Luke Easter, larger than life figure: Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Minors (Part II)

The powerful swing of Luke Easter

Luscious “Luke” Easter traveled to Culiacán, Mexico, after a solid half-season with Ottawa, 1954 International League, with a .348 AVG, 15 HR, and 48 RBIs, in 230 AB. The 6’4 1/2,” 240 lb. LH slugger never returned to the majors. He played three winter seasons—one in Mexico; and, two in Puerto Rico—plus 10 minor-league seasons, 1955-to-1964, retiring after 10 AB with the 1964 Rochester Red Wings. Easter was 39 years old when he started the October 1, 1954 winter season with the Culiacán Tomato Growers. Sam Jethroe (Cienfuegos) and Bill Virdon (Havana), who played against Easter in the 1954 International League, were in Cuba’s Winter League. Elston Howard, a top New York Yankees prospect with Toronto, 1954 International League, would join the 1954-55 San Juan Senators in Puerto Rico, pre-1955 New York Yankees.

Easter became a known commodity in Mexico the prior (1953-54) winter when he barnstormed in Mexico City with the Jackie Robinson All-Stars. One of Mexico’s baseball teams offered Easter $1,500 for one month, but the slugger politely declined. One source noted that Easter hit 20 HR in his 33 games with the 1953-54 Jackie Robinson All-Stars. No wonder Winter League teams were hopeful of signing him.

1954-55 MVP Season with Culiacán and Hermosillo

The six-team Mexican Pacific Coast (Winter) League featured an 80-game regular season through mid-February. Teams played home-and-away four-game series, with single games on Friday/Saturday, followed by a Sunday morning and afternoon double-header. The regular-season champ played the winner of the Veracruz League, in a best-of-five series. Mazatlán was favored to repeat with Pittsburgh Pirates prospects including Ron Kline, Felipe Montemayor, and Dick “Siete Leguas” Hall, who led this league with 20 HR in 1953-54. Whitey Herzog played the OF for the Navojoa Mayos. Gene Bearden, veteran LHP from Lexa, Arkansas, was Ciudad Obregón’s player-manager, until he was sold to Hermosillo. Bearden won 20 games for the 1948 Cleveland Indians and was Easter’s teammate with Cleveland, part of 1949 and 1950. He managed Easter with Hermosillo after the slugger was sold to that club.

Easter showed his power in an early-season series with Mazatlán, drilling two long homers. He hit another HR off Mazatlán’s Procopio Herrera the second week of November 1954, and line-drive hits off Daniel “La Coyota” Ríos, when Ríos became the first pitcher in this league to win 100 career games. There were on-the-field fireworks which resulted in a misunderstanding and a 90-game suspension handed out to Easter, one which he appealed and won. This, coupled with Culiacán’s poor showing, resulted in Easter being sold to the Hermosillo Naranjeros. By the final week of the season, Easter’s 18 HR were tied with Angel Castro of Mazatlán and Marv Williams of Navojoa. On February 11, 1955, Easter hit HR #19 in a 10-5 win over Navojoa. On the final Sunday, February 13, he hit a game-winning walk-off HR #20, in a 10-inning win, game one of a twin-bill. Easter may have nine RBIs in this four-game series, increasing his total from 51 to 60.

Easter’s final totals were a .371 AVG, 83 hits in 224 AB, league-leading 20 HR, and 60 RBIs—a near Triple Crown. He was voted league MVP. Benjamín Valenzuela, Ciudad Obregón, was the batting champ at .385. George Schmees, Ciudad Obregón, had 76 RBIs. Joe Brovia with Hermosillo had at least 16 HR and 61 RBIs. Easter hit third for Hermosillo, followed by left-handed hitter Brovia, http://edicionimpresa.expreso.com.mx/edicion_impresa/20071014/2/3.pdf. Easter’s 20 HR in 224 AB equals one HR per 11.2 AB, was like Reggie Jackson’s 20 HR for the 1970-71 Santurce Crabbers, in Puerto Rico, in 221 AB, a 70-game season. The single-season HR record in Puerto Rico is 27, by Willard Brown, 1947-48, a 60-game season, in 234 AB, for one HR per 8.67 AB. In Mexico’s Pacific League: Ronaldo Camacho hit 27 HR in 306 AB, 1963-64, in 83 games; then, Hermosillo’s Bob Darwin tied it with 27 HR in 278 AB, 1971-72, playing 71 games. Héctor Espino hit 26 HR for Hermosillo, 1972-73, 301 AB. Willie Mays Aikens hit 24 HR for Mazatlán, 1986-87, 219 AB (62 games), and 22 HR in 285 AB, 1988-89. Espino hit 25 HR for Hermosillo in 1964-65 (249 AB) and 25 in 1966-67 (281 AB). A comparable Mexico season to Easter’s 1954-55 MVP one was John Kruk, Mexicali, 1986-87. Kruk played 52 games with a .385 AVG, 15 HR, and 53 RBIs, in 187 AB. He hit one HR every 12.5 AB, and a .706 SLG.

