Delivered from minor-league limbo in 1979 as a pinch-hitting specialist with the World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates, Mike Easler assumed a larger role as a platoon left fielder when injuries jeopardized Pittsburgh’s title defense in 1980. Easler’s play as the platoon’s lefty-swinging half heralded his arrival as a big-league slugger, most prominently when he hit for the cycle in a 10-6 win over the Cincinnati Reds on June 12 at Riverfront Stadium.
Michael Anthony Easler made his major-league debut in September 1973 with the Houston Astros. Nicknamed “Easy,” he appeared in a handful of box scores for the Astros, California Angels, and Pirates in each of the next four seasons.1
But 1973 was also the first of six straight years for Easler at Triple A. Despite outstanding numbers, including two minor-league batting titles,2 his career seemed stalled, especially when he spent 1978 with Pittsburgh’s top farm club in Columbus, Ohio, without ever getting the call to the majors.3 Concerns about defense and competition from loaded major-league outfields held Easler back.4
His fortunes shifted in 1979. The Pirates had sold Easler to the Boston Red Sox after the 1978 season, but Boston obtained veteran Jim Dwyer in March 1979.5 With no room for Easler, the Red Sox returned him to Pittsburgh in a minor spring-training deal.6
Others in Pittsburgh may have been less certain. Dave Parker, the Pirates’ star right fielder, later claimed manager Chuck Tanner was undecided about keeping Easler — whom the Pittsburgh Press described as a “bad defensive player tried mostly at first base and left field”9 — and asserted that Parker’s own advocacy with Tanner helped to ensure Easler’s spot with the Pirates.10
Whatever was going on behind the scenes, Easler made Pittsburgh’s Opening Day roster in 1979 and spent an entire season in the majors for the first time in his career. Now known as the “Hit Man,”11 he started only three games but contributed several key pinch hits to Pittsburgh’s pennant drive12 and earned a World Series ring when the Pirates won the title.
Easler was again a reserve as 1980 began, but April injuries to Willie Stargell and John Milner had Tanner looking for a left-handed bat.13 Easler, now 29 years old, hit two home runs in his first start of the season on April 22;14 soon he was Pittsburgh’s regular left fielder against right-handed pitchers.15
The Pirates had spent 1979 shaking off adversities of all sizes — running last in the division through April;16 falling eight runs behind on a Saturday in Philadelphia;17 dropping potential dream-derailing games in the season’s final week;18 and facing World Series elimination while Tanner’s mother died19 — with unity and joie de vivre.20
In 1980, however, the ruptures cut deeper. Hall of Fame-bound pitcher Bert Blyleven left the team for nine days, aggrieved that Tanner removed him too quickly from his starts.21 Third baseman Bill Madlock shoved his glove into umpire Gerry Crawford’s face while arguing a call; the league suspended him for 15 days.22 Multiple injuries sidelined Stargell, team patriarch and reigning NL co-MVP.23 Several members of the team, including Parker, Milner, and Dale Berra, had started using cocaine.24
Still, the Pirates held a share of first place in the NL East every day from April 13 through June 7.25 Easler was a significant factor in their success, batting .343 and slugging .729 when the Pirates arrived in Cincinnati for a three-game series on June 10.
His hot streak continued in the series opener, with a home run and triple in Pittsburgh’s 5-3 win.26 The Reds, a close third in the NL West after winning the division in 1979, won the next night’s game.27
Mike LaCoss started for the Reds in Thursday afternoon’s series finale. LaCoss had a 1.88 regular-season ERA against Pittsburgh in 1978 and 1979, but the Pirates knocked him out in the second inning of their pennant-clinching win in Game Three of the 1979 NLCS.
LaCoss retired the first two Pirates in the first and went to a full count against Parker. The 24-year-old righty then threw a slider, close to the strike zone; home-plate umpire Ed Montague called it ball four. Parker capitalized on the break, stealing second without a throw and crossing the plate on Milner’s single.
Easler followed with a liner to center. Dave Collins tried for a shoestring catch, but the ball hit him and skipped past him. Easler had a triple; Milner scored for a 2-0 Pirates lead.
Phil Garner hit a blooper to left. George Foster charged in, then pulled up as the ball landed and bounced over his head, bound for the left-field corner. Easler scored the third run of the inning, and Garner had a double. When Ed Ott doubled for the Pirates’ fourth hit in a row — and third for extra bases — Garner came home for a 4-0 advantage.
The Reds chipped away against Pirates starter Jim Bibby. Back-to-back one-out doubles by Dave Concepción and Ken Griffey in the first netted a run. One out later, Bibby’s wildness brought in another run when Dan Driessen walked, Bibby hit Ray Knight on his left elbow, and Junior Kennedy walked on a 3-and-2 pitch, forcing home Griffey and cutting Pittsburgh’s lead to 4-2.
