Paul Easterling spent nearly 30 years in a baseball uniform, reaching the big leagues with the Detroit Tigers where he rubbed elbows with teammates Harry Heilmann and Charlie Gehringer, and played horseshoes with Babe Ruth. He’s probably the only ballplayer who was scouted while he was running an obstacle course and he used a fundamentally unsound batting grip but still managed a .291 career average in the professional ranks.
In Texas and Oklahoma, where he was a legend, he set batting records that still stand, and Easterling also tied a Detroit record for most consecutive games hitting a home run, even though he only played for the Tigers for about five months over two seasons.
But none of you have ever heard of him.
In 1923, Easterling was Private Paul Easterling of the United States Army, stationed in Oregon when he caught the watchful eye of Second Lieutenant E.B. Sebree, who had played some ball in his youth before going off to fight in World War I. Sebree noted Easterling’s dexterity and strength in drills and athletic events and recommended that Easterling try out for the Army baseball team. Sebree had connections with the Portland team in the Pacific Coast League, but they weren’t interested in signing Easterling, and instead he inked a deal with Seattle of the PCL after his service obligations were completed.
At that time, the PCL was well-stocked with many major league caliber players who preferred to put their cleats on in the warm weather of the west coast. Many MLB veterans, like Sam Crawford, played in the PCL in the 1920s after they “retired” from the majors.
An outfielder, Easterling immediately made an impression in the Pacific Coast League, mostly due to his unconventional batting style. Easterling used a “cross-handed” grip, placing his left hand above his right hand, the opposite of what a right-handed batter would normally do. Despite the “wrong-handed” approach, young Paul batted .333 in limited action for Seattle. In 1927 he was dealt to Bloomington where the 21-year old continued to progress as a hitter. The following season he earned a look from Detroit, who needed outfield help after trading Heinie Manush to the Browns in the offseason. A long shot to make George Moriarty’s team, Easterling hit the ball well in spring training in San Antonio and earned a spot as a reserve outfielder with the Bengals.
When the ’28 season started there were very few fans who knew who Easterling was, in fact many of his teammates could have been forgiven for doing a double take. At first, Easteling served as a fourth option in the Bengal outfield behind Heilmann, Bob “Fats’ Fothergill, and Harry Rice. But an injury to Fothergill gave Moriarty a chance to pencil Easterling’s name in the Detroit lineup. The barrel-chested right-handed hitter made the most of the opportunity. On April 17, in his first start in a game against the Indians at Navin Field, Easterling went 3-for-4. After that game the team took the train to St. Louis to start a four-game series against the Browns. Easterling pounded the baseball, getting three hits in each of the first two games, homering in each contest as the Tigers won both. On April 20, got two more hits, including a line drive home run to left field for his third homer in three games. Only Bobby Veach and Heilmann had ever hit home runs in three straight games for the Tigers, but now here was an unknown rookie turning the trick in a Detroit uniform. The next day he was handed the collar for an 0-for-3, but he continued to stay in the lineup in April, finishing the month with a .364 average. Moriarty used the rookie primarily in left field, but he also gave him some chances in center and right. But Easterling never again flashed power like he had in St. Louis. He didn’t hit another homer that season.
While he made a splash with his batting exploits and unexpected power in April, Easterling made a lot of friends throughout the league with his jolly demeanor. In June he got a little too jolly when he attended a party in Detroit hosted by teammate Heilmann. The New York Yankees were in town for a series and several of the Yanks attended the party too, helping themselves to alcohol, which was illegal at the time due to prohibition. New York pitcher Waite Hoyt and infielder Leo “The Lip” Durocher were on hand having a great time with the booze, gambling, and general mayhem. The great Babe Ruth was there too and he brought his famous appetite for ladies, drink, and food. Reportedly at one point, Ruth and Easterling squared off in a horseshoe throwing contest inside!
The following day, several ballplayers on both teams were sick with “brown bag flu” and reported to Navin Field red-eyed and worse for the wear. Manager Moriarty kept Easterling out of almost the entire series against the Yanks, perhaps as punishment for having a little too much fun.
Not long after his fun with The Great Bambino, Easterling’s playing time plummeted. By late June he was still hitting .325 but the three outfielders in front of him were smashing the ball at a more feverish pace. This was the Lively Ball Era and outfielders who could hit .300 were plenty. The Tigers released Easterling and he signed a deal with Toronto in the International League. After a season north of the border, Paul went back to where he was very comfortable — Texas, the sight of his great spring training in ’28. The Georgia-native signed a contract with the Beaumont Explorers in what was the first of 13 straight years he would star in the Texas League. As a result, Easterling would own nearly every batting record in that circuit, including career home runs with 223. Swinging from the heels, he blasted 36 homers for Beaumont in 1932, 29 more for Tulsa two years later, and even at the age of 34 he was still pounding the ball out of Texas League parks in 1940. He played his last full season in the minors in 1942, and only twice did he ever go back to the big leagues, just briefly in 1930 for the Tigers again (he hit .259 with a single homer in 29 games), and in 1938 when the lowly Athletics gave him a short trial as a spare outfielder/pinch-hitter.
But Easterling was happy to be making his living in the dusty Texas League. He played for practically every team in the circuit at some point and became well known throughout Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. On at least five occasions he was honored with special “days” where he received gifts and the adoration of fans. Easterling was a big fish in a little pond, but he didn’t mind. Predictably, as his playing career wound down, he was asked to manage in the minors, working in several different leagues for almost a decade. Then in 1951, while he was managing the Hazlehurst-Baxley Red Sox in the low-level Georgia State League, Easterling’s first baseman broke his hand. He took the mitt and inserted himself in the lineup, and at the age of 45, having not played in almost a decade, Easterling hit .282 in 32 games, even launching three home runs! That brought his final minor league home run tally to 241, one of the highest totals in history at that time.
Easterling lived many more years after finally taking the uniform off and stepping away from baseball. He went back to his hometown of Reidsville, Georgia, and retired. He passed away on March 15, 1993, at the age of 87. Very few mentions of his passing were included in baseball news around the country, but that’s how it goes when you’re one of the best hitters in the minor leagues. It’s like being the world’s tallest midget, or the most talented Jonas Brother. No one notices, and time fades any memory anyone ever had of you.
But Paul Easterling was a fine hitter who for a few days in 1928 was a great home run hitter for the Tigers.