Charleston, West Virginia, and Puerto Rico

Easter’s SABR bio at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/f29a4070 has details on his U.S. minor-league years from 1955-to-1964. He hit 30 HR with 102 RBIs for the 1955 Charleston (West Virginia) Senators, American Association. His managers were Danny Murtaugh and Vern Rapp.  Catcher Earl Battey was the top prospect for these last-place Senators, 50-104. Rance Pless, League MVP for first-place Minneapolis Millers, a New York Giants farm team, told the author: “Easter was intimidating at the plate; he had close to a perfect swing…was baseball smart.” Frank Malzone, 3B for the 1955 Louisville Colonels, played against Easter that season, and in Puerto Rico, 1956-57, when Malzone’s San Juan team faced Easter’s Caguas club. “Easter had to be 40 when I played against him in 1955,” recalled Malzone. “He was a pure hitter. It would have been great if he had the chance to come up [to the majors] earlier.”

Easter played for the 1955-56 Ponce Lions and San Juan Senators, in Puerto Rico. With Ponce, he had 10 HR and 23 RBIs in 121 AB, with a .273 AVG, after San Juan traded him for pitcher Dick Brodowski, a starter. Ponce (28-44) finished last in this five-team league and made several trades (and cost-cutting moves) noted by their player-manager, Mickey Owen. “I led Caguas [1953-54] to a Caribbean Series title, and Mayagüez [1956-57] to a league title and trip to Havana for the 1957 [Caribbean] Series,” said Owen. “But it was tough winning in Ponce under the owner [Martiniano García]. Easter was our oldest player [40] but our best hitter…hit twice as many HR [10] as Faye Throneberry (five HR in 238 AB.)” Easter had hit seven HR in 70 AB for the San Juan Senators, who later finished third (36-36), but lost their semi-final series to Caguas. José “Pantalones” Santiago, a pitcher with San Juan, had pitched in Cleveland’s minor-league season, the early 1950s when Easter starred for Cleveland. “Easter was something else,” stated Santiago. “He could still hit them over ‘los pinos’ (pine trees) at Sixto Escobar Stadium.”

Marvelous “Marv” Throneberry was San Juan’s 1B in 1955-56, and Faye Throneberry’s brother. (Marv Throneberry hit 36 HR for the 1955 Denver Bears, to eclipse Easter’s 30 for Charleston.) Danny Kravitz played RF for San Juan; Luis “King Kong” Villodas was the backup catcher to Joe Montalvo. “I thought Marv and George Freese were our two power hitters, but Easter was impressive,” said Kravitz, a Pittsburgh Pirates prospect, who the author later interviewed in Northeast Pennsylvania. “Easter was the real deal, even with his age [40], bad knees, limited mobility…had heard stories about him; a really good teammate.” King Kong Villodas was Easter’s teammate with Mayagüez, 1948-49; played against Easter in 1948 when his Baltimore Elite Giants faced Easter’s Washington Homestead Grays; and, then found himself on Easter’s side with San Juan. “What a great hitter and nice person,” recalled Villodas [in Ponce, 1991]. “Luscious was one of a kind with the Homestead Grays and our Mayagüez club…could still hit with San Juan.” Easter went 23-for-70 with San Juan, .329 AVG, with 17 RBIs. For the entire 1955-56 season, he batted .293 (56-for-191), 17 HR, and 40 RBIs. George Freese hit 16 HR; Bill White (Santurce) and Wes Covington (Caguas) each hit 13; and Marv Throneberry was fifth with 12 HR, post-36 for the 1955 Denver Bears, Yankees farm club managed by Ralph Houk. Pless, with Caguas, had the most doubles (17). Kravitz’s seven triples led the 1955-56 league.

