Howard Easterling: “under the radar” switch-hitter

Howard Easterling with Ponce in 1946-47 season.

Mount Olive, Mississippi produced one of the best switch-hitting third basemen (3B) in MLB history: Howard Easterling. He was born November 26, 1911; and, passed away in Collins, Mississippi, September 6, 1993.  The main focus of this blog is Easterling with the Homestead Grays in the States; Ponce Lions in Puerto Rico; and Sabios de Vargas, in Venezuela. He was Ponce’s 3B in their 12-8 win over the New York Yankees, February 24, 1947.

Easterling with 1940-43 and 1946 Homestead Grays

Per Gary Ashwill, 1940 Homestead Grays won their third Negro National League (NNL) pennant in four years, despite losing Josh Gibson to the Mexican League.  https://seamheads.com/blog/2016/04/25/negro-leagues-db-update-1940-nnl-nal/   Raymond Brown (16-2) was the Grays top hurler; Buck Leonard (.369 AVG, 8 HR), the top hitter. Easterling posted a .346/.404/.508 slash line, with .912 OPS. His three HR and 43 RBI in 50 documented games and 185 AB translate to nine HR and 129 RBI in 150 games and 555 AB. https://www.seamheads.com/NegroLgs/player.php?playerID=easte01how  Easterling produced for the 1941-43 Grays, culminating with his .350 AVG, two HR, and 61 RBI for the 1943 club, in 72 contests. Among his 100 hits were 13 doubles and 10 triples. He was 5’10” and weighed 175 pounds

The 1943 Homestead Grays were 78-23-1 overall under Candy Jim Taylor (53-14-1 in league play.) https://www.seamheads.com/NegroLgs/team.php?yearID=1943&teamID=HG&tab=bypos Easterling might hit third in front of Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard; or, fifth, after Leonard and Gibson. In 1943, Easterling played 2B and 3B, with 47-year old Jud Wilson penciled in at 3B. Sam Bankhead played short, while James “Cool Papa” Bell (LF), Jerry Benjamin (CF), and Vic Harris (RF) patrolled the OF. Raymond Brown played RF, too. The pitching staff was led by Johnny Wright, Raymond Brown, Spoon Carter, Edsall Walker, and Roy Partlow. The Grays bested the Birmingham Black Barons, four games-to-three (with one tie) in the Negro World Series. In the final game at Montgomery, Alabama, October 5, 1943, Leonard walked with two outs in the eighth, with his team trailing, 4-2. Four straight hits by Gibson, Easterling, Harris, and Bankhead gave the Grays a 5-4 lead, an eventual 8-4 victory. Brown (2-0) and Wright (2-1) accounted for the Grays’ four wins. Brown was 8-1 in regular-season league play while Wright won the pitching Triple Crown: 20-4 W-L, 2.36 ERA, and 120 strikeouts.

Easterling received some advanced pay for the 1944 season but was in Military Service during 1944 and 1945. He returned to the Grays in 1946 and batted .288 in 33 league games with one HR and 22 RBI, sharing time at 3B with Dan Wilson (.278 AVG, one HR, 24 RBI). Josh Gibson (.320, 13-52) and Buck Leonard (.337, 7-44) were the power hitters. Cool Papa Bell hit an even .400 AVG in his 120 AB, at age 43. Easterling played a handful of games in the California Winter League, prior to his World War II combat duty.

Wilmer Fields, a 1940-41 and 1946 Grays teammate of Easterling, appreciated Easterling’s professionalism. “I was just out of college when I joined the Grays,” recalled Fields. “The long bus trips were part of it. My teammates were fine human beings and terrific ballplayers…”

Ponce Lions, 1940-42

George Scales managed Easterling in Ponce, three winter seasons. The 1940-41 Lions finished seventh of eight teams, with a 19-23 record. Easterling’s 56 hits in 166 AB gave him a .337 AVG, second-best on the team to Francisco “Pancho” Coímbre’s .401 AVG (67 for 167). (There were five .400 + hitters in the league: Roy Partlow, San Juan, .443; Ted Young (.426) and Perucho Cepeda (.421) of Guayama; Clarence Palm (.409), with Santurce; and Coímbre.)

Ponce won the first of four straight league titles in 1941-42, with a 30-13, .698 PCT record, equivalent to 113 wins in 162 games. Easterling’s .360 AVG and .605 SLG were a huge help. Coímbre led the team with a .372 AVG; Sammy Bankhead hit .351. Josh Gibson’s .480 AVG for Santurce was an all-time single-season record. Willard  Brown, with Humacao-Arecibo, trailed Gibson at .410. Easterling tied Johnny Hayes of Mayagüez and Guayama’s Quincy Trouppe for third in HR, with six, behind Gibson’s 13 and Caguas’s Luis Rodríguez Olmo, who hit seven.

