As the St. Louis Cardinals prepare to honor third baseman Scott Rolen, and pitchers Jason Isringhausen and Mort Cooper with enshrinement into its Hall of Fame on August 24, it’s time the team consider one of the most important players in franchise history.
He played in just 91 games for the Cardinals, compiling 66 hits and a .244 batting average. His four home runs and 36 RBIs as a Redbird certainly aren’t astounding. So, who is this guy and why on Earth should he be in the Cardinals Hall of Fame?
He’s Tom Alston – and on April 13, 1954 he became the first black player to take the field for Cardinals.
Hailing from Greensboro, N.C., Alston served in the Navy from 1945-47 before enrolling at North Carolina A&T. He earned a B.S. degree in physical education and social sciences there, and also played organized baseball for the first time.
Primarily a first baseman, Alston caught scouts’ eyes and his first opportunity to play professional baseball came in 1952 with Porterville, Calif., of the Class C Southwest International League. He hit .353 in 54 games for that team before the Class AAA Pacific Coast League team in San Diego signed him midway through the season. He hit .244 in 78 games.
In 1953 for San Diego, Alston hit .297 with 207 hits in 180 games. He totaled 101 runs, 23 home runs, 101 RBI and the Cardinals coveted his talent.
On Jan. 26, 1954, Alston was obtained in a trade. The Cardinals parted with Dick Sisler, pitcher Eddie Erautt and $100,000 to secure the player who San Diego manager Lefty O’Doul called “a great prospect who can field as good as any first baseman in the big leagues.”
“He looks like he’s going to be a great hitter, too,” O’Doul told The Sporting News.
Cardinals manager Eddie Stanky put it in more particular terms when he told The Sporting News, “I think we have a real ballplayer in this colored boy.”
Cardinals owner August Busch Jr. approved the move that made the team the 10th of 16 Major League franchises to integrate. It was eight years after Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“When we purchased the Cardinals, I promised there would be no racial discrimination,” Busch said of Alston’s acquisition and his upcoming debut.
“However, Alston was not purchased because of his race. Our scouts and manager … believe he is a great prospect. While he may need more experience, we didn’t want him to slip away from us.”
Some members of the 1946 Cardinals were reportedly threatened with suspension by National League President Ford Fricke for refusing to play on the same field as Robinson.
Alston said of the 1954 team and front office, “They treat me here just the same as any other ballplayer and that’s how I want to be treated.”
Busch, who had purchased the team in 1953, was not ashamed of the signing, according to an article by Warren Corbet of the Society for American Baseball Research.
“The Cardinals made their acquisition of Alston a media event. The team rented a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Hollywood, and Busch himself came out to sign the contract. Sportswriters sipped Budweiser with caviar on the side,” wrote Corbet.
“The only blacks in the room were me and the valet who served the beer,” Alston said later.
Alston got the Opening Day start against the Chicago Cubs, would get off to a quick start with the Cardinals, but soon slumped.
He went 0-for-4 in his first game at Chicago and dropped a pop up for an error. In his next game on April 17, he went hitless in his first four at-bats. In the eighth, he led off with a home run for his first big-league hit.
“I guess I’ve come a long way in a short time,” Alston said. “I guess I came up like a real rocket.”
Alston hit .301 (37-for-123) in May, but he slumped in June, enduring a 2-for-27 stretch and batted .181 (15-for-83) for the month. He had seven RBI in his last 42 games.
He roomed with another rookie pitcher, Brooks Lawrence, who told Corbet the struggles were weighing on Alston.
“I’d wake up some nights and hear him praying,” Lawrence said.
“He’d be saying, ‘I can hit. I know I can hit.’ And he’d go out the next day and he wouldn’t hit anything.”
Alston would later admit that he began hearing voices during the 1954 season, and, unknown to anyone, his mental health was deteriorating.
Alston made brief appearances with the Cardinals in 1955, 1956 and 1957 before his Major League career ended. He would later attempt to take his own life, burn down a church and spend years in a mental health facility.
Alston passed away at 67 on Dec. 30, 1993.