Luke Easter with Caguas-Río PIedras

Easter’s third and final season in Puerto Rico was with Caguas-Rio Piedras, 1956-57, a 39-34 club which lost a tie-breaker game with San Juan (40-33), for third-place. Jim Landis, future AL Gold Glove OF, complimented Caguas teammate Easter, whose “suggestions and hints were helpful confidence builders.” Landis lived in the Normandie Apartments, as did Caguas teammate Sandy Koufax, and probably Easter. (Landis was traded to San Juan during the 1956-57 season; Koufax was released December 20, 1956, when Caguas had to make a roster move to have three current MLB players on its roster.) Landis recalled Ryne Duren joined Caguas after Koufax’s departure, and Duren also lived in the Normandie. Koufax’s biographer (Jane Leavy) mentioned that Landis’s bride made egg salad in Puerto Rico—shared with Koufax—and the only thing she knew how to make! Easter hit .255 with Caguas, with seven HR, and 25 RBIs. Tom Lasorda, the Caguas LHP in 1955-56 and 1956-57, echoed Landis’s remarks to the author about “Easter being a great teammate.” Vic Power, the Caguas 1B-3B throughout the 1950s, mentioned (to the author) that “Easter would have been a perfect DH, as a pure-powerful hitter.”

In three Puerto Rico winter seasons, Easter had 585 AB; scored 132 runs; cracked 193 hits, including 39 doubles, 11 triples, 38 HR; drove in 145; showed a .330 AVG, and .629 SLG. He was 1948-49 League MVP and batting champion (.402), per Part I. Ralph Houk, who managed against Easter in 1955 (Denver) and with the 1956-57 San Juan Senators, opined that “Easter’s powerful swing, resulted in him hitting the ball as far, or farther than Mickey Mantle.”

Minor Leagues (Buffalo, 1956-59, and Rochester, 1959-1964)

Luke Easter with Rochester

Easter showed that life “can begin after 40!” He smashed a league-leading 35 HR, with a league-best 106 RBIs, for 1956 last-place Buffalo Bisons (64-87), in the International League, and developed a tremendous following at home and on the road. Easter wasn’t the only “old guy” in this league—Sam Jethroe produced for first-place Toronto. The 1957 Buffalo Bisons finished 88-66, a half-game back of the 88-65 Toronto Maple Leafs, but bested the Richmond Virginians, four games-to-two, in the semi-finals; and, Miami Marlins, four games-to-one, in the finals. Buffalo had the highest regular-season home attendance—386,071—thanks to Easter, who again led the league with 40 HR and 128 RBIs. He was the All-Star 1B, too. Mike Cuéllar, LHP for the 1957 Havana Sugar Kings, remembered Easter as “someone who did damage at the plate against both righties and lefties. “El era una bestia (He was a beast),” recalled Cuéllar. And 1957 was the year Easter hit home runs over the scoreboard (twice) at Buffalo’s Offermann Stadium. He was the first player to accomplish this feat.

Easter’s 1958 International League HR-RBI crown was taken by Rocky Nelson, who hit 43 round-trippers and drove in 120. Nelson also won the Triple Crown, hitting .326. Easter still produced at age 43, with a .307/.415/.600 slash line, and a 1.015 OPS. Easter’s 38 HR and 109 RBIs would normally lead the league. He walked 89 times and struck out 122 times in 502 AB.

Buffalo released Easter in 1959 when Francisco “Pancho” Herrera came on the scene for the Bisons. Herrera led the International League with 37 HR and 128 RBIs. But Ellis “Cot” Deal, manager of the 1959 Rochester Red Wings, before being replaced by Clyde King, convinced Rochester to purchase Easter for $100 on May 14, 1959. “We were a St. Louis Cardinals farm team at the time,” recalled Deal. “I knew all about Easter from his time in Puerto Rico, and managing Rochester in 1957 and 1958, when we played Buffalo. It was a no-brainer to pick him up.” Easter also impressed Jorge S. Figueredo in 1959, when he hit a long HR in Havana, against the Sugar Kings. A photo of Figueredo conversing with Easter, in Havana, about the “prodigious home run he hit the night before” was published on page 457 in Cuban Baseball, written by Figueredo, McFarland Publishers. Easter is wearing #36 for the Red Wings. Easter finished 1959 with a .262 AVG, 22 HR, and 76 RBIs, in 478 AB, most of them with Rochester.

