAA Buffalo, where he attained mythical status as an over-40 slugger. Although badly hobbled, he had 100 RBIs and 30 home runs for each of five seasons. One of his 1957 "Easter Egg" shots is said to have soared 550 feet - before shattering a window across the street from the stadium.

 

Fans in the Queen City would mob his Cadillac, and he would sign autographs and pose for snapshots until everyone was served.

 

As Buffalo baseball historian Joe Overfeld put it, "Never in the city's sports history has an athlete made such an impact on the community."

 

Easter finally retired from the Rochester Red Wings, then returned to Cleveland and took a job with TRW Inc., a supplier of parts to the auto industry. He was soon elected a union steward, which led to his trip to the Cleveland Trust Co. branch on E. 260th St. in suburban Euclid in 1979. He went to the bank on payday - every other Thursday - to cash checks for union members.

 

A lost cause

 

Easter was rushed to a hospital after the shooting but it was no use. He was dead on arrival - gone at age 63.

 

His killers led police on a breakneck chase into Cleveland - plinking shots at cops as they sped along - before they crashed.

 

Triggerman Victor Pritchett, 32, and Roderick Thomas, 31, survived the wreck and were charged with murder. Thomas had worked at TRW and knew that Easter carried bundles of loot on his check-cashing trips.

 

More than 4,000 people paid their final respects to Easter, including celebrities like Hall of Fame Pitcher Bob Feller. But most were common folks, like the scores of old fans who made the three-hour drive from Buffalo.

 

At trial three months after the murder, Thomas was convicted by jurors who rejected his story that Easter owed him $500 from a card game debt. A judge sent him away for life, plus additional terms for shooting at the cops.

 

A few months later, Pritchett pleaded guilty and got 15 years to life. He died in prison in 1995.

 

Thomas, now 60, is still behind bars, nearly 30 years after the murder. Denied release in 1999, he is scheduled for his second parole hearing this week.

 

Baseball aficionados still wonder over Easter's might and plight.

 

Historian and statistician Bill James has said that if Easter were playing now, he would be "the greatest power hitter in baseball today, if not ever."

 

Daniel Cattau, a Chicago writer and Easter biographer, said the big man was tragic in that racist protocols barred him from the spotlight during his prime.

 

He called Easter a "shooting star" who deserves more recognition.

 

"Ironically, his legend grew after he played in the majors as a prodigious home run hitter and Ruthian personality, albeit in Buffalo and Rochester," Cattau told the Justice Story. "Easter is one of the many might-have-been greats, but in reality the poor guy never really had a chance."