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Easter' s Charisma, Remarkable Slugging Captivated Fans Print E-mail

Saved Buffalo Franchise in Mid-1950s

By Joseph M. Overfield

WHO WAS BUFFALO'S FIRST black ballplayer? This is a favorite trivia question among Buffalo baseball fans. The usual answer: Luke Easter, of course. But as in most good trivia questions the obvious answer is not the correct one. Easter was number two, not No. 1. The first was Frank Grant, legendary dark-skinned infielder of the last century, who played for the Bisons in 1886, 1887 and 1888.

While Grant was a remarkable player and enjoyed three productive seasons in Buffalo, his impact on the city and on the franchise was not extraordinary. Easter, on the other hand, not only became the most popular in the Bisons' long history, but also in 1956, 1957 and 1958 almost single-handedly enabled baseball to survive in the Queen City.

In the fall of 1955 baseball was practically dead in Buffalo after 79 consecutive seasons. The baseball Bison was about to disappear, as had its four-legged namesake of the western plains, a victim not of wanton slaughter, but of such strange ailments as television, race tracks, open-air movies, major league radio and television broadcasts and the lack of parking facilities at Offermann Stadium. Or so the pundits said.

The Detroit Tigers had owned the franchise for four unprofitable seasons. After sixth-place finishes in 1954 and 1955 had attracted just 120,621 and 126,351 fans, respectively, the Tigers announced they were pulling out. With no purchasers in sight, it seemed that Buffalo would be without baseball for the first time since the summer of 1877. Certainly this would have been the case had it not been for the vision and enterprise of John C. Stiglmeier, a veteran baseball front-office man, and Harry Bisgeier, a local businessman who at one time had operated the Jamestown club of the Pony League.

They conceived the idea of community ownership, financed by an offering of stock to local fans for $1.00 a share. Of the 250,000 shares Offered, 182,000 were sold; not a smashing success, but sufficient to allow Stiglmeier and Bisgeier to exercise their option to purchase the franchise from Detroit for $75,000. Seventy years earlier, by a strange quirk of baseball history, there had been another franchise sale involving Buffalo and Detroit. In September of 1885, Frederick K. Stearns of Detroit had bought the Buffalo National League franchise, including the famed "Big Four" of Dan Brouthers, Deacon White, Jack Rowe and Hardy Richardson, for just $7,000. In each case it was a bargain for the purchasers. Bolstered by the Buffalo players, Stearns' team finished second in 1886 and won the pennant in 1887. As for the later purchase, it led to a revival of baseball in Buffalo and brought it to heights it had never reached before.

For their $75,000 Stiglmeier and Bisgeier received only a franchise and nine players considered expendable by Detroit. With no working agreement and Triple-A players hard to come by, the outlook was bleak indeed. The Bisons did have a place to play, however. Jacobs Brothers, owners of Offermann Stadium, agreed to lease the park for $1.00 a year, retaining, of course, concessions privileges. Underfinanced as they were, the new operators were in no position to spend a lot of money on player acquisitions. They did, however, gamble $7,500 of their meager cash reserve on the purchase of Luke Easter from Charleston of the American Association. The ex-Cleveland Indian with the suspect knees had hit 30 home runs and batted .283 for Charleston in 1955. "We are building a team to fit Offermann Stadium," said Stiglmeier in announcing the purchase of the supposedly 34-year-old slugger. In Stiggy's mind was Offermann Stadium's friendly right-field wall, measuring 297 feet from home plate to foul pole and just 12 feet high. In the next three years Stiglmeier was to learn, to his delight, that when Big Luke connected the short porch was never a factor.

Stiglmeier was also to learn that Easter, by his personality, his showmanship (his duels with his old antagonist of Negro League days, Satchel Paige, were classics) and by his performance on the field, was literally to save the game in Buffalo. The first year (1956), for example, Luke never stopped trying, even when the Phil Cavarretta-managed team of over-the-hill veterans and untried youngsters became hopelessly mired in last place. He led the league in home runs (35) and RBIs (106) and batted .306. On August 6 he hit a home run off Jerry Lane of the Havana Sugar Kings that is still talked about with awe by old-time Bison fans. The blow cleared the right-field light tower (not to mention Stiglmeier's 12-foot wall), crossed Woodlawn Ave., soared 30 feet over a two-story dwelling, struck the roof of a house on Emerson Place, the next street over, and finally came to rest in the street. Counting the roll, it had travelled 550 feet.

