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Sean Kirst: A year from now, in Buffalo, how about Luke Easter Park?

Last July, I wrote a column about a guy who played a little more than three summers of minor league baseball in Buffalo, in the 1950s. I described how he blasted some of the longest home runs ever hit in our corner of the world, maybe some of the longest home runs ever hit in baseball, period, and the impact he made on the city where he lived for that brief time.

I had no idea how the column would be received. All I knew was that it was a joy to write, because my older brothers – who had often gone to the old Offermann Stadium before I was born – always spoke of this Buffalo Bison with a reverence that left me wishing I had seen him play.

Luke Easter.

I wrote the column almost 60 years after the Bisons let him go, one of the great mistakes in the team's history. The decision went far beyond a baseball error. The blunder was not  limited to underestimating the ability of Easter, who went to Rochester and kept hitting home runs. The mistake was in failing to realize that few athletes can galvanize a community, an entire community, in the way that Easter did it.

After my piece showed up, I thought I might receive a few nostalgic memories of the era. I was wrong. I received a flood of reflections from men and women in Western New York and Rochester who still love Easter.

To them, he will always be known simply as Luke.

Luke Easter in Buffalo, courtesy John Boutet, curator, Hall of Fame room, Coca-Cola Field.

The response was extraordinary. It was hopeful. It underlined the thought of the late Joe Overfield, the legendary Western New York baseball historian who wrote these words when Easter was named a charter member of the Buffalo Bisons Hall of Fame:

"Never in the city’s sports history has an athlete made such an impact on the community.”

Think of that.

So let me reaffirm a suggestion that I have no doubt has been offered many times, by many others: We should name our ballpark after him.

Luke Easter Park.

"I could sit down and come up with 15 reasons for doing it," said Lum Smith, a longtime schools administrator and a community historian who often watched, as a child, when Easter played in Buffalo.

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It is easy to see that possibility as a pipe dream, as unrealistic. This is a time of corporate naming rights. Under their lease agreement with the city, the Bisons can channel any proceeds from such agreements into day-to-day operations and management of the ballpark.

Over the years, the place has had many different names. It began as Pilot Field, and then briefly became simply "the Downtown Ballpark," before it was known as North AmeriCare Park, Dunn Tire Park and finally Coca-Cola Field, its name today.

Coca-Cola, however, is ending that relationship after this season. Bisons General Manager Mike Buczkowski said the team doesn't expect to make any announcements on the ballpark's name until the autumn, meaning this is a good moment to start talking about it.

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A lot of cash goes into the arrangements that put corporate names on ballpark facades. For the Bisons, that makes a big financial difference. Those kind of agreements, in one form or another, are now typical in communities around the nation.

Even if that ballpark at Swan and Washington is no typical place.

The way it was built 30 years ago was a homegrown decision, done to suit the quirks and scale and landmarks of the area around it, a blessed statement that an era of numbing downtown blunders was finally coming to an end.

Our downtown diamond – built in a throwback way to fit the city fabric around it – touched off a national trend in ballpark design.

Yet if we keep renaming that ballpark, then it might as well have no name at all, because everyone calls it by something else.

It deserves some resonant name, something special and permanent, to celebrate everything that ought to set it apart.

Luke Easter Park.

Think of it.

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Easter was baseball in Buffalo. He was a guy who symbolized what the minor leagues can be, the way a player who never becomes immortal in the majors can nonetheless take a city by its heart. God knows there have been other beloved players in Buffalo — Ollie Carnegie immediately leaps to mind — but in larger stature and achievement, Easter is on a mountaintop by himself.

His feats would seem impossible, except they were true.

Easter was born in Mississippi, amid suffocating Jim Crow segregation. He spent some time in the old Negro Leagues and was a little too old to fully capitalize when Jackie Robinson shattered the color line in big league baseball.

Despite some unforgettable American League moments in Cleveland, he did much of his greatest hitting in the minor leagues. He was the first African-American to play for the Bisons since Frank Grant, in 1888. He was already 40 when he arrived in Buffalo. In a little more than three seasons in this city, Easter's power rose toward the mythic.

He stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 240 pounds. He hit three home runs over the scoreboard in Offermann, each one easily 500 feet or more, and he always claimed he hit an even longer shot in Buffalo that cleared two city rooftops.

The route of an over-the-scoreboard home run hit in June 1957 by Luke Easter in Offermann Stadium. The player shown in this old image used to display the homer's route is NOT Easter, who batted left-handed. (News file photo)

Gail Henley, now 89, who spent 60 years in baseball as a player, scout and manager, was playing center field for the Columbus Jets during the game when Easter first cleared the scoreboard.

The ball, Henley remembers, climbed so high he believed it had to ultimately descend onto the field. Henley followed it back, fully expecting it to drop so he could make the catch, until the center field fence stopped him. In his late 80s, he still remembers his disbelief when he watched the ball disappear.

Henley played alongside Willie Mays. He remembers Mickey Mantle.

He never saw anyone hit a baseball quite like that.

In a beautiful part of the tale, it was also in Buffalo that Easter reportedly went to the eye doctor, who told him he needed glasses — and Easter's hitting exploded anew.

In the words of John Boutet, curator of the Hall of Fame room at Coca-Cola Field and another true believer who'd love to see Luke's name adorn the ballpark: "Easter has become a folk hero. He was larger than life."

Still, his legend goes far beyond talent alone. Easter was embraced wherever he played. There was something about the guy, about his warmth and strength and grace, that elevated him into a role few athletes can ever achieve.

Luke Easter was a lasting symbol of community.

"He had such deep roots in the city of Buffalo," said Terrence Robinson, who grew up on Woodlawn Avenue, seven blocks from the place where Offermann stood before its demolition.

Robinson, of the city's Preservation Board, is just old enough to remember that ballpark. Many years after Easter moved away, Robinson can point out the house where Easter once lived on Northland Avenue. He was a baseball legend who made his home within the African-American community, who walked out his front door into the heart of the city.

To Lum Smith, Easter's name would not only honor a guy of profound significance. It would throw a reverent light upon the era, "a way of remembering and honoring the hardships so many of these guys went through at that time."

As Boutet points out, Easter's stature took on an element of larger tragedy, due to the nature of his death. In 1979, while serving as a chief steward in suburban Cleveland, he was shot to death during a robbery, just after he cashed $5,000 in payroll checks.

A man who meant so much, to so many, deserves an especially fitting monument.

We have the perfect chance, in Buffalo.

Over the years, many have suggested naming the ballpark after the late Mayor Jimmy Griffin, a great champion of downtown baseball. But Griffin already has a statue and a plaza outside the ballpark at Washington and Swan, and I think the mayor himself, who loved the Bisons heritage, might see the beauty in this one.

What if some company with a giant sense of civic conscience was willing to do something creative for the sake of the town?

What if the naming rights began with the title of that particular company …

Then ended with Luke Easter Park?

The ballpark would take on a permanent name, a lasting sense of place in the baseball pantheon. The particular company would buy itself generations of civic goodwill.

In the City of Good Neighbors, the gesture would be classic Buffalo.

And by next spring, on opening day, we could all meet at The Luke.

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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