To African-Amer­i­cans, Easter tran­scends base­ball

The Buffalo News - - CON­TIN­UED FROM THE COVER - Sean Kirst is a Buf­falo News colum­nist. If you have me­mories or re­flec­tions on Luke Easter, email Kirst at skirst@ buffnews.com, write to him c/o Buf­falo News, One News Plaza, Buf­falo 14240 or read more of his work at http:// buf­falonews.com/au­thor/skirst

put the ball over the score­board at the old Of­fer­mann Sta­dium, only a few years be­fore the place was de­mol­ished.

Easter was the first player to do it. Those feats helped ce­ment his last­ing stature in Western New York folk­lore.

Yet for Smith, a his­to­rian with deep knowl­edge of the African-Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence in Buf­falo, the mean­ing will al­ways tran­scend base­ball.

“You have to un­der­stand,” he said qui­etly, “what Luke meant to us.”

The Flag Day blast was the rare feat that is be­yond ex­ag­ger­a­tion. The left-hand-hit­ting Easter got his whole 6-foot-4, 240-pound body into a pitch, and he drove it over a cor­ner of a score­board that stood 40 feet high at Of­fer­mann.

Home runs are in the na­tional spot­light this sum­mer, with Aaron Judge of the New York Yan­kees blast­ing them in a way that gen­er­ates sheer awe; one ball he hit dur­ing the home run derby in Tampa, Fla., is be­lieved to have climbed 17 sto­ries in the air.

In Buf­falo, it is hard to con­tem­plate those deeds with­out think­ing about Easter. What makes him res­onate is not sim­ply what he ac­com­plished as a player: It is the way he in­spired hope.

Easter, born in 1915 into Jim Crow con­di­tions in Mis­sis­sippi, joined the Bisons in 1956, mak­ing him the first African-Amer­i­can to play main­stream pro­fes­sional base­ball here since Frank Grant in the 1880s. He was al­ready in his 30s when Jackie Robin­son broke base­ball’s color line in 1947, al­ready past 40 dur­ing his great years at Of­fer­mann.

“He was loved by every­one,” Smith said, yet he had par­tic­u­lar mean­ing to Smith and other chil­dren of color. The ball­park was in a neigh­bor­hood rich with black her­itage. Easter lived in the city, not far away. He would of­ten show up at the Michi­gan Av­enue YMCA, a place Smith de­scribed as “a pil­lar for African-Amer­i­cans in Buf­falo.”

Easter was big­ger than life, a sym­bol of con­fi­dence and suc­cess in a com­mu­nity where op­por­tu­ni­ties were dif­fi­cult to find. “When he did good, we all did good,” said Danny Wil­liams, cu­ra­tor at the his­toric Col­ored Mu­si­cians Club of Buf­falo, who was a child in the bleach­ers on the day Easter hit the Flag Day shot.

That home run, against the old Colum­bus Jets, re­mains vivid in the mem­ory of those who saw it. Easter him­self down­played it, as he did many of his feats, claim­ing he’d hit a longer one in Buf­falo that cleared two city rooftops. Joe Al­to­belli, who played first base for Colum­bus that day and went on to man­age the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles to a World Se­ries cham­pi­onship, said he saw Easter hit equally ma­jes­tic home runs when they were team­mates in Rochester years later.

If so, as Easter liked to put it, those balls must still be go­ing. No one ques­tioned that the Flag Day shot ex­ceeded 500 feet. Some es­ti­mates put it at 550. It was a front-page story in The Buf­falo Evening News, and even Easter’s con­tem­po­raries were awed.

Gail Hen­ley, now 88, was play­ing cen­ter field for Colum­bus that evening, in the sec­ond game of a dou­ble­header. He lives now in Cal­i­for­nia. Reached by tele­phone, he re­called in de­tailed fash­ion how he re­acted to the ball as it came off the bat.

He said Bob Kuzava, who died in May – a guy who twice recorded saves in World Se­ries-clinch­ing games for the Yan­kees – was pitch­ing for the Jets. There were two men on base and 6,488 spec­ta­tors in the house when Easter swung at the first pitch, a fast­ball.

“It’s com­ing to­ward dead cen­ter field, I’m look­ing straight up, I’m go­ing back as far as I can,” Hen­ley said. He had never seen a ball hit so high that stayed up so long; he be­lieved he would catch it when it fi­nally came down.

It never did. Hen­ley went back to the fence and watched the ball van­ish over the score­board, an in­stant of phys­i­cal dis­be­lief that re­mains dis­tinct af­ter 60 years. In the same way, the im­age of the dis­ap­pear­ing ball stays with Fran Barry and Danny Wil­liams, who were boys in the stands, next to their fa­thers, as they watched that ball climb­ing in the sky.

