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Negro Leaguer of the Month
Teams: Cincinnati Tigers, Chicago American Giants, Homestead Grays, South Bend Studebakers, Monterrey Sultans, Mexico City Blues, New York Cubans, Magallenes Navigators
Howard Easterling was overshadowed by his Hall of Fame teammates for much of his career, but he was one of the best third basemen the Negro Leagues ever produced, and one of many Negro League stars that hailed from Mississippi. Besides being an outstanding defensive player, Easterling was a switch-hitter with gap power from both sides.
Easterling grew up in Mount Olive, Mississippi and he was a star in school playing for the Piney Woods Country Life School; Easterling traveled with a baseball team across the country to raise money for the school.
After playing semipro ball in his late teens and early twenties, Easterling was signed as a 24-year-old with the Negro American League’s Cincinnati Tigers in 1936. In ’37 Easterling batted .309 in league games and was chosen for the East-West All-Star game as a shortstop, along with Tigers' teammates Double Duty Radcliffe, Ducky Davenport, Rainey Bibbs and Porter Moss; Easterling went 0 for 2 with a walk as his West squad lost, 7-2.
In ’38 Easterling was traded to the Chicago American Giants, joining Sug Cornelius and aging stars Turkey Stearnes and Frank Duncan. After taking a year off in ’39 to play semipro ball in Chicago, Easterling signed with the Homestead Grays and stayed with them for almost a decade, making the East squad four times for the East-West All-Star games, all at third base. Easterling was part of the Grays’ murderer’s row, including Jud Wilson, Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, with the third baseman usually batting fifth in the order.
In 1940, Easterling batted .327 in league games and went two for five with a triple in the East-West Game. In 1941, Easterling batted .324 and then went six for 10 in the post-season as the Grays won the Negro National League title. In 1942 the Negro League World Series was re-instituted after a long absence, and Easterling batted .313 in the ’42 World Series, and .280 in the ’43 World Series, with the Grays losing to the Kansas City Monarchs in '42 and beating the Birmingham Black Barons in '43.
After spending ’44 and ’45 in the army during World War II, Easterling came back to the Negro Leagues in '46 and didn’t miss a beat, batting .323 in league play, going three for four in the East-West Game, then batting .300 in a series against Bob Feller’s Major League All-Stars in the fall.
In 1948, Easterling started the season with the black traveling Cincinnati Crescents, then joined pitcher/catcher Double Duty Radcliffe and pitcher Gread McKinnis in integrating the powerful semipro Michigan-Indiana League, playing for the South Bend Studebakers. Easterling usually batted third or clean-up, and all three Negro League stars were dominant with Radcliffe batting .312 with a team-leading seven homers and 34 RBIs in 189 at bats (less than a third of a Major League season), McKinnis winning 7 games with only 2 losses, and Easterling batting a team-high .383 in 115 at bats. The Studebakers were below .500 before the three stars showed up about a month into the season, but were the best team in the league afterwards; they made the playoffs, won their first round match-up, then lost in the playoff finals three games to one to the Lafayette (Indiana) Red Sox. With the success of Easterling, Radcliffe and McKinnis, South Bend signed the Kansas City Monarchs’ Ted Alexander in 1949 and the Chicago American Giants’ Chick Longest and Orenthal Anderson, and the Birmingham Black Barons’ Walt Thomas in 1950.
In the late 40s and early 50s, Easterling spent time with the New York Cubans and played in the Venezuelan Winter League, leading the league in homers and doubles in the winter of 1949-50.
In 1953, Easterling ventured to Canada and finished his career playing for the Brandon Greys of the Manitoba-Dakota League where he batted .267 with a homer in 14 games.