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.
Crystal Springs native Hunter Renfroe hit his 26th home run of the season for San Diego on Sunday, the last day of the MLB regular season. That’s an impressive total to be sure. But it’s not the record for homers in a rookie season by a Mississippi native. That belongs to Luke Easter, who hit 28 for Cleveland in 1950 – at the age of 35. Easter, a Jonestown native, was the first black Mississippian to play in the majors, breaking in late in 1949. Greenville native George Scott hit 27 “taters” as a rookie for Boston in 1966. Vicksburg’s Ellis Burks, Mississippi’s all-time home run leader with 352, hit 20 for the Red Sox in 1987, his first year. Worth noting: Renfroe hit four homers in 11 games at the end of the 2016 season but was still classified as a rookie this year. Calhoun native Dave Parker, who launched 339 career bombs, hit just four as a rookie in 54 games for Pittsburgh in 1973. McComb native Corey Dickerson hit 24 homers in 2014, his first full season with Colorado, but he no longer had rookie status. Gulfport’s Bill Melton cracked 23 in 1969 as a first-year regular for the Chicago White Sox, but he had exceeded rookie standards in 1968. … Billy Hamilton, the former Taylorsville High star, finished the season with 59 stolen bases, one shy of MLB leader Dee Gordon. Hamilton’s last attempt at a 60th bag on Sunday was foiled when the lead runner in a double steal was thrown out in Cincinnati’s win over the Chicago Cubs. Hamilton, with 243 career steals, is the all-time leader among Mississippi natives. … Ole Miss alum Zack Cozart went 0-for-3 to finish at .297 in what was probably his final game with the Reds. Cozart is among a sizable group of Mississippi-connected players headed for free agency, including Lance Lynn, Seth Smith, Mitch Moreland, Jarrod Dyson and Tyler Moore.
On this date in 1949, Luke Easter became the first black Mississippian to play in a major league game. A native of Jonestown, in Coahoma County, Easter made his debut as a pinch hitter for the Cleveland Indians at old Cleveland Stadium. This was two years and several months after Jackie Robinson broke the modern-era color line. Easter was 34 when he got his chance, having already played numerous years in various Negro Leagues. Easter did not homer in 45 at-bats for the Indians in 1949 but mashed 93 homers over the next four seasons, many of them tape-measure shots. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound first baseman produced two 100-RBI campaigns and had another of 97. Easter’s big league career was over after six games in 1954, but he played 10 more years in the minors. Despite his short time with the team, Easter was selected as one of the 100 Greatest Cleveland Indians in 2001, when the club celebrated its 100th anniversary. He died tragically in 1979 (see previous posts). P.S. In the majors on Thursday: Corey Dickerson, the former Meridian Community College star, snapped an 0-for-21 skid with a game-changing three-run homer for Tampa Bay in a win over Cleveland. It was homer No. 22 for Dickerson, who joins Southern Miss alum Brian Dozier atop the leaderboard in the All-Mississippi Home Run Derby. Ex-Mississippi State star Hunter Renfroe has 20. … Ole Miss product Lance Lynn was hit in the head by a batted ball in the third inning but stayed in the game for St. Louis. He worked six innings all told, allowing two runs, and took a no-decision in the surging Cardinals’ 8-6 win vs. Kansas City.
There is an inextricable link between Mississippi and the Cleveland Indians, who are back in the World Series for the first time in 19 years and seeking their first title since 1948. The first black Mississippian to play in the major leagues did so for Cleveland. Jonestown native Luke Easter, a long-ball legend in many circles, debuted on Aug. 11, 1949, at age 34. He was a big man with big power, which he had demonstrated in semi-pro and Negro League ball before the Indians signed him in 1948, and he had three big years – 1950-52 — in the big leagues. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Easter hit 86 homers and drove in 307 runs in those three seasons. As age and injuries caught up to him, the Indians shipped Easter out in May of 1954. He never played another MLB game but put in 11 more years in the minors, ending his playing career with 367 homers, many of them tape measure blasts that old-timers still talk about. Easter, murdered in 1979 during a robbery in Ohio, really ought to be in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.