Joe Cunningham

Joe Cunningham drives in five in his debut: June 30, 1954

On June 30, 1954, Joe Cunningham kicked off his 12-year major-league career with a single, homer, and five RBIs in an 11-3 St. Louis Cardinals victory over the Cincinnati Redlegs.

Cunningham had been with the Cardinals’ International League affiliate, the Rochester Red Wings, on June 29 when manager Harry Walker informed the 22-year-old that he was being called up to the majors to take the roster spot of Cardinals first baseman Tom Alston, who made history earlier that season as the first black player to make the Cardinals’ major-league club.

Interestingly, rather than leaving immediately for Cincinnati, where the Cardinals were playing the Redlegs, Cunningham played Rochester’s scheduled doubleheader before heading to the majors.

“I was so happy and surprised I hardly could see up there at the plate,” said Cunningham, who went hitless in his seven at-bats.[1]

In preparation for Rochester’s upcoming road trip, Cunningham had sent out his laundry, which meant that he would have to join the Cardinals without his clothes. Even worse, the doubleheader ran long, causing him to miss his train. To make it to Cincinnati, Rochester’s publicity staffer drove him to the Buffalo airport, where he caught a flight and arrived in the Queen City in midafternoon. He signed his Cardinals contract after 7 p.m.[2]

Cunningham’s debut came against Redlegs righthander Art Fowler, a 31-year-old rookie from South Carolina whose minor league journey had taken him to the Bristol Twins, Danville Leafs, Jersey City Giants, Minneapolis Millers, Jacksonville Tars, Atlanta Crackers, and Milwaukee Brewers.

In the first inning, center fielder Wally Moon (who homered in his first major-league at-bat earlier in the season) led off the game with a double and scored on an RBI single by Ray Jablonski. The Reds answered in the bottom half of the inning when Gus Bell hit a solo home run off Cardinals starter Brooks Lawrence.

The game remained tied until Cunningham broke it open in the fifth. After Moon drew a walk and Red Schoendienst singled, Jablonski hit his second RBI single of the game to give the Cardinals the lead. The lefthanded-swinging Cunningham then pulled a three-run homer over the right-field wall to make the score 5-1 and chase Fowler from the ballgame.

Two innings later, after Moon and Schoendienst led off with singles, the Redlegs intentionally walked Jablonski to load the bases and face Cunningham with one out. Cunningham rose to the challenge, punching a two-run single up the middle. Rip Repulski followed with a three-run homer, quickly giving the Cardinals a 10-1 lead.

Repulski hit another home run in the ninth inning to give him four RBIs on the day and make the final score 11-3. The two homers gave Repulski 14 on the season.

Moon finished with three hits and three runs scored, and Schoendienst, Jablonski, Cunningham, and Repulski each scored twice.

Lawrence, making just the second start of his career, worked around nine hits and five walks for the complete-game win. He went on to enjoy a 15-6 rookie campaign for the Cardinals even as he led the league with eight hit batsmen.

Cardinals manager was pleased with both rookies, though he cautioned reporters not to read too much into Cunningham’s debut, especially with the Braves expected to start Warren Spahn the following day.

“Don’t go overboard,” Stanky said. “I thought enough of this boy to want him, yes, but I told him that while I’d be happy if he hit .300, I’d be satisfied with .270. Let’s wait at least until he faces a good lefthander – Warren Spahn.”[3]

In the Cardinals’ 9-2 win over the Braves, Cunningham hit two homers – both off of Spahn. His second-inning home run was a solo shot, and in the third inning he hit a three-run homer to give him nine RBIs in his first two games.

“I’ve seen it before – one man give a ball club a shot in the arm, that is – and I believe the kid has done it,” Stanky said. “Gerry Staley, who hadn’t been pitching, comes in with a great relief job, and Stan Musial, who hadn’t been hitting, rips the cover off the ball.

“Cunningham is so strong he even squeezes the hell out of your hand when you shake it as he rounds third base on his way home.”

Cunningham went on to bat .284/.375/.445 with 11 homers and 50 RBIs. Despite his successful rookie campaign, the Cardinals encouraged him to change his batting stance in 1955.[4] The adjustment didn’t work, as he struggled in spring training, then suffered an injury after he was hit in the head by a pitch. Instead of returning Cunningham to first base, the Cardinals opted to move Musial to first and send Cunningham back to Rochester, where he spent all of 1955 and most of 1956.

It wasn’t until 1957 that Cunningham returned to the majors and enjoyed the best seasons of his career. That year, he hit .318 with a .439 on-base percentage. In 1958, he hit .312 with a .449 on-base percentage and a career-high 12 homers.

In 1959, at a time when the majors played two all-star games per season, Cunningham made both of his career all-star appearances. That year marked the high point of his career as he hit .345 with a .453 on-base percentage to lead all of baseball.

Though Cunningham never again hit over .300, he did hit .280 and .286, respectively, in the final two years of his Cardinals career. After the 1961 season, the Cardinals traded Cunningham to the White Sox for Minnie Minoso. In seven seasons in St. Louis, Cunningham hit .304 with a .413 on-base percentage.

“He kept us loose,” teammate Bill White said. “He was always there with the positive word and attitude. He did not have as much ability as a lot of guys, but he made up for it by hustling. He was just an old-timer.”[5]

Cunningham played the final five years of his career with the White Sox and Senators. He finished his 12-year major-league career with 980 hits, a .291 career batting average, and a .403 on-base percentage.

After his career ended, Cunningham served as a minor-league coach for the Cardinals before joining the front office and becoming the team’s director of sales. He also was a coach on the Cardinals’ 1982 World Series championship team.

Cunningham passed away in March 2021.

“Joe was a great ambassador for us for many years and a pillar in the community,” team president Bill DeWitt III said in a statement after Cunningham’s passing. “He was also a warm, positive person with a great wit. He will be sorely missed.”[6]

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[1] “Rookie in Such a Hurry to Join Redbirds He Left Clothes Behind,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 1, 1954.

[2] “Rookie in Such a Hurry to Join Redbirds He Left Clothes Behind,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 1, 1954.

[3] “Haddix’s Injury Not Serious,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 2, 1954.

[4] “Joe Cunningham Vows to Return,” Herald-News, July 5, 1955.

[5] Rick Hummel, “Popular player, coach for Cards dies at 89,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 26, 2021.

[6] Rick Hummel, “Popular player, coach for Cards dies at 89,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 26, 2021.