His life was troubled, and the pressure of being the Cardinals’ first black player must have taken some toll.
For his being a most historic Cardinal, Alston should ultimately find a place in the Cardinals Hall of Fame. The sooner the better.
Other Alston facts
Alston was actually one of 14 black players in the Cardinals’ organization, when he was on the 25-man roster.
On May 2, 1954 Alston was 5-for-6 with five RBI, an inside-the-park home run and three walks during a doubleheader against the San Francisco Giants. However, teammate Stan Musial hit five home runs with nine RBI, recording the best day of his Hall of Fame career.
Famed St. Louis sportswriter Bob Broeg wrote in The Sporting News, “His speed enabled him to circle the bases easily after Willie Mays misjudged his long wind-blown drive to left-center.”
Sixteen firsts, 15 men?
Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, yet it would take 12 years for all Major League teams to integrate. Here and the men, the year and the team. Yep, Boston was last.
Following Robinson was Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians. He played his first game in July 1947.
For as slow as the Cardinals were to field a black player, Hank Thompson played for the American League St. Louis Browns in 1947.
Now, here is a great baseball trivia answer. Following a trade to the New York Giants, Thompson became that franchise’s first black player in 1949.
A year would pass before Sam Jethroe joined the Boston Braves of the National League in 1950.
Born in Cuba, Minnie Minoso had a parent of African descent and is recognized as the Chicago White Sox first black player. A Hall of Fame member, Minoso first played in 1951.
Another two seasons passed before Bob Trice played for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1953.
Ernie Banks, recognized as the greatest of all Chicago Cubs, would not integrate the franchise until 1953.
In 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first MLB team to field a starting nine with no white players. Curt Roberts did not become the team’s first black player until 1954.
Alston began his short and troubled career with the Cardinals in 1954.
Another Latino player with a black parent, Nino Escalera, also took the field for the Cincinnati Reds in 1954.
The Washington Senators, and racist owner Calvin Griffith, didn’t welcome a black player, Carlos Paula, until 1954. Again, a Latino with mixed race heritage.
The mighty New York Yankees didn’t see fit to have a black player on the field until New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Elston Howard took the field in 1955.
John Kennedy became the first Philadelphia Phillies black player in 1957.
Ozzie Virgil, whose son would play Major League baseball, became the first black player for the Detroit Tigers in 1958.
And finally, Elijah Jerry “Pumpsie” Green played for the Boston Red Sox in 1959. Green died on Wednesday, July 17.
The Reid Roundup
I’m usually pro-player when it comes to contract negotiations and holdouts in the NFL. But if Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott holds out, I’ll be extremely disappointed. For all the headaches he has caused his franchise and teammates, any thoughts or a holdout should hold on until next season…Speaking of the Cowboys, Jerry Jones owns the most valuable sporting franchise in the world with a value of $5 billion, according to FORBES. The New York Yankees are second at $4.6 billion. Soccer franchises Real Madrid and Barcelona are third and fourth, respectively at $4.2 and $4.1 billion….If the NBA is dying and nobody cares about it, how are the New York Knicks worth $4 billion and fifth on the FORBES list?..The St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs are tied at No. 47 with a value of $2.1 billion… Of the 50 ranked teams, 26 are NFL franchises. The NBA has nine and MLB has seven. No NHL teams are in the Top 50... Dan Le Batard is in hot water with ESPN after chastising the president – and ESPN – following the president’s racist rants last week. “We here at ESPN don't have the stomach for the fight. We don't talk about what is happening unless there is some sort of weak, cowardly sports angle that we can run it through.”…As NFL training camps open, Alabama has 67 former players on active NFL rosters. The Tide has 28 former offensive players, 37 defensive players and two specialists included.
Alvin A. Reid was honored as the 2017 “Best Sports Columnist – Weeklies” in the Missouri Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest and is a New York Times contributor. He is a panelist on the Nine Network program, Donnybrook, a weekly contributor to “The Charlie Tuna Show” on KFNS and appears monthly on “The Dave Glover Show” on 97.1 Talk.” His Twitter handle is @aareid1