Friday, December 8, 2023

Insight: Age before beauty

By Ed Pierce

When I first started following baseball, my interest was for my hometown team, the Rochester Red Wings, who were a minor league affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles at the time.

1963 Rochester Red Wings baseball cards
show Joe Altobelli, top, Luke Easter, bottom
left, and Steve Bilko. All three players
shared the first base position that season
for the Red Wings. COURTESY PHOTOS   
Back in 1963, Triple A affiliates had some local autonomy to acquire players and competed at the highest level of minor league play. Most of Rochester’s roster were younger players competing for a chance to make the major leagues with a sprinkling of older players trying to return to the majors.

Some of those older players were well past their prime playing days and had little to no hope of ever playing in another major league game but were signed nevertheless for their experience and ability to be role models for the younger players.

During my first year following the Red Wings, not one but three such older players were on the team and not surprisingly became some of my favorites. First baseman Luke Easter, first baseman Steve Bilko, and first baseman-outfielder Joe Altobelli had all played in the major leagues but suited up for Rochester to continue playing.

Easter, age 47 in 1963, stood 6-foot-4, weighed 240 pounds, and batted left-handed. He had served in the Army during World War II and had played for the Homestead Grays in the Negro League, leading the Grays to the 1948 Negro League World Series title. His towering home runs drew the attention of the owner of the Cleveland Indians, Bill Veeck, who signed Easter to play first base as a 34-year-old rookie in 1950.

His first three years with the Indians showed promise, with Easter among the league leaders in home runs and runs batted in, but ongoing knee and ankle injuries limited his time on the field and by 1954, he was sent to the minors, waiting for another opportunity. Determined to keep playing, Easter wore the uniforms of the Ottawa Athletics, Charleston Senators, and Buffalo Bisons, and was International League Most Valuable Player for Buffalo in 1957, before joining the Red Wings in 1959.

He was beloved by Red Wings fans and players alike for his perseverance and love for the game. But after playing in 77 games for Rochester that year, Easter chose to give up his roster spot and become the first base coach for the Red Wings for several seasons before returning to Cleveland for work as a union steward there. In 1979, Easter was shot and killed by two armed robbers in Cleveland after refusing to give them $5,000 in payroll checks he was carrying to the bank.

Steve Bilko, age 34 in 1963, grew up in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania and rose to prominence as a power hitting first baseman in the Pacific Coast League in the 1950s. His major league playing career included stints as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers, Detroit Tigers, and he was the original first baseman for the Los Angeles Angels in 1961. But by 1963, he was a Rochester Red Wing, appearing in 101 games but only mustering 8 home runs that year and by the following spring he was out of baseball for good. He died at age 49 in 1978.

Joe Altobelli, age 31 in 1963, grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and had parlayed strong defensive and batting skills to slowly work his way up through the minor league system of the Cleveland Indians in the 1950s. He did eventually play for the Indians from 1955 to 1957, but by 1958, he was once again a minor leaguer. He played for Triple A teams in Indianapolis, Toronto, Montreal, Syracuse, and Omaha before signing with the Red Wings and replacing Easter as a fan favorite for his clutch hitting and ability to drive in runs.

Altobelli remained a Red Wing through 1966 and eventually became a minor league manager, leading Rochester to four league titles. He managed the San Francisco Giants for three seasons and then when Baltimore manager Earl Weaver retired, Altobelli led the Orioles to the 1983 World Series championship as manager.

In 1991, Altobelli agreed to serve as general manager of the Rochester team and in 1997 began work as a color analyst on the Red Wings radio broadcasts, a job he held through 2009, when he retired for good. Through the years he became known as “Mr. Baseball” in Rochester and in 2010, a statue of him was placed on the ballpark concourse there. He passed away in 2021 at the age of 88.

By all accounts, 1963 wasn’t an exceptional season for Rochester as the team finished in third place with a record of 75-76 overall. But when you combine the stats of the three men who played first base for the Red Wings that year – Luke Easter, Steve Bilko, and Joe Altobelli – it’s not too shabby with a combined total of 29 home runs, 116 runs batted in and a batting average of .258.

These days minor league baseball is strictly a pipeline for developing talent for major league teams and the days when older players could continue their careers as journeymen are long gone. I’m truly fortunate to have watched some of these all-time greats. <

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