Raymond Brown (12-4) and Juan Guilbe (11-2) accounted for 23 of Ponce’s 30 wins. Other top-notch league hurlers were Leon Day (Aguadilla); Luis Rafael Cabrera and Vidal López (Santurce); and, Caguas’s Billy Byrd. Easterling and some teammates played in the League All-Star Games, a twin-bill, against the Northeast (Caguas, Humacao, San Juan, and Santurce). The Southeast All-Stars comprising Aguadilla, Mayagüez, Ponce, and Guayama players were swept by the Northeast squad.

Ponce, 1946-47: Easterling Replaces Jackie Robinson

Howard Easterling with Ponce 1946-47 season.

Ponce Lions owner Martiniano García thought Jackie Robinson would reinforce his 1946-47 team. Instead, he scrambled to sign switch-hitter Easterling, who was available and popular among Ponce fans. García was informed, “Robinson could not play for Ponce.” There is speculation the Brooklyn Dodgers wanted to protect Jackie Robinson from a possible injury.

Ponce was 20-10 in the first half, a game behind 21-9 Caguas, before winning the second half (18-12 to 17-13) over San Juan. Four Lions starters were Tomás “Planchardón” Quiñones, Juan Guilbe, José “Pantalones” Santiago, and import Johnny Wright, 1946 Montreal Royals teammate of Jackie Robinson. They were a combined 33-15, .688 PCT. Ponce’s other pitchers (Luis “Tite” Arroyo, Pat Scantlebury, and Gilberto “Foca” Valentín) had a 5-7 mark between them. Ponce’s four starters all had 20-win seasons, prorated to 162 games—Quiñones (9-4), Guilbe (8-2), Santiago (8-4), and Wright (8-5), in a 60-game regular season. Math is 2.7 x  8 or 9 wins.

On Monday, February 24, 1947, Ponce defeated the New York Yankees, 12-8, at Sixto Escobar Stadium in San Juan—a spring training game for the Bronx Bombers. Four Yankees pitchers faced the Lions. Raymond Brown, a Ponce coach, scattered 16 hits (opponents’ line score was 8-16-2) and tired in the eighth. In the home sixth, Fernando Díaz Pedroso enriched himself by at least $70 when fans made sure he was rewarded with bills and coins, after his three-run HR off Joe Page. Ponce mayor Andrés Grillasca ran to home plate to shake Pedroso’s hand. Brown pitched effectively until the eighth frame when New York tallied four runs with the help of three errors. Scales summoned Pantalones Santiago, who fanned two Yankees to end the inning before retiring the side in the ninth for the save. A five-column heading in the sports section of February 25, 1947, New York Times said: “To the consternation of manager Bucky Harris and the frenzied delight of 5,000 onlookers, the bombers came down with a terrific crash as they blew their game with the Ponce Club of the Puerto Rican League by a score of 12-8.”

Díaz Pedroso (.348, 12 HR, 35 RBI), Easterling (.343, 9, 30), and Coímbre (.333, 1, 33) were Ponce’s three best regular-season hitters. Their 12-8 win over the Yankees preceded the improbable final series with Caguas, where the Criollos won the first three contests but Ponce retaliated with four straight wins, as the first/only team in league history to accomplish this in the finals. Quiñones (2-0)  and Juan Guilbe (2-1) won four games, in the “Series of the Roasted Pigs.” Caguas fans began roasting pigs after the Criollos won the first three but the Lions roared back to win four straight! Easterling went eight for 27, a .296 AVG, with three RBI.

Table I: Howard Easterling’s Pro Baseball Hitting Stats

LeagueYearsABRH2B3BHRRBIAVGSLG
MLB#8#1,180219370593417222.314.464
PRWL469112922629!2223126.327.533
Mexico3468861572381096.335.483
VZA11983663162940.318.556
Canada160916NANA15.267.317
CAWL129NA7NA2NANA.241.379
TotalsNA2,6264798391276860489.319.488

#Easterling’s 1936-38, 1940-43,and 1946 Negro Leagues seasons are now MLB status. Excludes 1938, 1947-1950 seasons. PRWL is 1940-42, 1946-47, with Ponce Lions; and 1948-49 San Juan Senators, Puerto Rico Winter League. CAWL:1943-44 California Winter League. VZA is 1949-50 Venezuelan Winter League, with Sabios de Vargas. Mexico Independent (Summer) League, 1951, 1952 and 1954 Azules de Mexico. Manitoba-Dakota (MANDAK) League in Canada, 1953 Brandon Greys. !Incomplete (1946-47 doubles NA).    Sources: http://www.pelotabinaria.com.ve/beisbol/tem_equ.php?EQ=SDV&TE=1949-50 Jorge Colón Delgado; www.seamheads.com/NegroLgs/player.php?playerID=easte01how Jorge S. Figueredo, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, McFarland, 2003; Enciclopedia del Béisbol Mexicano, Editor Pedro Treto Cisneros (Undécima Edición, 2011); https://www.statscrew.com/minorbaseball/stats/t-bg10617/y-1953

