St. Louis Cardinals History: The first African American to play for the Cardinals

In honor of Black History Month, we look back at the man who was one of the first black men to play in Major League Baseball.
St. Louis Cardinals v Philadelphia Phillies
St. Louis Cardinals v Philadelphia Phillies / Rich Schultz/GettyImages

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier when he appeared for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and later that season Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians became the first African American to appear in an American League game. The first black man to play for the St. Louis Cardinals would come 7 years later, and his name was Tom Alston.

Tom Alston (born Thomas Edison Alston) was born on January 31, 1926, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Alston's professional playing career started in 1951 at the age of 25 after going to the Navy to play baseball and getting his bachelor of science degree at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. Alston played for the Indian Head Rockets in the Western Canada League to begin his professional career. The following year he split time with the Porterville Comets in the Southwest International League and the San Diego Padres who were in the Pacific Coast League at the time.

He would play the following season with the Padres and he hit .297 with 23 home runs and 101 RBI, and he played in all 180 games of that season under Hall of Fame manager Lefty O'Doul. That season led to the Cardinals trading for Alston just a couple of months before the 1954 season. In exchange for Alston, the Cardinals gave the Padres Eddie Erautt, Dick Sisler, and $100,000, which was a lot of money back then for a minor-league player. Unfortunately, the Cardinals were a little behind the 8 ball when it came to racial equality, mainly because the city of St. Louis was still considered a "southern city". They were one of the last teams to sign a black player, Sportsmans Park was the last of the 16 MLB stadiums at the time to ban segregated seating, and there were still several restaurants and businesses that did not allow black people. All that would change when the Buschs bought the Cardinals.

When August "Gussie" Busch Jr. bought the Cardinals in 1953, he wanted the team to search for more black players. To help speed up that process Busch hired an 8-time All-Star in the Negro Leagues Quincy Trouppe to be a scout, specifically to scout black players, including Alston. For the 1954 season, Alston cracked the Opening Day roster, he was going to split time at first base with Steve Bilko.

Alston batted sixth and played first base on April 13, 1954, against the Cubs and he went 0 for 4 in his Major League debut, he also dropped a pop-up on the first batter of the game, and the Cardinals lost the game 13-4. 4 days later at Wrigley Field, Alston got his first career hit in his ninth at-bat, a home run off Cubs reliever Jim Brosnan which cut the Cardinals deficit to 23-11, they ended up losing the game 23-13. The box score for this slugfest can be seen here.

He would split the 1954 season with the big club and in Triple-A, with the Cardinals he hit .246 with 4 HR and 34 RBI in 66 games. Alston dealt with nagging injuries and general soreness during the season and also throughout his life, he had a condition called neurasthenia, which basically means the weakness of the nerves. This illness affected his ability to play through pain and stay energized enough to consistently play.

Mental illness also had an effect on Alston's career, in either 1956 or 1957 (it is unknown when it exactly happened) he drove home to Greensboro and attempted to take his own life by slitting his wrist with a blade. The injuries sustained in the suicide attempt were minor and he was taken home with the help of a local sheriff. After his rookie season, he only played 25 games with the Cardinals across the next 3 seasons, hitting .222 in those games. He spent most of those years in Double-A and in a mental hospital for his health problems. He finished his MLB career with a .244 average and 4 home runs in 91 games.

After his baseball career was over he got in trouble with the law, in 1958 he served one month in prison for committing assault with a deadly weapon, and in September of that year he was arrested for burning down a church with kerosene, and according to sources on the Society for American Baseball Research website, he was deemed not competent to stand trial after Dr. John W. Turner testified that Alston was suffering from "paranoid schizophrenia " at the time.

Alston would spend the following 8 years in a psychiatric institution, but shortly after being released he would commit another arson and would be sent back. He would be in and out of mental hospitals his entire life. He would make occasional visits to his alma mater after North Carolina A&T elected him into their Sports Hall of Fame but for about two decades he stayed out of the spotlight until a familiar name to St. Louis sports fans reached out.

In 1986, former MLB catcher, legendary broadcaster, and St. Louis native Joe Garagiola was one of the founders of the non-profit organization B.A.T (Baseball Assistance Team) which provides financial aid for baseball players and their families, reached out to Alston who was living in a nursing home at the time. Garagiola was able to lend a helping hand to Alston and help him move into his own place. Shortly after that, Alston was welcomed back to St.Louis to throw out the first pitch before a game in June of 1990 against the Cubs.

Shortly after that appearance in St.Louis, Alston was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and he passed away on December 30, 1993, in North Carolina, he was 67. His life was never easy, maybe with all the knowledge and science we now have on mental health, that information may have helped him cope with his mental health better during his life. His baseball career was sparse and not overly successful, but he has enshrined his name in Cardinal history as the first-ever African American to represent the Birds on the Bat. This video was an interview Alston did over the phone in 1992 with Brent Kelley going over his baseball career and his life after baseball.