2007 Black History Month coverage
Turn back the clock with a Red Wings cap
Get a throwback Bisons lid
There's been a lot of fuss, understandably, about Julio Franco getting ready to play the 2007 season at age 48.
But how many people remember that more than 40 years ago, a decade after his big-league career ended, Luke Easter was doing the same thing Franco is accomplishing now, only Minor League style?
Most may recall Easter from his time with the Cleveland Indians. He spent parts of six seasons in the Major Leagues, hitting 93 homers and driving in 340 runs, most of them coming from 1950-52. During that three-year span, the big first baseman averaged nearly 29 homers and just over 102 RBIs per season.
Since Easter didn't make his big-league debut until he was 34 in 1949, his time in the Majors was brief. He got 211 at-bats in 1953 and just six pinch-hit appearances in 1954 before his big-league career was over. In 1954, the Indians decided to go with younger options at first base, Bill Glynn and Vic Wertz. That, of course, begs the question: Had the Indians stuck with Easter and his prodigious power, would he have managed to hit the ball into the stands at the Polo Grounds instead of into Willie Mays' outstretched glove in the 1954 World Series?
Obviously, that's a question that can never be answered. While Easter never returned to the Major Leagues, that didn't mean his playing career was over. He had begun playing affiliated baseball with San Diego of the Pacific Coast League after the Indians signed him in 1949, hitting .363 with 25 homers and 92 RBIs in 80 games while setting records for longest home runs hit in several PCL parks. That prompted the Indians to call him up at the end of the 1949 season.
When the Indians shipped him out in 1954, they sent him back to San Diego. Easter hit 13 homers and drove in 42 runs in 56 games for the Padres before losing his job to big-league veteran Dick Sisler. So he moved on to the Ottawa Athletics of the International League, with whom he hit 15 more round-trippers in 66 games. Clearly, Easter, with a combined 28 homers and 90 RBIs in 122 Minor League games, still had a lot of baseball left in him.
He made his greatest impact, both as a player and a person, in Upstate New York. Before that, he spent one season with the Charleston Senators, a woeful team in the American Association. Easter shined on the last-place squad, clubbing 30 homers and driving in 102 runs in 144 games. He tied Rocky Colavito behind leader Marv Throneberry in the home run race that season.
Easter turned 40 in August 1955. A year later, the Buffalo Bisons came calling. The International League team had been affiliated with the Tigers, but ended that association after the 1955 season. Without a source of Major League talent, they filled the roster with former big leaguers and Minor League veterans in 1956. That included Easter, who turned 41 that season.
Like many players in his situation, Easter lied about his age when he first entered organized ball, so at the time, few knew how old he really was. Even now, there is some debate over whether he was born in 1914 or 1915.
Whatever his age, he could still hit. Easter finished the season with a .306 average while leading the International League with 35 homers and 106 RBIs. He didn't slow down in 1957, with the Bisons signing an affiliation agreement with the Kansas City A's. Easter again led the league in homers (40) and RBIs (128) while topping the circuit in total bases, walks and strikeouts.
His legend continued to grow with tape-measure shots, including the longest home run in Offerman Stadium history. He cleared the center-field scoreboard twice, becoming the only player ever to do so.
Easter turned 43 in 1958 and celebrated by hitting .307 with 38 homers and 109 RBIs. While becoming popular because of his prodigious strength, he became a fan favorite and a legend due to his ties to the community. Easter started a business (a sausage company) in Buffalo and was extremely generous with his time and product. Perhaps he was too generous, as the business failed a few years later when he had moved on to Rochester.
Easter would never turn down an autograph request and connected with people in a way few professional athletes ever had.
Even after having such a tremendous season, Easter's time in Buffalo came to an end in 1959. The Bisons had joined forces with the Philadelphia Phillies, who had some young talent coming up the pike. That included first baseman Pancho Herrera, who finished second in National League Rookie of the Year voting in 1960. Easter began the 1959 season with Buffalo, but the Bisons needed to make room for Herrera, so they released him.
Luckily for Easter -- and the people of Rochester -- the Red Wings decided they could use some left-handed power. So Easter traveled east on the New York Thruway and made his sixth, and final, Minor League stop in Rochester. During the 1959 season, Easter combined to hit 22 homers and drive in 76 runs over 143 games, all while turning 44.
Maybe Easter started slowing down, but he still contributed a great deal over the next few seasons in Rochester. He batted .302 in 115 games in 1960 and still had enough power to hit 14 homers in 275 at-bats. He slugged 10 more homers in 1961 and 15 in 1962, all in a part-time role. He appeared in only 77 games in 1963, hitting six homers in 188 at-bats. In his final season of 1964, the year he turned 49, he garnered only 10 at-bats in 10 games.
Easter finished his Minor League career with a .296 average (he hit .274 in the big leagues). He bashed 385 home runs, 234 of which came in the Minors.
But his impact went far beyond what he did on the field. During his time there -- and even after he had retired as a player -- he served as a coach and helped several young players develop, including several who made it all the way to the Baltimore Orioles. Future All-Star Boog Powell, 1965 AL Rookie of the Year Curt Blefary and 1963 Rookie of the Year runner-up Pete Ward were among several players who credited Easter for their success in the big leagues.
Just like Buffalo, and every place else he lived and played, Easter made a lasting impression with fans and community. It was easy to tell what kind of impact he had just by the reaction of fans and teammates when Easter, working as a security guard in Cleveland, was shot and killed during a 1979 burglary attempt.
Former Indians teammates like Bob Lemon and Al Rosen served as honorary pallbearers at his funeral and many remembered what kind of man Easter was.
"He was one of the most popular players in Red Wing history," said Red Wings general manager Bob Drew. "He wouldn't leave the ballpark until the fans were gone."
Those kinds of memories linger. Joe Altobelli, who still lives in Rochester and broadcasts Red Wings games, fondly recalled his time playing with the slugging first baseman, both for his presence in the lineup and the community.
"He was a big man, for that time in baseball," Altobelli said. "He looked almost abnormal because he was so big. He was a fixture around here. The fans loved him. He made the most of it. He was a very good ballplayer in Cleveland, Rochester and Buffalo. The fans in all three cities do remember him.
"We'd have lunch with people and sell tickets for the ballclub. We'd do this during the offseason. I remember doing that with him. He was nice enough to do a lot of luncheons and banquets. We did a lot of them together. He was a non-complainer."
That might be what stands out the most. Easter showed he belonged, and could star, at any level of the game. But he didn't get the chance to show that until late in his career, too late to stick in the big leagues for any length of time. Not once, however, did Altobelli hear Easter complain about his lot in life, about how baseball's color barrier kept him from becoming one of the Majors' great sluggers.
Instead, Easter enjoyed life -- and baseball in the Minors -- to the fullest.
"He wasn't the type [to complain]," Altobelli said. "He was a jovial guy. He was just good to be around. The fans loved him for that. He looked at life in a positive way and he was thankful to be a baseball player and thankful he could hit a baseball a long way."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.