Per his SABR biographer, Easter “became perhaps the most popular player in Red Wings history.” Long-time Rochester writer George Beahon wrote, «foul weather or fair, he never denied an autograph.” Beahon, after filing stories from the press box to the morning paper, would see Easter “still around the clubhouse or the parking lot, signing his name and making friends for the franchise.» Luke Easter Night in 1960 drew over 8,000 fans, who saw him receive «a color television set, fishing equipment, a $300 wristwatch with diamond numerals, a movie camera, luggage, and a frozen turkey and five pounds of sausage.» Easter started his own Luke Easter Sausage Company; he made gifts to teammates in appreciation of strong performances.

On April 23, 1960, Easter hit a game-winning, 10th inning HR off Luis “Tite” Arroyo, LHP with the Havana Sugar Kings, in Havana, for a 4-3 win. Fidel Castro threw the first pitch in front of 12,490 fans, but Easter’s HR “stole the show.” Tite Arroyo, a teammate of Easter with San Juan (1956-57), said: “I had good stuff in 1960 and joined the New York Yankees later that season. But the ‘old man’ could always hit.” From 1960-to-1962, Easter had SLG marks above .500 for Rochester: .505, .512, and .514. He averaged 242 AB, a .292 AVG, 13 HR, and 56 RBIs per season in 242 AB. He hit .271 with six HR and 35 RBIs in 1963, in 188 AB, platooning with Steve Bilko, at 1B. He inspired youngsters like 20-year old Davey Johnson. (Rochester became a Baltimore affiliate in 1961.) Curt Blefary, Paul Blair, and Dave May were other baby Orioles he inspired by the time he retired in 1964, after 10 pinch-hitting appearances for Rochester. Easter’s career minor-league record for 13 seasons is .300 AVG, 247 HR, and 843 RBIs in 1,327 games/3,672 AB. His career minor-league slash line was .300/.403/.562, with .965 OPS, one HR per 14.87 AB (37/550 minor-league AB).

https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=easter001lus

After returning to Cleveland, Easter kept busy. He opened a café in Cleveland called The Majestic Blue Room. Per his SABR bio, «he had a lot of jazz acts at his club, and it was a pretty popular place in Cleveland.» Easter took a full-time job polishing airplane parts for TRW, on the night shift; gained the confidence of his co-workers; and, was named chief steward of the Aircraft Workers Alliance. Easter passed away on March 29, 1979, after being shot by two gunmen. He often cashed paychecks for fellow employees who could not make it to the bank. Easter was carrying a small handgun for self-protection, when he stepped out of a Cleveland Trust Company branch in Euclid, Ohio, that morning, carrying a bag full of cash. Two gunmen demanded the money from him. When he refused, they shot him several times in the chest. The gunmen were captured after a high-speed car chase, their pockets filled with the stolen cash. Easter was dead on arrival at the hospital.

Easter’s #25 was retired by the Buffalo Bisons on July 18, 1985. He was posthumously inducted in their inaugural Hall of Fame (1985). The Rochester Red Wings retired his #36 and inducted him in their inaugural Hall of Fame (1989). A 1999 fans’ poll named Easter the all-time favorite player in Rochester Red Wings history. Easter was inducted in the International League Hall of Fame in 2008.

With thanks to Miguel Dupouy Gómez for insights on Easter in Venezuela; and, Jorge Colón Delgado, for publishing Easter’s complete Puerto Rico Winter League stats.  Thanks to these ex-players and managers for their insights on Easter: Luis “Tite” Arroyo, Mike Cuéllar, Ellis “Cot” Deal, Dick Hall, Ralph Houk, Danny Kravitz, Tom Lasorda, Jim Landis, Frank Malzone, Mickey Owen, Rance Pless, Vic Power, José “Pantalones” Santiago, and Luis “King Kong” Villodas.

1 comentario en “Luke Easter, larger than life figure: Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Minors (Part II)”

  1. Como fanático de los Indios de Mayagüez, Luke Easter, para mi, ha sido uno de los mejores refuerzos que ha jugado en nuestra pelota profesional. Lo que no sabia era que habia jugado hasta tan tarde en su vida. Tremendo pelotero y persona. QDEP Luke Easter y gracias por los logros que tuvimos Los Indios, con el, en el equipo.

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