For Luke Easter, it was Sept. 29, 1951. For Dmitri Young, it was May 6, 2003. Great days at the plate by those two Mississippi natives have been rated among the top 5 all-time single-game performances for their respective MLB teams. Writers for mlb.com compiled the lists. Jonestown native Easter’s big day came in at No. 4 for Cleveland and Vicksburg native Young’s was No. 4 for Detroit. Easter — who became on Aug. 11, 1949, the first black Mississippian to play in the major leagues — went 4-for-6 with two homers, a triple, three runs and five RBIs against Detroit on Sept. 29, 1951. One of his homers was a grand slam and the other a game-tying blast in the bottom of the eighth inning. Young went 5-for-5 with two homers, two triples and five RBIs on May 6, 2003, at Baltimore. His 15 total bases were one shy of Ty Cobb’s club record. On April 4, 2005, Young hit three homers on opening day for the Tigers. That rare feat – only three others have ever done it — didn’t make Detroit’s top five. … The Kansas City Royals’ page on mlb.com didn’t have a top 5 list as of Tuesday, but if one was produced, Frank White’s Aug. 3, 1982, performance would surely be on it. The Greenville native hit for the cycle with four RBIs. His fourth and final hit was a two-out triple in the bottom of the ninth that drove in the game-winning run against Detroit. P.S. Easter hit .274 with 93 homers in his brief big league career; he was 34 when he debuted. Young, who went to high school in California, hit .292 with 171 bombs and made two All-Star Games over his 13 seasons. White, who grew up in Missouri, was a .255 hitter, five-time All-Star, eight-time Gold Glover and a world champ (in 1985) who ought to be in the Hall of Fame.
Buffalo, N.Y., where the Toronto Blue Jays plan to play home games at Sahlen Field this season, has a rich baseball history, and a native Mississippian occupies a prominent place in it. The city actually hosted a major league club, the Bisons, from 1879-85 and has had a minor league team of the same name practically ever since. It has been Toronto’s Triple-A affiliate since 2013. From 1924-60, the Bisons played at Offermann Stadium, which was torn down in 1962. At the site now is a commemorative plaque that makes particular mention of a home run hit at the ballpark by Luke Easter, the Jonestown native and onetime big leaguer. “Luke Easter … did on July 14, 1957, what no other player, major, minor, semipro or Negro League, had been able to do. He hit a low, outside pitch delivered by Bob Kuzava of the Columbus Jets 550 feet over the scoreboard in center field,” wrote Joseph Overfield in a SABR article. Easter, who became in 1949 the first black Mississippian to play in the major leagues, was in his 40s when he played in Buffalo from 1956-58. A fan favorite, he hit 113 home runs during those three seasons. Overfield writes that Easter’s scoreboard-clearing homer wasn’t even the longest one he hit at Offermann: “That blow came during the same 1957 season when he caught a high, inside fast ball from Jerry Lane of the Havana Sugar Kings and pulled it directly to rightfield, across Woodlawn Avenue, over the houses and into the alley of a house on Emerson Place, the next street south.” Easter is one of only three former Bisons to have his number – 25 – retired.
Today’s challenge is to build a player. Drawing from the pool of Mississippi-born big leaguers, put together a Super Player based on the five tools scouts evaluate in a position player. Those are hit, hit for power, field, throw and run. Start with the latter, which might be the easiest call here. Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton, currently signed to a minor league contract with San Francisco, is one of the fastest to ever play the game, a modern day equivalent of Starkville native Cool Papa Bell, the Negro Leagues legend and Hall of Famer. Hamilton has 299 career steals in his seven MLB seasons and holds the all-time pro record with 155 bags in the minors in 2012. Check. Hamilton also is a standout defender in center field, but Jackson native Chet Lemon arguably was better. Lemon, who played from 1975-90, recorded 509 putouts in center field for Detroit in 1977 to set a major league record. He had three more as a right fielder that year, and that 512 total ranks as the fourth-most all-time in a single season. Lemon ranked among the top 10 center fielders in putouts in a season seven times and among the fielding percentage leaders five times. No less an authority than Sparky Anderson called Lemon the best center fielder he had ever seen. Good enough. When it comes to throwing ability, one can’t go wrong with Grenada native Dave Parker. Anecdotal evidence: His throw from right field to nail a runner at the plate in 1979 All-Star Game is widely regarded as one of the most jaw-dropping ever. When players dared run on him, Parker made them pay. A three-time Gold Glover, he recorded 143 assists – 26 in 1977 alone — over a 19-year career from 1973-91, though he played little outfield the last four years. The best hitter, based on average alone, among Mississippi natives is Buddy Myer, the Ellisville native who played from 1925-41. A lefty-swinging singles hitter, Myer batted .302 for his career and won a batting title with a .349 mark in 1935. Gulfport’s Gee Walker, who played from 1931-45, batted .294, including a single-season best of .353 in 1936. Among more recent players, the best hitter is, surprisingly enough, Dmitri Young, the big (6 feet 2, 295 pounds) switch-hitter from Vicksburg who batted .291 from 1996-2008. He had more pop, with 171 career homers, than Myer or Walker, but for just pure hitting, Myer is the pick. When it comes to raw power, there are several great candidates, from Parker to George Scott to Ellis Burks to Hunter Renfroe. But, from many accounts, there was something special about the threat that Luke Easter brought to the plate. The 6-4, 240-pound Easter, from Jonestown, clubbed 93 big league homers in the 1950s and another 247 in a long minor league career. He hit some legendary bombs, including a 500-footer in Buffalo’s Offermann Stadium and a 477-footer in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. So, that’s Hamilton’s wheels, Lemon’s glove, Parker’s hose, Myer’s bat and Easter’s power. A star is born.
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.