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The sad tale of Tom Alston, the Wings’ first black player

My microfiche research back in 1991 had unearthed very little about Thomas Edison Alston, other than to tell me what I already knew—that he was the “first Negro to play for the Rochester Red Wings and St. Louis Cardinals.” But I did stumble upon the nugget that he had settled in Greensboro, N.C. after his playing days were over in the late 1950s. My heart raced. Perhaps he was still alive. So I did what researchers did during those nascent internet days before Google and other search engines made our detective work so much easier. I called information. And, lo and behold, the operator gave me Alston’s phone number.

I wound up connecting with a baseball pioneer who would provide me with one of the most compelling and saddest stories I’ve chronicled in 46 years of journalism. As I wrote in my column for the Democrat and Chronicle, on April 10, 1991, Alston was “a man with a sweet swing and troubled soul.” He was tormented by the pressures of being a black barrier-breaker in the then-Jim Crow city of St. Louis. And by the recurring voices in his head that kept telling him to do destructive things. After a failed suicide attempt, Alston listened to the voice that advised him to burn down an empty church in the middle of the night. Following the torch job, police took him away, and he spent the better part of a decade in psychiatric hospitals.

Alston played one season in Rochester, and parts of four seasons in the major leagues. The big first baseman appeared in just 91 big-league games, hitting four home runs and batting .244. Mediocre numbers. Numbers of unrealized potential. So much more had been expected of him when he arrived at the Cardinals training camp in the spring of 1954. The year before, the 6-foot-5 slugger had smacked 21 homers, drove in 101 runs and batted .297 for the Pacific Coast League club in San Diego.

“Alston’s one of the greatest prospects I’ve ever seen,’’ said San Diego manager Lefty O’Doul, a two-time National League batting champion who was the minor league skipper who gave Joe DiMaggio his start. “Here’s a kid who wants to learn and listen and work like a beaver to get places. I don’t see how he can really miss developing into a great hitter.”

The Cardinals had been criticized for their refusal to integrate, but that all changed after Anheuser-Busch bought the franchise in 1953. August Busch Jr. instructed his baseball scouts to start searching for prospective black ballplayers, and the Wings’ parent club wound up signing nearly a dozen African Americans in his first year of ownership. Their talent search eventually led them to Alston. In January 1954, they acquired his contract in a headline-grabbing deal that sent players and $100,000 to San Diego. It was by far the most money ever spent on an African-American player. Busch made a big production of the Alston signing, renting a Hollywood, Calif. suite for the press conference, at which caviar and Budweiser were served.

“The only black guys in the place,’’ Alston told me, “were me and the valet.”

Two things immediately caught people’s attention about Alston: his height and the color of his skin. He was the only black player in the Cardinals’ big-league camp. Despite his scintillating numbers the previous season, he didn’t feel right physically and emotionally. For more than a year, his throwing arm had been weak and he was constantly tired. And there were the voices, which he began hearing while playing winter ball in Mexico in 1953, though he never told anyone about them. There also was the burden of getting ready to play in a segregated city where restaurants refused to serve African Americans.

Remarkably, the obstacles didn’t prevent him from performing well enough in spring training to earn a roster spot. On April 13, 1954, almost exactly seven years after Jackie Robinson made his historic debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Alston started at first base for the Cardinals, making them the 10th of the then-16 major league teams to integrate. He did not get off to an auspicious start, going 0-for-4 at the plate and committing an error. Two games later, Alston lined his first hit, a home run, in a 23-14 loss to the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. The following day, he came off the bench and drove the first pitch over the wall for a three-run home that lifted St. Louis to its first win of the season. In a doubleheader against the New York Giants a few weeks later, he went 5-for-6 with five RBI, an inside-the-park homer and three walks. His performance, though, would be overshadowed by teammate Stan Musial, who had a record-setting five homers and nine RBI during the twin-bill.

Things were going well for Alston, who was batting .285 by the end of May. But a 2-for-27 slump followed, resulting in a demotion to International League affiliate Rochester.

