Seventy years ago this month, Jonestown native Luke Easter helped the Homestead Grays win the 1948 Negro League World Series, beating the Birmingham Black Barons (and a kid named Willie Mays) 4 games to 1. Negro Leagues legend Buck Leonard and future major leaguer Bob Thurman were also on that Grays team. It was a significant Series in a couple of ways. The NLWS title was the last for the great Grays franchise, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that won three – plus nine Negro National League pennants — in a 12-year span. The 1948 season was also the last gasp of the old Negro Leagues. Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough in the majors in 1947 created opportunities for other prominent black players and began to diminish the talent in the Negro Leagues. Easter, who hit .363 with 13 homers and 62 RBIs for the ’48 Grays, would make the majors in 1949, becoming the first black Mississippian to do so. As a 34-year-old rookie in 1950, Easter slugged 28 homers for the Cleveland Indians. P.S. The National Urban Professional Baseball League, which launched on May 25 in Laurel and disbanded on July 1 due to a “lack of support,” plans to field teams again in 2019, according to the league website. The NUPBL has been rebranded as the Urban Baseball Association. All of the 2018 games for the four-team league were played at Laurel’s Wooten Field. The league was founded in response to declining numbers of African-American players in the game but is open to players of all races. One of the organization’s stated missions is to honor old Negro League stars and teams.
In recognition of Black History Month, here’s a tip of the cap to Howard Easterling, one of the state’s unsung stars from the days of segregation. Easterling, born in Mount Olive in 1911, was a switch-hitting third baseman who batted .315 over an eight-year Negro Leagues career, according to baseball-reference.com. He made his Negro Leagues debut in 1936 with the Cincinnati Tigers and in 1937 made the first of his five East-West All-Star Game appearances. Easterling played on the great Homestead Grays teams of the early ’40s, helping them win four Negro National League pennants and the 1943 Negro League World Series. The 1943 Grays, a team that included Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and a 40-year-old Cool Papa Bell, reportedly won 44 of 59 regular season games. They beat the Birmingham Black Barons in the World Series, winning a decisive eighth game – Game 2 was a 12-inning tie – with a late rally in which Easterling contributed an RBI hit, according to baseball-reference.com. Easterling, who served in the Army in 1944-45, played pro ball for several years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947 but never got a major league opportunity. He finished his career in the Mexican League in 1954. Easterling died in Collins in 1993.