Luke Easter’s Career and Murder in 1979

In its report on the death of Easter, United Press International wrote on Friday, March 30, 1979:

Luke Easter, former Cleveland Indians first baseman and one of the first blacks to break into major-league baseball, was shot and killed yesterday by two men who robbed him of more than $5,000 outside a bank in suburban Euclid.

The two men accused of stalking and killing the powerful home-run hitter, who played for the Indians from 1949 to 1954 and who was a star in the old American Negro League, were caught after a high-speed chase and shootout with police. They face aggravated murder and aggravated robbery charges.

Victor Pritchett, 32, and Roderick Thomas, 31, both of Cleveland, were in fair condition at Euclid General Hospital. They both suffered superficial wounds and facial cuts when their getaway car crashed along a railroad underpass on Cleveland’s East Side.

Easter, 63, chief steward for the Aircraft Workers Alliance at TRW, Inc., Euclid, where he worked for about 15 years, was accosted by the suspects in a parking lot outside a Cleveland Trust Co. branch in a shopping centre at East 260th Street and Euclid Avenue. He had just cashed payroll cheques for his company totaling $5,000. He was shot in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun and a .38-calibre revolver and was dead on arrival at hospital.

Bank employees and police said Easter was known to have gone to the bank every other Thursday to cash payroll cheques totalling as much as $40,000 and usually asked Euclid police for an escort to the nearby plant. ”He did not ask for an escort today,” said Euclid police captain William Donner. Donner said the robbery suspects either knew Easter, had been former TRW employees or knew of his bank errands and had been stalking him.

Hearing the shots, bank employees sounded a robbery alarm to summon police. Authorities said the suspects fired wildly at them when they arrived and then fled in an auto. The chase proceeded through Euclid and into Cleveland and ended when the suspects’ vehicle crashed.

Instead of surrendering, the suspects got out of the car and opened fire on police, said Lieut. Howard Rudolph. The shots were so heavy a passing motorist’s vehicle was riddled by bullets as he threw himself down on the front seat.

During the attempted escape, police said one shot fired by the suspects smashed through the windshield of a police cruiser – passing between the two officers inside. Neither was injured.

Easter, born Aug. 4, 1915, in St. Louis, is on record as having hit what is believed to have been the longest home run at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. The 477-foot shot into the upper right-field stands occurred June 27, 1950.

The 6-foot-4, 240-pound slugger batted left-handed and in six seasons with the Indians, had a .274 batting average with 93 homers and 340 runs batted in. His best seasons were from 1950 to 1952 when he hit 28, 27 and 31 home runs, respectively.

Before joining the Indians in 1949, Easter played in the old American Negro League. He once hit a home run into the centre-field bleachers at the Polo Grounds in New York, a 475-foot blast, while playing in the Negro League.

Only two other players, Joe Adcock and Lou Brock, duplicated the feat.

After leaving the Indians, he continued to play for Rochester Red Wings in the International League until he was in his early 50s. Before that he played three years with the old Buffalo Bisons of the International League.

Thirteen years later, in 1992, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch looked back at the man:

IN A GAME filled with improbable lore and lustrous feats, Luke Easter – the first black major-leaguer from St. Louis – has been largely forgotten, a 6-foot-4 1/2, 240-pound footnote in baseball history. A Ruthian home-run hitter and personality, Easter is a legend in need of resurrection.

In 1949, Roy Campanella of the Brooklyn Dodgers overheard his teammates say that no one had ever hit the ball into the center-field bleachers at New York’s old Polo Grounds, 475 feet from home plate. He corrected them. Easter had done it in a 1948 Negro League game, playing for the Homestead Grays against the New York Cubans. “He hit it halfway up the stands, about 500 feet,” says Bob Thurman, Easter’s teammate. “The thing about it – it was a line drive.”

And in a home game against the Washington Senators in June 1950, Easter, then a Cleveland Indians first baseman, hit what is believed to be the longest home run ever at cavernous Municipal Stadium. The 477-foot shot, which one writer called “eerie,” went over the right-field upper deck auxiliary scoreboard, previously outer space for baseballs.

After Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Easter was the first black player who looked ready to challenge baseball’s sacred home-run records. Signed in 1949 by Bill Veeck, the Cleveland Indians owner, Easter became an instant sensation with the Triple-A San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League, then an Indians farm team. In 80 games, Easter hit 25 home runs, drove in 92 runs and batted .363 – while playing on a broken kneecap.

No Pacific Coast rookie since Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio had had so glorious a debut. In three seasons with the Indians, from 1950 to 1952, Easter batted in 307 runs and hit 86 home runs.

Even so, statistics – the barometer of baseball greatness – tell as much about Easter’s career as a blurb on a book cover.

Barred from the major leagues because of his color, and at first ignored by the Negro Leagues, Easter had an astonishing career. He turned 35 years old in his first full season with the Indians, only three years after he started playing professionally in the Negro Leagues.

To this day, Easter amazes baseball people. Al Rosen, manager of the San Francisco Giants and an Indian teammate of Easter’s, is known as an excellent judge of baseball talent. “Had Luke come up to the big leagues as a young man, no telling what numbers he would have had … Instinctively, he did all the right things.” Rosen paused, then added, “Maybe there is such a thing as ‘a natural.’ ”

Yet the people who admired Easter never knew his exact age or much about his background. Throughout his baseball career, Luke Easter maintained that he was born in 1921. But it is written, between the Old and New Testaments in the big, pictorial Easter family Bible, that he was born Aug. 4, 1915, at 8:15 p.m. His given name was Luscious.

Easter also let everyone believe he was born in St. Louis. But, in fact, Luke Easter was born in Jonestown, Miss., deep in the heart of the Delta.

“Luke never did want anybody to know he was from Mississippi,” said a younger brother, J.C. Easter, who still lives in St. Louis. “People would tease you if they knew you were from Mississippi. I guess Luke wanted to avoid that.”

As the preceding stories indicate, Easter was essentially a Great Lakes region legend as a major and minor league player, hitting tremendous home runs that were called Easter Eggs in Cleveland, Rochester, and Buffalo. He did grow up in St. Louis, but his legacy is most evident now in Cleveland, which named one of its parks after him. Cleveland hosted Easter’s funeral, as the Post-Dispatch explained:

For the first time, most of the baseball world knew Luke’s true age, 63. At the funeral home, 4,000 fans filed past his casket for a last look at their hero; more than 1,000 people attended the funeral at Mount Sinai Baptist Church; Cleveland police led a procession of 150 cars to the cemetery. In the casket was a fresh deck of his favorite “Bee” playing cards, placed there by his son Gerald.

Virgil Easter still lives in Cleveland, in the large two-story house that she and her husband bought in the early 1950s. A few miles west is Luke Easter Park, which has its share of crime and drugs. In a grassy area in the middle of a semi-circular drive, there is a seven-foot-high bust of Easter on a pink-granite pedestal. He’s wearing an Indians uniform.

Several miles east is the well-kept cemetery where Luke Easter is buried. Virgil Easter frets because a crab apple tree that once shaded the grave is gone. “But he liked the sun,” she said. “He wouldn’t have minded.” She visits her husband’s grave twice a year – near opening day and after the World Series.

Published in: on December 16, 2010 at 5:21 am  Comments (3)