Obituary: Joe Cunningham (1931-2021)

RIP to Joe Cunningham, an All-Star first baseman/outfielder and a long-time part of the Cardinals organization. He died on March 25 while under hospice care at his home in Chesterfield, Mo. He was 89 years old. Cunningham played for the St. Louis Cardinals (1954, 1956-61), Chicago White Sox (1962-64) and Washington Senators (1964-66).

Joseph Robert Cunningham was born on August 27, 1931, in Paterson, N.J. The Cunningham family moved to Saddle River Township when he was in the seventh grade. He and his younger brother Jimmy played ball whenever they could. Joe showed such dedication to the game that he was named captain of his high school baseball team when he was a senior at Lodi High School. That year, 1949, he was named to the Bergen Evening Record All-County first team and the All-State second team, as chosen by the Newark-Star Ledger.

Joe Cunningham shares a laugh with Cardinals broadcaster Dizzy Dean. Source: The Record (Hackensack, N.J.), August 7, 1954.

Shortly after his graduation, Cunningham was signed by the Cardinals. It happened that his high school baseball coach, Stanley Piela, was a St. Louis scout and recommended him to Benny Borgmann, who was a Hall of Fame professional basketball player before he became a Cardinals scout. Borgmann signed the first baseman based solely on Piela’s word, and Cunningham began his professional career with the Johnson City Cardinals of the Class-D Appalachian League. Cunningham hit .347 with a home run in 60 games there, and he also set a League record by recording 17 putouts in one game. Cunningham spent the next two seasons working on his power hitting, too. He homered 10 times in 1950 for Class-C St. Joseph and 11 times for Class-B Winston-Salem.

Cunningham missed the next two seasons due to military service, and when he returned in 1954, the Cardinals moved the 22-year-old all the way up to AAA Syracuse. He was hitting .318 by the end of June, and the Cardinals decided to bring him up to the big leagues. The team’s starting first baseman, Tom Alston, was hitting in the .240s, and Cunningham was immediately inserted into the lineup. The promotion was such a whirlwind that Cunningham left most of his clothes behind at a Syracuse dry cleaner. He came to the Cardinals with one pair of pants, and he just wore that pair until he was able to get away for a shopping trip.

Considering the success he had, maybe he should have kept wearing the pants for luck. In his first day in the major leagues, Cunningham cracked a 3-run homer off Cincinnati’s Art Ditmar for his first major-league hit, A couple innings later, he drove in two more runs with a bases-loaded single, leaving him with 5 RBIs on the day. The very next day, he his two home runs off Milwaukee Braves ace Warren Spahn, driving in a total of 4 more runs. That’s 4 hits, 3 home runs and 9 RBIs in his first two games.

“I’m using a lighter bat than I had at Rochester,” Cunningham said. “I borrowed one from Sal Yvars and I’m going to keep on using it. It weighs only 31 ounces and I was using a 35-ounce before. This one feels like a fungo stick, nice and light, and it looks like it’s what I needed.”

Cunningham, nicknamed “Jersey Joe” or “Smokey Joe,” finished his rookie campaign with a .284/.375/.445 slash line, with 11 doubles and home runs each, as well as 50 RBIs and 43 bases on balls. He was the toast of Bergen County, N.J., and his family was inundated with letters from all over the country congratulating their son on his success. Cunningham returned home at the end of the season — not to bask in his new-found fame, but to work with his father Joe Sr. in the pipe-fitting business and help his mother Mildred with the dishes.

Cunningham with White Sox manager Al Lopez. Source: The South Bend Tribune, January 10, 1964.

For all his rookie success, Cunningham spent most of the next two seasons back in Syracuse, and there was a pretty big reason why: Stan Musial. The 34-year-old Musial was moved back to first base after several years in the outfield. Since Cunningham wasn’t about to take playing time away from the icon of the Cardinals franchise, management decided to send him back to the minors for more experience. Cunningham hit like he had nothing left to prove in the minors — which he didn’t — but his only major-league experience in those two seasons came in 4 early-season plate appearances in 1956.

The Cardinals decided that they couldn’t keep Cunningham buried in the minors any longer in 1957. He was a frequent pinch-hitter that season, and he also made starts at first base and right field. Unfortunately, those two positions were occupied full-time by Musial and Del Ennis — the only two Cardinals hitters to top 100 RBIs in 1957. So, despite playing in 122 games, Cunningham had only 329 plate appearances. He hit .318 and had an on-base percentage of .439, which would have led the National League if he had enough plate appearances to qualify for it. As it was, Musial was the NL OBP leader with a .422 mark. Three of Cunningham’s 9 home runs were as a pinch-hitter, and one of them was a pinch-hit grand slam that beat the New York Giants 7-3 on July 30.

Cunningham kept forcing his way into the lineup. He had a career-high 12 homers in 1958 while batting .312 in 131 games. He was considered too poor an outfielder to play regularly in right or left field, but he kept working at his defense. Finally, the Cardinals gave him the right field job in 1959, and he responded with the best season of his career.

Cunningham was jokingly called the “man of a thousand stances” — he actually had eight batting stances that he would use, depending on who was pitching and which stance felt most comfortable at the time. They all worked in 1959, as he batted .345, finishing in second place for the NL batting title, 10 points behind Hank Aaron. His .463 on-base percentage led the league, though. He celebrated his 28th birthday with 4 hits and a 5-4 win against the Braves. He also was selected to both National League All-Star teams and grounded out against Early Wynn in his only All-Star at-bat. At the end of the season, Cunningham finished 13th for the NL MVP Award. He was by no means a superstar — too many years as a part-time player didn’t leave him with much name recognition, but by the time his 1959 season was done, he had a career batting average of .317.