Easter's gimpy knees and apparent awkwardness notwithstanding, he did a creditable job in the field, handling 1,261 chances and erring just 12 times for an average of .991.

But more important than his statistics was his, charisma. He instilled in Buffalo fans an enthusiasm for the game that had disappeared under Detroit's absentee ownership. Whenever Easter came to the plate, the fans would yell "Loooooook, Loooooook," while Bison announcers Bill Mazer and Roger Baker explained that these were not boos. The fact is, despite his frequent strikeouts, Easter was never booed in Buffalo. Attendance that first year of community ownership was not earth shaking, but the 186,811 total was 60,000 ahead of 1955 and was sufficient to insure another season of baseball. The books showed an operating loss for the year of just $36.00!

The modest improvement of 1956 was just a prelude. A working agreement with the Kansas City Athletics brought the 1957 Bisons such players as Mike Baxes, Ray Herbert, Ray Noble, Walter Craddock and Glen Cox. The team was competitive all the way, finishing second, just a half game behind Toronto. The Bisons then defeated Richmond and Miami in the playoffs to qualify for the Junior World Series. Good as they were, the Bisons were no match for Ralph Houk's formidable Denver Bears, losing the series four games to one.

But what a season it had been! Attendance skyrocketed to 386,071, best in the minors for 1957. The playoffs drew 43,693 and two Junior World Series games attracted 23,071, making a grand total for the year of 452,835, best in Buffalo history and one of the highest ever in the minor leagues up to that time.

Shortstop Mike Baxes was the league's Most Valuable Player, Joe Caffie batted a league-leading .330 and lefty Walt Craddock won 18 games to become Rookie of the Year, but the big story for the Bisons was Luke Easter. In two short years he had become the most visible man in the city, known to everyone as "Luke." His last name had become a redundancy. His .279 batting average was misleading. Despite continuing problems with his eyes and knees, he played every one of Buffalo's 154 games, led the league in home runs (40), walks (100), total bases (300) and RBIs (128).

But again statistics were not the whole story. From the time it was built in 1924 up to June 14, 1957, an estimated 2,735 regular season, playoff and Junior World Series games had been played at Offermann (flee Bison) Stadium, not to mention numerous semi-pro, amateur, Negro League and exhibition games. Assuming a conservative 75 at-bats per game (counting International League-related games only), 205,125 batters had come to the plate and looked at the massive 40-foot scoreboard slightly to the right of dead center-field. No one, including non-league players, had been able to clear it. Bob Thurman of the Newark Bears came closest in 1949 when he hit, but did not clear, the advertising sign on top of the board.

In the second game of a doubleheader on the warm, hazy evening of June 14, 1957, Luke Easter did the impossible. Lefthander Bob Kuzava of the Columbus Jets delivered a knee-high fast ball over the outside of the plate - "A perfect pitch," Kuzava said later. Luke's timing was perfect, and he met the ball with all the strength of his six-foot, four-inch, 230-pound frame, sending it soaring to deep centerfield. As the ball cleared the barrier, there was a second of stunned silence, followed by the loudest and longest ovation anyone could recall in that old ball park. Plate umpire Ed Sudol and Bison skipper Phil Cavarretta agreed they had never seen a ball hit harder. Said Luke, prophetically, "If my legs hold out, I'll do it again. Besides, the one last year against Havana was harder hit."

"The Home Run" was the talk of the town for days. How long was it? The figures were fed into a computer at one of the local utility companies. "Workhorse," as this early IBM monster was called, declared that the "hang time" of the drive had been five seconds before it hit the roof of a

Woodlawn Ave. house and then bounced down to its upper porch, and that it had carried exactly 506.4 feet. According to the record book, Luke was just six weeks short of his thirty-sixth birthday when he hit his epochal home run. At the time he admitted he was fudging a bit on his age. How much? Even "Workhorse" could not answer. The truth was to come out later under tragic circumstances.

