In honor of Black History Month, I am going to take a look at some of the great African American ballplayers to spend time with the St. Louis Cardinals. There is no better place to start than at the very beginning, April 13, 1954. On this day, Tom Alston broke the Cardinals color barrier and integrated the club. Despite this historic achievement, Alston became an anonymous face in baseball history books. Few people know anything about the man. I had never heard of him until I began to search for the Cardinals first black player in history. So, who is Tom Alston?
Born in Greensboro, North Carolina, on January 31, 1926, Alston battled through racial tensions like most in the south throughout his childhood. After high school and during World War II, Alston joined the Navy. He would serve from 1944-1946 at various United States bases. Following his military service, Alston moved on to college. He enrolled at North Carolina A&T and graduated with a degree in physical education. After graduation, he played for the Jacksonville Eagles, a colored baseball team. His experience there led to the opportunity to sign with the Saskatchewan Rockets and later the Porterville Comets. After the Comets went under, the Pacific Coast League’s San Diego Padres picked him up. The Pacific Coast League was on the level of the major leagues then, featuring players like the DiMaggio brothers, Ted Williams, and Bobby Doerr. The sun-soaked California coast was perfect for baseball. The Pacific Coast League was a special part of baseball’s golden age. Alston was a part of it for the Padres, a team later added to the majors. The young first baseman was an athletic player with a good glove.
By 1953, St. Louis wanted to integrate and leave racist views of the time behind. Gussie Busch wanted to show the accepting views of ownership and the organization. The Cards signed Leonard Tucker to a minor league deal in 1953, making him the first black in the organization. Tucker was not ready for the big show, though. So the Cardinals kept looking for a more polished prospect that could contribute sooner. The club found Tom Alston in San Diego and knew he was the perfect fit. Busch made it a priority to get Alston in the offseason heading into 1954. He traveled to California to turn up the heat on negotiations and came back with his guy. Alston wasn’t cheap. It cost four players and $100,000 dollars to get him, but Busch was happy with the move.
He was getting a player that finished the previous year with a .297 average, 23 homers, and 101 RBIs. In the Pacific Coast League, those were solid numbers that should translate well in the big leagues. Alston was excited. The Cardinals were excited. 1954 was going to be a memorable season in St. Louis.
April 13, 1954. The Cardinals and Cubs squared off. The Cubs won 13-4. But the bigger picture shows a historic night in which Tom Alston became the first African American to take the field for the Cardinals. Unfortunately, Alston never reached his full potential. He never regained the form he had on the west coast. In 66 games that year, he batted .266 with four home runs. In the next three seasons he would only appear in a total of 25 games. And then, Tom Alston disappeared from memory. As if he never played a game, few fans today know the name. So, what ever happened to Tom Alston?
Alston suffered from neurasthenia, a mental disorder that left him exhausted and unable to play ball. It would haunt him for the rest of his life. He heard voices. And was never able to handle the exhaustion and emotional distress of his disease. Alston set a church on fire for no reason. He attempted suicide. The disease took everything from him. It is a sad story that hasn’t been told enough.
Tom Alston deserves more recognition. It’s a shame that his legacy is tainted by a disease he couldn’t control. The disease wouldn’t let him sleep or concentrate or live. It makes you wonder what could have been – on the diamond and in life.
In 1990, he did make a public appearance to throw out the first pitch of a game. Most likely didn’t know who he was. The suffering ended for Alston in 1993 when he passed away.
Hopefully the small, but important legacy isn’t forgotten so easily.
(Sources: Derrick Goold, St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Baseball Reference, Baseball Almanac)