Cincinnati threatened to draw even closer in the second, after Collins walked with one out and Concepción followed with a single. With the count full on Griffey, Bibby missed the strike zone, but second-base umpire Harry Wendelstedt called a balk. The umpires ruled that the balk call took precedence over the pitch. Collins and Concepción moved up a base, but Griffey fanned on Bibby’s 3-and-2 retake, and Foster popped up to end the inning.
With Cincinnati’s comeback stalled, the Pirates counterpunched in the third. Easler hit a one-out double. Garner drove him in with another double. The Reds intentionally walked Ott to face Berra, holding down third while Madlock served his suspension.
Berra had emerged from a 2-for-29 slump with an RBI triple a night earlier. LaCoss threw a fastball, knee-high and inside, and Berra drove it over the left-field wall for a three-run homer. He missed first on his home-run trot but realized his error, returned to touch the bag, and completed the trot.28 The Pirates led, 8-2.
Lefty Dave Tomlin replaced LaCoss in the fourth. Easler added his third hit of the game, a single, in the fifth.
After his second-inning struggles, Bibby contained the Reds for the next two innings, but Cincinnati edged back into the game in the fifth and sixth with extra-base hitting. Driessen and Harry Spilman followed Foster’s fifth-inning walk with consecutive RBI doubles, narrowing the score to 8-4.29
It was a three-run game, and the Reds were poised for more with Collins on third. But Concepción hit a comebacker to Romo, whose throw to Berra trapped Collins off the bag. Romo tagged Collins in the ensuing rundown, hanging on to the ball while Collins tried to jar it loose. While Concepción took second during the rundown and third on a passed ball, Romo retired both Griffey and Foster to strand him there.
Right-hander Doug Bair was Cincinnati’s new reliever in the seventh. After two outs, Milner lined his first homer of the season over the wall in right-center, giving Pittsburgh a 9-5 lead.
Easler shook Milner’s hand, then took his own turn at bat, with an eye on completing the cycle.
“I thought if I saw a certain pitch, I would try to hit it hard,” he said afterward. “But I tried the same thing [during the previous night’s game] and hit it to the warning track.”30
Romo closed out the Reds for a four-inning save, allowing only Griffey’s leadoff home run — the 15th extra-base hit of the afternoon — in the ninth.32
“I never doubted I could hit,” Easler said afterward, his season homer total at 10 and slugging percentage boosted to .864.33 “I know I won’t hit home runs or for the cycle every day, but I know I am a consistent hitter who knows the strike zone.”34
The Pirates stayed on course for a while, occupying first as late as September 1, but a 10-24 swoon from August 24 through September 30 extinguished hopes of a repeat championship. Still, Easler maintained his breakout, finishing with a stellar .338/.396/.583 batting line in 132 games and even receiving a vote for National League MVP. His major-league career lasted through the 1987 season, with a lifetime .293 average in 1,151 games worthy of the “Hit Man” nickname.
This article was fact-checked by Mike Huber and copy-edited by Len Levin. SABR member Kurt Blumenau provided insightful comments on an earlier version of this article.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes below, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org for pertinent information, including the box scores. He also used game coverage from the Cincinnati Enquirer, Dayton Daily News, Dayton Journal-Herald, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Pittsburgh Press newspapers and Clayton Trutor’s SABR BioProject biography of Mike Easler.
1 Dave Parker and David Jordan, Cobra: A Life of Baseball and Brotherhood (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021), 221.
2 Easler led the American Association in 1976 with a .352 average and the International League in 1978 at .330.
3 In his 2022 autobiography, Dave Parker indicated that Easler was going to make the Pirates’ Opening Day roster in 1978 but was returned to the minor leagues when Pittsburgh reacquired Manny Sanguillen from the Oakland A’s on April 4, three days before the opener. Parker, Cobra, 226.
4 “Always an outstanding hitter … Easler had been hampered by a lack of adroitness in the field, which, combined with the talent on the teams he was trying to make … assured a long wait,” Sports Illustrated concluded in 1980. Anthony Cotton, “Happy at Going Halfsies: Hard-Hitting Lee Lacy and Mike Easler Constitute a Mutual Admiration Society, Which Is a Good Thing Because They Often Share Leftfield in Pittsburgh,” Sports Illustrated, August 18, 1980: 57. In 1975, for example, Easler’s final season in the Astros’ organization, Houston’s starting outfield was 22-year-old left fielder Greg Gross (114 OPS+), 24-year-old center fielder Cesar Cedeño (133 OPS+), and 27-year-old right fielder Jose Cruz (119 OPS+). The Astros traded Easler to the St. Louis Cardinals during the 1975 season; St. Louis’s starting outfield was Hall of Fame-bound Lou Brock in left (109 OPS+ and 56 stolen bases at age 37), 23-year-old Jerry Mumphrey in center (86 OPS+ but he went on to play in over 1,500 major-league games, the majority in center), and 29-year-old Willie Crawford in right (.801 OPS), with Bake McBride (135 OPS+) and Mike Anderson (107 OPS+) as reserve outfielders. During the 1978 season, when Easler spent the entire campaign at Triple A, Pittsburgh’s outfield regulars were NL MVP Dave Parker in right, major-league stolen-base champ Omar Moreno in center, and resurgent veteran Bill Robinson in left, with established players like John Milner and Steve Brye in reserve roles.
