Two years after his professional baseball debut at the Class C level of the minor leagues, Tom Alston was the Opening Day first baseman for the Cardinals. Making that leap in such a short time would be a challenge for any prospect. Alston had the additional pressure of being the first black person to play for the Cardinals.
Seven seasons after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, the Cardinals became the 10th of the 16 major-league teams to integrate.
Alston, 28, was the 14th black player in the Cardinals’ organization, but the only one on the big-league roster. (Among the other blacks in the Cardinals’ system in 1954 were pitchers Bill Greason, Brooks Lawrence and John Wyatt. All eventually would pitch in the big leagues.)
Alston’s rise from baseball novice to Cardinals pioneer was fast and unexpected. After serving in the Navy from 1945-47, Alston enrolled at North Carolina A&T in his native Greensboro and earned a bachelor of science degree in physical education and social sciences. It was while in college that Alston, 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, first played organized baseball.
In 1952, he broke into professional baseball with Porterville, Calif., of the Class C Southwest International League, and hit .353 in 54 games. That caught the attention of the San Diego club of the Class AAA Pacific Coast League.
Alston joined San Diego midway through the 1952 season and hit .244 in 78 games.
In 1953, Alston put together a stellar season for San Diego. He had 207 hits in 180 games, with 101 runs scored, 23 home runs, 101 RBI and a .297 batting average. Cardinals scouts gave Alston rave reviews.
On Jan. 26, 1954, the Cardinals sent first baseman Dick Sisler, pitcher Eddie Erautt and $100,000 to San Diego for Alston. San Diego manager Lefty O’Doul called Alston “a great prospect who can field as good as any first baseman in the big leagues.”
“Alston looks like he’s going to be a great hitter, too,” O’Doul told The Sporting News.
Said Cardinals owner August Busch Jr.: “When we purchased the Cardinals, I promised there would be no racial discrimination. However, Alston was not purchased because of his race. Our scouts and manager Eddie Stanky believe he is a great prospect. While he may need more experience, we didn’t want him to slip away from us.”
Bill Starr, president of the San Diego club, offered to cut the cash portion of the deal to $75,000 if the Cardinals would wait until 1955 to take Alston, according to the Los Angeles Daily Mirror. But the Cardinals wanted Alston for 1954. The incumbent at first base was Steve Bilko, who hit 21 home runs for the 1953 Cardinals but also led the National League in striking out (125 times). The Cardinals used spring training in 1954 as a competition between Alston and Bilko for the first base job.
“I think we have a real ballplayer in this colored boy,” Stanky said to The Sporting News in March 1954.
Said Alston: “They treat me here just the same as any other ballplayer and that’s how I want to be treated.”
Stanky declared he’d platoon Alston (a left-handed batter) and Bilko (a right-handed batter). But Alston got the Opening Day start against Cubs left-hander Paul Minner.
“I guess I’ve come a long way in a short time,” Alston said to The Sporting News. “I guess I came up like a real rocket.”
Alston went 0-for-4 with a strikeout and committed an error in his debut game. Boxscore
In his next game, April 17, 1954, at Chicago, Alston went hitless in his first four at-bats. In the eighth, he led off with a home run, his first big-league hit, against Cubs reliever Jim Brosnan. Boxscore
The next day, April 18, Alston got his second hit, a pinch-hit, three-run homer off left-hander Jim Davis that lifted the Cardinals to a 6-4 triumph. Boxscore
On April 30, the Cardinals sent Bilko to the Cubs. Alston was the everyday first baseman.
In a doubleheader against the Giants on May 2, Alston was 5-for-6 with 5 RBI, an inside-the-park home run and 3 walks. His performance was overshadowed that day, however, by teammate Stan Musial, who hit 5 home runs with 9 RBI. Game 1 boxscore Game 2 boxscore
In The Sporting News, Bob Broeg wrote of Alston’s inside-the-park home run: “His speed enabled him to circle the bases easily after Willie Mays misjudged his long wind-blown drive to left-center.”
Slowed by slump
Alston hit .301 (37-for-123) in May and was at .285 overall on May 30, but he slumped in June, enduring a 2-for-27 stretch and batting .181 (15-for-83) for the month. He had just 7 RBI in his last 42 games.
On June 30, the Cardinals sent Alston to Class AAA Rochester and called up another rookie, Joe Cunningham, to replace him at first base.
Alston hit .210 in Cardinals home games; .280 on the road. He batted .268 against right-handers; .197 versus left-handers. His overall numbers for the 1954 Cardinals: 60 hits in 66 games, 14 doubles, 4 home runs, 34 RBI and a .246 batting average. He made 62 starts at first base.
Said Cardinals general manager Dick Meyer: “Alston wasn’t ready … Eddie (Stanky) and I still have a very high regard for Alston as a prospect.”
After replacing Alston, Cunningham hit .284 with 11 home runs in 85 games for the 1954 Cardinals. The next season, the Cardinals moved Musial from the outfield to first base.
Alston made brief appearances with the Cardinals in 1955, 1956 and 1957. In 91 big-league games, all with St. Louis, Alston had 66 hits and a .244 batting average.
Ten years after Alston’s big-league debut, the Cardinals would become World Series champions, building a reputation as a franchise that embraced diversity with players such as Bob Gibson, Bill White, Curt Flood, Lou Brock and Julian Javier.
Underappreciated, Tom Alston took the first steps toward making that possible.
Greensboro newspaper: Illness curtailed Tom Alston’s career with Cardinals
St. Louis newspaper: In remembering Jackie Robinson, remember Tom Alston, too