The Original ‘Mr. October’

By Tony McClean, BASN Editor In Chief
Updated: August 9, 2006

NEW HAVEN, Ct. (BASN) — In the late 1930′s and early 1940′s, the dominant team in Negro League baseball was the Homestead Grays. From 1937 to 1945, the Grays won nine straight Negro National League pennants.

From 1940-43, the Grays’ lineup featured Hall of Famers “Cool” Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, and Josh Gibson. What Ruth and Gehrig was to the Yankees “Murderers Row”, the “Thunder Twins” of Leonard and Gibson were to the Grays.

One other slugger in that Homestead lineup was also a standout in his own right. In fact, many still feel that third baseman Howard Easterling is and was one of the best at his position during his Negro League career.

Born on November 11, 1911, the 5-foot-9, 175 pound switch hitter usually batted fifth in the Grays’ lineup, just behind the “Thunder Twins”. The five-time All-Star (including one start at short) played on four pennant-winning clubs with the Grays and was a .315 career hitter.

A native of Mount Olive, Mississippi, Easterling began his playing career at the Piney Woods Country Life School baseball team which traveled across the country to raise funds for the school.

It didn’t take long for several baseball scouts to spot Easterling’s talent. In fact, the state of Mississippi would prove to be a hotbed of baseball talent for the Negro League.

Among some of the prominent Negro League standouts that hailed from the Magnolia State were Easterling’s teammate Bell, Hall of Fame hurler Bill Foster, Lefty Harvey, Bubba Hyde, Dave Hoskins and Rufus Lewis.

He began his pro career in 1936 with the Cincinnati Tigers. Easterling didn’t disappoint as he hit a robust .326. He followed that up with another solid season at the plate a year later.

He finished third (.360) in the Negro American League batting race, just behind Kansas City’s Newt Allen (.389) and Birmingham’s Speed Whatley (.428).

While he was known for his hitting prowess, Easterling was regarded as a complete ballplayer who could run, throw, and field. He played the majority of his career at the hot corner, but he was also versatile as spent time at second base and in the outfield.

After spending the 1938 season with the Chicago American Giants, Easterling spent his first tour of duty in the military. Upon his return, Easterling would resurface in the Negro Leagues with the Grays.

In 1940 (his first season with the Grays), Easterling literally hit the ground running. His .358 mark helped lead the team to another Negro National League pennant.

Long before the days of Reggie Jackson’s postseason exploits, Easterling established himself as “Mr. October” for the Grays. In 1941, he went 6-for-10 in a doubleheader sweep as the Grays defeated the New York Cubans in the Negro League Championship series.

He hit .333 including a two-run homer off the great Satchel Paige in the 1942 Black World Series. However, the Kansas City Monarchs would win the series in seven games.

A year later, Easterling just missed hitting .400 (he ended at .399) as the Grays repeated as National League champions. This time, Easterling and the Grays prevailed over the Birmingham Black Barons in eight games.

Easterling’s bat was just as hot in the Fall Classic as he batted .280. In his postseason career, the slugger finished with a .332 mark. He also hit a career .320 in five appearances in the East-West All-Star Classic.

After another tour of duty in the military, Easterling would see his Negro League career wind down. However, his bat refused to cool off. In his final Negro League stint, he hit .302 with the New York Cubans in 1949.

Like many players, Easterling would go overseas to continue his career. He led the 1949-50 Venezuelan Winter League in doubles (16) and home runs (nine) before closing out his career in 1953.

While he played in the shadow of several greats and Hall of Famers, Howard Easterling more than established himself as a key ingredient in a championship organization.

He passed away on September 6, 1993 in Mississippi.

NOTE: The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, the Negro League Baseball Players Association, and the Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues all contributed to this story.