5 As explained in a March 1979 Pittsburgh Press article, Easler was out of options in 1978, preventing the Pirates from recalling him from Triple A unless he passed through waivers. General manager Harding Peterson indicated that he decided to sell Easler rather than risk losing him in the interleague draft. Dan Donovan, “Is Mike Easler a Pirate or Isn’t He?” Pittsburgh Press, March 19, 1979: B-4.
6 The Pirates sent cash and two minor leaguers to the Red Sox for Easler. Donovan, “Is Mike Easler a Pirate or Isn’t He?”
7 Dan Donovan, “Pirates Add Lumber to Sturdy Bench,” Pittsburgh Press, March 16, 1979: B-8.
8 Donovan, “Pirates Add Lumber to Sturdy Bench.”
9 Donovan, “Pirates Add Lumber to Sturdy Bench.”
10 Parker, Cobra, 258.
11 Parker, Cobra, 260.
12 Most notably, Easler’s pinch-hit home run off Skip Lockwood in the 13th inning on May 16 gave the Pirates a 4-3 win over the New York Mets, in the first game of a five-game winning streak that lifted Pittsburgh to an 18-18 record, its first .500 mark since the team started the season with four wins in its first eight games. Dan Donovan, “Easler Shows Mets He’s Pirates’ Hit Man,” Pittsburgh Press, May 17, 1979: C-1. His sixth-inning pinch-hit single against former Pirate Gene Garber drove in the tying and go-ahead runs in Pittsburgh’s 5-4 win over the Atlanta Braves in the first game of a July 22 doubleheader, the seventh win in an eventual nine-game winning streak that pushed the Pirates within half a game of the division lead. Augie Borgi, “Teacher Easler Shuffles Braves,” Pittsburgh Press, July 23, 1979: C-1. On August 11 in Philadelphia, his pinch-hit single off left-handed reliever Tug McGraw of the Phillies gave the Pirates a 9-8 lead in the seventh inning of a game in which they had trailed 8-0 by the bottom of the third; the Pirates eventually won the game, 14-11. Russ Franke, “Pirates Show Plenty in 14-11 Win,” Pittsburgh Press, August 12, 1979: D-1.
13 The Pirates opened the season with Milner in left against right-handers, while Lee Lacy played against lefties. After Stargell suffered a bruised hand from being hit by a pitch in the Pirates’ home opener on April 14, Milner moved to first. Charlie Feeney, “Bucs Defense Survives Cards Rally,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 21, 1980: 21. Lacy and veteran Bill Robinson started the next few games in left before Easler made his first start on April 22. Around that time, Milner injured his ankle, and Easler became the regular left fielder against left-handers. Pat Livingston, “Easler: ‘Hit Man’ Cometh,” Pittsburgh Press, April 29, 1980: B-4.
14 Russ Franke, “Pirates Throw Bench at Montreal: ‘Hit Man’ Easler Wallops Two Homers,” Pittsburgh Press, April 23, 1980: D-1.
16 Russ Franke, “Doctors Diagnose Buc Disease,” Pittsburgh Press, May 7, 1979: B-6.
17 Franke, “Pirates Show Plenty in 14-11 Win.”
18 With the Pirates trailing the first-place Montreal Expos by a half-game entering a doubleheader at Three Rivers Stadium on September 24, the final Monday of the regular season, Pittsburgh beat Montreal in the first game and took a three-run lead into the eighth inning of the nightcap, but the Expos rallied for a 7-6 win that left the Pirates a half-game back. Three wins in their next four games gave the Pirates a two-game lead and the opportunity to clinch a tie for the division at home on the next-to-last day of the season, but the Chicago Cubs pulled out a 13-inning win, scoring the winning run on Stargell’s throwing error. Pittsburgh ultimately clinched the division title with a win and a Montreal loss a day later on September 30. Dan Donovan, “Miracle Expos Make Bucs Believers in Split,” Pittsburgh Press, September 25, 1979: C-1; Dan Donovan, “Cubs Send Bucs Down to Last Day: Stargell’s Error in 13th Costly, 7-6,” Pittsburgh Press, September 30, 1979: D-1.