“Luke had power,” said Wil­liams, adding em­pha­sis to that last word. “Hank Aaron would hit line-drive home runs with those wrists. Luke would put his whole body out there. You went to see him do that. He hit that ball, and it just kept go­ing up and up and up …” And then dis­ap­peared. John Boutet, Bisons ar­chiv­ist and cu­ra­tor, said no one else – not even Babe Ruth, who re­port­edly hit a long home run in an ex­hi­bi­tion game – had ever cleared the Of­fer­mann Sta­dium score­board. Hen­ley played with Wil­lie Mays in the mi­nors, when Mays hit .477 at Min­neapo­lis. He spent more than 60 years in base­ball as a player, man­ager and scout.

He still be­lieves that Easter’s shot in Buf­falo was the long­est home run he has ever seen.

There were two ma­jor news­pa­pers in Buf­falo, and each of­fered its own ac­count of what hap­pened to the ball. The News re­ported that it flew out of the sta­dium and slammed into a house at 128 Wood­lawn, owned by Irene Luedke. It made a sound, she said, like “an atomic bomb had hit.” The ball wound up on her porch, The News re­ported – a de­scrip­tion sup­ported by teenage wit­nesses Joe Batch and Earl Archie.

The Courier-Ex­press re­ported that a 16-year-old named Marvin John­son came up with the ball af­ter a fu­ri­ous scram­ble with some friends on Wood­lawn. He tried to re­turn it to Easter, who said: “No, son, that ball is yours,” and then signed it for him.

A search for Batch, John­son and Archie was un­suc­cess­ful. If they see this, and they re­mem­ber the tale, we’d love to hear from them.

Ac­cord­ing to Boutet, Easter put the ball over the Of­fer­mann score­board twice more, although nei­ther blast was quite as dis­tant as the first. The third one, in 1958, struck a house at 125 Wood­lawn. To un­der­line Smith’s point about the rich arc of neigh­bor­hood his­tory:

That was the home of the late Eu­gene Richards Sr., who be­came a civil en­gi­neer at a time when many doors were closed to African-Amer­i­cans – and played a key role, with the Army Corps of En­gi­neers, in the 1969 ini­tia­tive that tem­po­rar­ily shut down the Amer­i­can falls at Ni­a­gara.

His son, Eu­gene Richards Jr., 69, now in Cal­i­for­nia, said the ball­park was “a huge pres­ence” in their lives. The fam­ily home was right be­hind the score­board, and Richards said he re­mem­bers “the bang” when that home run hit the house, how his fam­ily went from room to room, look­ing for the cause.

They re­al­ized what hap­pened when they found a base­ball, on an up­per porch.

Easter died in 1979, a union stew­ard in Cleve­land who was fa­tally shot by rob­bers just af­ter he had cashed some pay­roll checks. He was only 63, and the tragic na­ture of his passing es­ca­lated the power of his leg­end.

As for Lum Smith, Easter re­mains part of a larger saga. His fa­ther, a fac­tory worker who of­ten brought his son to Bisons games, stepped off a train at the Cen­tral Ter­mi­nal in 1946, leav­ing be­hind a harsh youth in legally seg­re­gated South Carolina.

This is an age when sheer awe can of­ten be di­luted, when a dig­i­tal bar­rage of in­for­ma­tion threat­ens our col­lec­tive sense of won­der. But Smith, who was an African-Amer­i­can child in a na­tion that still of­fered many bar­ri­ers, went on to a ca­reer as a school ad­min­is­tra­tor.

That took re­silience and be­lief, faith he drew from his fam­ily and from com­mu­nity he­roes who ig­nited hope. Stand­ing at Mas­ten and Wood­lawn, at a spot he’ll al­ways equate with base­ball in Buf­falo, Smith re­called ex­actly what he felt that evening.

When Luke Easter hit the ball out of sight, Smith said, “It was like God did it.”

At left, Luke Easter in his hey­day with the Cleve­land In­di­ans in 1953. At right, of­fi­cials of the Buf­falo Bisons – from left, John C. Stiglmeier, Wil­liam H. Cole­stock and Don Lab­bruzzo – join Easter for 1958 sign­ing of the first base­man to a con­tract with a record salary for the team.

Mark Mul­ville/Buf­falo News

“You have to un­der­stand what Luke meant to us,” says Lum Smith, toss­ing a base­ball near where Luke Easter hit his his­toric home run on Flag Day 1957 in the old Of­fer­mann Sta­dium a few years be­fore it was de­mol­ished.

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