White Sox coaches and trainers help Cunningham after breaking his collarbone in 1963. Source: The Record, June 4, 1963.

Cunningham never reached .300 again, but he had a couple more solid seasons with the Cardinals, hitting in the .280s and playing some good defense in right field. He also married Kathryn Dillard on October 29, 1960 — the two were married for 60 years and had two children. Joe Cunningham III was a long-time player, manager and coach in the Cardinals’ minor league system.

As he left for a Hawaii honeymoon in 1960, Cunningham said that he expected to have five more good years, “with the Cardinals, I hope.” St. Louis general manager Bing Devine responded by saying, “The day I trade him, I’d better get a Ty Cobb in return — or start packing myself.”

Devine didn’t get a Cobb. Instead, he got Minnie Minoso in return when he traded Cunningham to the Chicago White Sox on November 27, 1961. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Minoso was 36 years old — the St. Louis papers believed he was up to six years older than that — and near the end of his career. Cunningham, on the other hand, returned to first base for the 1962 White Sox and slashed .295/.410/.428, once again earning some down-ballot MVP votes. His 32 doubles, 101 walks and 70 RBIs were career highs. For one of the few times in his career, Cunningham was assured of a regular spot in the lineup, and it culminated in a great season for his new team.

A freak injury knocked Cunningham out of the lineup in 1963, and he never really regained his status as a full-time player afterwards. He raced to first base on June 3 in an attempt to beat out a grounder to second against the Los Angeles Angels. As he reached first base, he stepped on the heel of first baseman Charlie Dees’ shoe, which knocked him off balance and sent him crashing shoulder first onto the ground. He fractured his right collarbone and was out of the lineup for about two months. When he came back, he was limited to pinch-hitting and occasional starts. He had a good September and raised his batting average from the .250s to .286, but he hit just 1 home run on the season.

Rookie Tommy McCraw was a capable replacement in Cunningham’s absence and maintained a decent share of the playing time in 1964. Both men were lefthanded batters and throwers, but McCraw was a decade younger than the 32-year-old Cunningham. Cunningham still had a fantastic eye and drew a good amount of walks, but he was a .250 hitter when he played. He fared worse with the Senators, with a .214 average in 49 games. He raised his average to .229 in 1965 with 3 home runs, but he lost playing time to Bob Chance and Dick Nen, both of whom were better hitters than he was by then. Five of his 20 RBIs on the season came in a 13-0 win over the California Angels on June 2. He hit a 2-run single and a 3-run home run in the first game of a doubleheader sweep by the Senators. Cunningham sought to reclaim the starting first base job in 1966, but he played in only 3 games, managing a hit in 8 at-bats, before he was released toward the end of April. That release brought his career to an end.

In 12 seasons, Cunningham had a .291/.403/.417 slash line. His 980 career hits included 177 doubles, 26 triples and 64 home runs, with 436 RBIs and 525 runs scored. He drew 599 walks and only struck out 369 times. Thanks to his backup status as a Cardinal, Cunningham had more than 500 plate appearances in a season just three times. Baseball Reference lists him with 22.3 Wins Above Replacement in his career.

Cunningham was named physical director of the Herbert Hoover Boys’ Club in St. Louis, which was being built on the site of the old Busch Stadium. He spent a month at New York University undergoing training and then traveled to 16 Boys’ Clubs across the country for some hands-on work. Cunningham, an official in the St. Louis branch of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, wanted to give back to the city and help at-risk youths.

Cunningham in his role as Cardinals’ spokesman. The hairpiece frequently became a comedic prop. Source: Quad City Times, January 31, 1972,

After a year, Cunningham got back into baseball as a manager at the Class-A level for St. Louis. He managed in Modesto (1968-69) and St. Petersburg (1970-71) for four seasons. During that time, he worked with rookies like Ted Simmons, Jose Cruz, Al Hrabosky and John Denny. Cunningham then was named the Cardinals’ Director of Public Affairs, replacing Mike Shannon, who joined the broadcasting team. The people-oriented Cunningham took part in many speaking engagements for Cardinals’ fans, and he knew how to entertain a crowd. In one instance, he gave a speech in Paducah, Ky., to honor a man who was named the top Cardinals fan in the area. To cap off the presentation, the balding Cunningham took off the blond hairpiece he had been wearing and placed it on the man’s head!

Cunningham later served as a Director of Sales, and he was also a speech-maker, mentor and goodwill ambassador. According to his obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he founded an elementary school program where he and the team’s mascot, Fredbird, warned children about drugs. He was invited to speak at hundreds of schools and reached hundreds of thousands of children, continuing the program into the 2010s. Though he retired from the Cardinals’ front office at the end of 1993, he remained a part of the Cardinals’ extended family for the rest of his life.

The Cardinals honored him by dedicating Cunningham Corner, a room used for school groups and season-ticket holder events, in 2015. They didn’t tell him they were doing it until he got to the ceremony — after years of Cunningham’s practical jokes, the Cards finally got him back. A news item described how he helped boost interest in Cardinals baseball. “Cunningham is responsible for transforming the game-day experience, first by turning the vacant football pressbox at Busch II into festive party rooms and then by creating countless promotions, theme nights, community nights, on-field ceremonies and group outings and concepts still used by the organization today.”

For more information:
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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