19 Tanner’s mother, Anne, died on October 15, the morning of Game Five of the World Series. At that time, the Pirates trailed the Baltimore Orioles three games to one, but Pittsburgh won that afternoon’s game and the next two in Baltimore for the championship. Marino Parascenzo, “Tanner Turned to ‘Grandma’ for Strength to Stop Orioles,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 15, 1979: 11.
20 “I looked in our dugout and around our clubhouse and I saw unity, I saw love,” Willie Stargell remembered in his autobiography. “We were twenty-five guys who bonded together to fight a battle. Alone we would have perished but together we were champions.” Willie Stargell and Tom Bird, Willie Stargell: An Autobiography (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 206.
21 Dan Donovan, “Unflappable Bucs Say ‘Bye-Bye, Bertie,’” Pittsburgh Press, May 1, 1980: C-1; Dan Donovan, “Blyleven Comes Back, But for How Long?” Pittsburgh Press, May 10, 1980: A-6.
22 Charley Feeney, “Madlock Suspension Pending, Bucs Sweep,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 2, 1980: 13; Charley Feeney, “Madlock. Heeds Pirate Owner, Drops Appeal,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 7, 1980: 9.
23 Stargell missed seven games in April with a bruised hand. In June, he was limited to pinch-hitting for eight days after pulling a hamstring; when it did not heal, he went on the disabled list for three weeks in July. He then injured his knee on August 12, diving for a hit down the first-base line by Steve Henderson of the New York Mets that went for a flukish inside-the-park home run, and did not play at all after August 17. Charley Feeney, “Pirates Can’t Put Brakes to Four-Game Skid: Injuries Continue to Mount as Braves Score 4-3 Victory,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 20, 1980: 11; Charley Feeney, “Stargell Idled as Mets Edge Hard-Luck Bucs,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 11, 1980: 11; Charley Feeney, “Stargell May Be Facing the End of His Career,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 10, 1980: 17.
24 Parker and Berra have acknowledged regular cocaine use by the 1979-1980 offseason. During a federal drug-trafficking trial in Pittsburgh in 1985, Berra admitted to using cocaine with Parker and Milner when the Pirates were in Puerto Rico for a series of exhibition games in March 1980, and Milner indicated he purchased cocaine from a caterer in the Three Rivers Stadium clubhouse on June 13, 1980, the day after the game covered in this article. Berra also testified that he and pitcher Rod Scurry, who went on a leave of absence from the Pirates during the 1984 season for a cocaine rehabilitation program and died of a cocaine-related heart attack in 1992, had used cocaine together in 1979. Two other members of the 1980 Pirates, Lacy and pitcher Eddie Solomon, are also alleged to have used cocaine during this time frame. Jan Ackerman and Carl Remensky, “Berra’s Drug Tale: Ex-Pirate Used It Most When on Disabled List,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 10, 1985: 1; Jan Ackerman and Carl Remensky, “Parker: Used Cocaine for 3 Years,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 12, 1985: 1; Toni Locy and Dan Donovan, “Mays Denies Milner’s Drug Testimony,” Pittsburgh Press, September 13, 1985: A-1; Sevil Omar, “Pitcher Falls in Tough Game of Life,” Reno Gazette-Journal, November 6, 1992: 1A.
25 “While last year they were The Family, a team that functioned well on harmony, this year they seem fueled on controversy,” Dan Donovan observed in the Pittsburgh Press. “But maybe that is good. Maybe instead of riding a feeling of content to the World Series, this year’s path is a sea of discontent.” Dan Donovan, “Pirates Cruising Along Despite Sea of Controversies,” Pittsburgh Press, June 6, 1980: A-6.
26 Dan Donovan, “Candy Sticks to It, Sticks It to Reds: Pirate Lefty Finally Gets His Third Win,” Pittsburgh Press, June 11, 1980: D-1.
27 Dan Donovan, “Bert’s Story Stuck on Sad Chapter,” Pittsburgh Press, June 12, 1980: C-1.
28 Ray Buck, “Familiar Names Dot Bucs’ Infield,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 13, 1980: C-3.
29 Knight started at third but left after two innings to get x-rays on his left elbow, which had been injured when he was hit by a pitch in the first. Spilman had replaced Knight at third. Ray Buck, “Reds Can’t Figure out LaCoss, But He’s No Mystery to Bucs,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 13, 1980: C-1.
30 Dan Donovan, “Who Is That Superman out in Left Field?” Pittsburgh Press, June 13, 1980: B-5.
31 Bob Smizik, ”Zisk Boom Bah! Richie Hits Cycle,” Pittsburgh Press, June 10, 1974: 23.
32 Romo recorded six four-inning saves in his six-season major-league career.
33 Donovan, “Who Is That Superman out in Left Field?”
34 Donovan, “Who Is That Superman out in Left Field?”