San Juan Senators, 1948-49

San Juan (22-58) finished last in a six-team league. Easterling played half-a-season, with 36 hits in 143 AB, a .252 AVG. He knocked in 31, second on the team to Guillermo Vega’s 35 RBI. Félix “Fellé” Delgado replaced José Seda as San Juan’s skipper, in-season. Delgado played against Easterling earlier in the decade when the New York Cubans faced Easterling’s Homestead Grays. “Easterling had a great attitude,” said Delgado. “He was quiet, polite and unassuming and under-rated.”

Sabios de Vargas, Venezuela (1949-50), and 1950 Caribbean Series

Easterling’s 16 doubles, nine HR, and 40 RBI, in 50 games, for the Sabios de Vargas led the 1949-50 Venezuelan Winter League. His .318 AVG mirrored a .319 career AVG, per Table I. He then reinforced the Magallanes Navigators, whose player-manager was Vidal López, February 1950 Caribbean Series, hosted by San Juan. All games were played at Sixto Escobar Stadium, where Easterling played for San Juan. Magallanes won the opener, 3-2, over Panamá’s Carta Vieja Yankees, on February 21, 1950, but proceeded to lose five straight, to finish 1-5. Carta Vieja (5-2 record) won it, by beating Caguas, in a seventh game tie-breaker. Cuba’s Almendares Scorpions finished 3-3. Easterling went four-for-25 with a double. He scored once and drove in two.

Mexico and Canada

Two solid seasons in Mexico (1951 and 1952) were followed by a 1953 campaign in Canada, and a dozen games in Mexico (1954). Easterling played 82 of his 116 games for the Monterrey Sultanes in 1951, when he hit .330 with seven HR and 69 RBI. In 1952, his 33 hits, including 10 extra-base hits, in 87 AB for Monterrey gave him a .379 AVG and .563 SLG. He concluded his Mexico stint with 15 hits in 51 AB for the 1954 Azules de Mexico, a .294 AVG.

Easterling had 16 hits in 60 AB, playing 14 games for the 1953 Brandon Greys (43-31), who made it to the league finals, losing to the Minot Mallards, four games-to-two. Among his hits was one HR. He probably enjoyed having LHP Barney Brown (9-4) as a teammate, along with Wilmer Fields (.356 AVG) and player-manager Willie Wells. This Manitoba-Dakota (MANDAK) League had numerous Negro League veterans, early-to-mid 1950s, post-1947.

Howard Easterling’s Legacy

Easterling deserves to be the third baseman on Mississippi’s 20-Player All-Star Team, of ex-Negro Leaguers (1920-to-1948 Era), and other pre-1954 big-leaguers. Here is a Mississippi MLB All-Star Team, from that timeframe (author’s personal opinion) with their Mississippi birthplace:

  • Sam Hairston, Catcher, Lowndes County
  • Bob Boyd, 1B, Potts Camp
  • Buddy Myer, 2B, Ellisville
  • Howard Easterling, 3B, Mount Olive
  • Eric McNair, SS, Meridian
  • Sam Jethroe, OF, Lowndes County
  • James “Cool Papa” Bell, OF, Starkville
  • Harry “The Hat” Walker, OF, Pascagoula
  • Luke Easter, DH, Jonestown
  • Hughie Critz, Utility IF, Starkville
  • Harry Craft, Reserve OF, Ellisville
  • Dave Hoskins, Reserve OF/P, Greenwood
  • Gee Walker, Reserve OF, Gulfport
  • Sam Leslie, PH, Moss Point
  • Guy Bush, RHP, Aberdeen
  • Bill Foster, LHP (raised in Rodney, MS)
  • Claude Passeau, RHP Waynesboro
  • Rufus Lewis, RHP, Johnstons Station
  • Dave “Boo” Ferriss, RHP, Shaw
  • Atley Donald, RHP, Morton.

Additional web sites are: https://allmississippibaseball.net/tag/negro-leagues/ and https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/rufus-lewis/ https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/atley-donald/

Thanks to Félix “Fellé” Delgado, Easterling’s 1948-49 San Juan manager, and Wilmer Fields, Easterling’s teammate with the Homestead Grays and Brandon Greys. With gratitude to Eduardo B. Almada, Gary Ashwill, Miguel Dupouy Gómez and Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League.

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