Two months later on August 15 Luke, as he had predicted, cleared the scoreboard again, this time against righthander Willard Parsons of the Richmond Virginians. Again it was a low pitch, and when it was hit it took off like a liner for the first 60 feet and then began to climb until it hit the soft drink sign on top of the scoreboard and dropped down. The ball was never found, which did not disturb Luke in the least. As he told Cy Kritzer, veteran Buffalo Evening News baseball writer, "I just hit `em and forget `em." Later that year in the playoffs, this time off hard-throwing Jim Coates, also of Richmond, Easter hit another tremendous blast that cleared the center-field wall, just to the left of the scoreboard.

The next season, 1958, was to be a down year for the Bisons. The drop from second to seventh place, plus growing dissatisfaction with the managerial tactics of Cavarretta, dampened the euphoria of the previous year. Nevertheless, the Bisons drew an acceptable 286,480 fans, best in the league. Easter continued to perform well. His batting average improved to .309 and his 38 home runs and 109 RBIs were second only to Rocky Nelson's 43 and 120 totals.

In three seasons with Buffalo, Easter hit 113 home runs, scored 251 times, drove in 343 runs, amassed 880 total bases, walked 313 times and averaged .297. What he did on the field was thus easily translated into facts and figures; what he did for baseball in Buffalo can never be measured. Thanks largely to him, the city's most identifiable possession – its baseball team - was kept alive. Under Detroit's lily-white ownership, black fans had deserted Offermann Stadium. Luke Easter brought them back. He spread the gospel of the game off the field, as well. His usual response when asked to attend a function was, "What time do you want me there?" He helped to prove that minor league baseball could survive, even prosper, in spite of major league broadcasts and telecasts, race tracks, open-air movies and a lack of parking at Offermann Stadium. In retrospect, what Easter and community ownership did for baseball in Buffalo was only a delaying action. International League baseball was to expire there in 1970, or 11 years after Luke played his last game for the Bisons.

By all that was right and proper, Easter should have finished his career in Buffalo. But the game can be harsh at times. By 1959 the Bisons had a new manager, Kerby Farrell, and a new working agreement, this time with the Phillies. The parent club had a prize young first base prospect by the name of Frank Herrera and wanted him to play that position. Cognizant of the importance of Easter to Buffalo baseball, the Phillies allowed Farrell to try Herrera at third base and then at second. But the experiments failed. In addition, Easter had a difficult time getting started. Two weeks into May he was batting .176, had but one home run and was hurting the team in the field. A front page story in the Buffalo Courier-Express of May 14, 1959, told it all: "THERE IS NO JOY, LUKE IS RELEASED."

As was his style Easter took the news without complaint. "I had three good years here, and the fans were great to me," he said. Within a few days he signed with Rochester, where in six more seasons as a player and coach he was to become just as much of a legend as he had been in Buffalo. On Thursday, March 29, 1979, Luke Easter, by then a union steward for the Aircraft Workers Alliance at TRW, Inc. of Cleveland, was accosted by two men as he left a branch office of the Cleveland Trust Co. in Euclid. When he refused to give up the cash he had in a shopping bag, he was hit fatally above the heart by a shotgun blast. The money in the bag was not his. It was from checks he had cashed for fellow workers.

At the time of his death, it was announced that Easter was 63. Yes, he had "fudged" on his age. When he joined the Bisons in 1956, he was thus 40 and not 34; when he hit his monumental home run off Bob Kuzava in 1957, he was 41, not 35, and when he went to bat professionally for the last time in 1964, he was 48, not 42.

It was a tragic end for a man who had given so much to baseball, and who could have given so much more had he not been 33 when he began. Easter has not been forgotten in San Diego, Cleveland, Ottawa, Charleston, Rochester and especially not in Buffalo, where as the first black player in the city's modem baseball history he helped so dramatically to save the franchise.