Joe Cunningham usually hit for average, not for power. So the three home runs he produced in his first two big-league games with the Cardinals were surprising.
Two rookies with the 2014 Cubs, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, joined Cunningham as the only players since 1900 to hit three home runs in their first three major-league games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Baez hit a home run in his first major-league game on Aug. 5, 2014, at Colorado and followed that with two homers in his third game on Aug. 7 at Colorado.
Soler homered in his first big-league game on Aug. 27, 2014, at Cincinnati and hit two more in his third game on Aug. 29 at St. Louis.
Cunningham did them one better. He’s the only player since 1900 to hit three home runs in his first two big-league games.
A left-handed batter and first baseman, Cunningham, 22, began the 1954 season at Class AAA Rochester. On June 28, 1954, the Cardinals came to Rochester to play an exhibition game versus the Red Wings. Cardinals manager Eddie Stanky said the prospect he was most interested in seeing was Cunningham. Because of that, Cunningham insisted on being in the lineup, even though he had leg cramps.
Cunningham produced two singles and walked twice in four plate appearances.
Impressed, the Cardinals decided to promote Cunningham. On June 29, before the Red Wings played a doubleheader against Havana at Rochester, Cunningham was told he would be joining the Cardinals in Cincinnati the next day.
Cunningham was replacing rookie first baseman Tom Alston. In 66 games, Alston, the Cardinals’ first black player, hit .246 with four homers and 34 RBI. But he slumped in June (.181 batting average for the month) and produced only seven RBI in his last 42 games.
Cunningham planned to catch an overnight train from Rochester to Cincinnati after playing both games of the doubleheader against Havana. He went hitless _ “I was so happy and surprised (about the promotion) I hardly could see up there at the plate,” Cunningham said to The Sporting News. _ but because of the length of the games, he missed the train.
“I just had to get there,” Cunningham said.
A member of the Rochester publicity staff agreed to drive Cunningham from Rochester to the Buffalo airport the morning of June 30. Cunningham took a flight from Buffalo to Cincinnati, arrived in the afternoon, signed a big-league contract and went to the ballpark.
Stanky put Cunningham in the starting lineup, batting him fifth against the Reds that night.
St. Louis slugger
Cunningham hit into force outs in his first two at-bats. In the fifth, facing Art Fowler, a 32-year-old rookie right-hander, Cunningham hit a three-run home run for his first big-league hit. He followed that with a two-run single off left-hander Harry Perkowski in the seventh. Cunningham’s five-RBI performance carried the Cardinals to an 11-3 victory. Boxscore
Immediately afterward, the Cardinals traveled to Milwaukee for a game the next day, July 1, against the Braves and their ace, left-hander Warren Spahn. Stanky put Cunningham in the lineup, batting sixth.
Cunningham hit two home runs off Spahn. The first was a 390-foot solo shot to right in the second inning. In the fifth, he connected for a three-run homer that landed just inside the right-field foul pole. The Cardinals won, 9-2. Boxscore
Dream come true
“This is just like a dream,” Cunningham said to the Associated Press. “I always wanted to be a big leaguer, but I had no idea it would come so soon.”
He had just one problem. “I left the minors in such a hurry I only brought along one pair of trousers,” Cunningham said. “I guess I’m still in a sort of shock. I had all my stuff at the cleaners and the only pants I’ve got are the ones I’ve been wearing.”
The next day, July 2, playing in his third game in his third city in three days, Cunningham was 1-for-3 with a single and a walk against the Cubs at Chicago. Boxscore
Cunningham finished the 1954 season with a .284 batting average, 11 home runs and 50 RBI in 85 games for the Cardinals. In 12 big-league seasons, seven with the Cardinals, Cunningham hit .291 with 64 homers. His single-season high in home runs was 12 for the 1958 Cardinals.
Previously: The story of how Tom Alston integrated Cardinals