“I enjoyed my stay there,’’ he said. “The guys were friendlier than the Cardinals were. I lived with a black couple. I don’t remember their names. I think the guy was a postal worker. I pretty much kept to myself. I was no carouser. Nightclubs and drinking—that just wasn’t me.”

Alston didn’t recall being subjected to any racial hatred while playing in Rochester, but his manager, Harry “The Hat” Walker remembered one incident when an opposing player peppered him and Alston with epithets.

“I told the guy who was razzing us to shut up,’’ recalled Walker. “And he said, ‘You wanna make something of it?’ Next thing you know he and I are wrestling like two alligators.”

Alston rediscovered his stroke with the Wings, earning a call-up to St. Louis after batting .297 with seven homers and 42 runs batted in during his 79-game stint with Rochester. The next three summers saw him yo-yo between the majors and minors before being released. He wound up becoming severely depressed, and after the 1957 season, tried slitting his wrists.

Although Alston never told the Cardinals about the incident or the voices inside his head, longtime trainer Bob Bauman suspected something was wrong.

“He would have these mood swings and began losing a lot of weight,’’ Bauman said. “I diagnosed him having neurasthenia (a condition marked by nervous exhaustion). We had a psychiatrist take a look at him and he diagnosed the same thing.”

Alston said the psychiatrist didn’t ask him any questions during the appointment.

“It was the damnedest thing,’’ he said. “The doctor didn’t say a word to me. Just came in and gave me electro-shock treatment.”

In the spring of 1959, Busch met with Bauman and asked what they could do to help Alston. Bauman and the psychiatrist recommended that Alston go to a mental hospital to receive treatment.

“We felt we could help his problem with diet, medication and regular sessions with a psychiatrist,’’ Bauman said. “I was really afraid that he was going to do something to hurt himself or others if we didn’t do something. But he refused to go to the mental hospital, and we couldn’t force him to.”

Instead, Alston returned to Greensboro, where he torched the church next to the field where he grew up playing sandlot baseball.

“I don’t know why I did it,’’ he told me in 1991.

But in an interview with the Greensboro News and Record nine years earlier, he said he committed arson because he felt his community needed a new chapel. He spent all but two months of the next eight years at Cherry Hospital, a state-run mental institution in Greensboro. He was released in 1967, but two months later he set his apartment on fire and was sent to John Umstead Hospital in Butler, N.C. He was released two years later.

When I spoke to him in 1991, he told me he no longer heard voices in his head and hadn’t for about 20 years. He said his psychiatric record, severe arthritis and high blood pressure prevented him from getting a job. Scraping by on Social Security and disability, he wrote several former major leaguers for help, but few responded to his letters. The year before we talked, he traveled to St. Louis for an autograph show where he was billed as “the legendary Tom Alston, the Cardinals first black player.” The promoter said the old ballplayer got along fine with the fans, but he probably wouldn’t have him back.

“Nothing against Tom,’’ the promoter said. “I just don’t think that many people remember him.”

Alston said he went to War Memorial Stadium, home of Greensboro’s minor-league team, a couple of times a year.

“It used to be that people would remember me, and yell things like, ‘Hey, there’s Mr. St. Louis Cardinal,’ but that doesn’t happen much anymore,’’ he said. “Guess I’m getting old.”

After my column was published, I mailed a copy of it along with Alston’s 1955 Bowman baseball card to the ballplayer, so he’d have some mementoes from his career. I also sent the story to Joe Garagiola, who was president of the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT). Garagiola called me about a week later and asked for Alston’s contact information. He said BAT wanted to help him with his rent and prescription expenses. I thanked him for doing that. Occasionally, I would call Alston, but each time I had to explain who I was. He seemed confused, like he was suffering from some form of dementia.

On Dec. 30, 1993, I saw the wire story that Alston had died at age 67. The blurb mentioned he had been the first African American to play for the St. Louis Cardinals, and that was pretty much it. As I had learned from interviewing Alston, that was only part of his story. There was more. Much more. And most of it was sad.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

One comment

  1. What a great article on the initial barriers of a black baseball player’s acceptance into the major leagues. The physical talent was there, but mental illness was his demise.

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