Alston broke ground for Cards
First baseman was St. Louis' first black player
Thomas Edison Alston wasn't the first of the first. He's not famous for being a pioneer like Jackie Robinson or even Larry Doby. He broke ground, though.
On April 13, 1954, 34 days before Brown v. Board of Education was decided, Alston became the first African-American to play for the St. Louis Cardinals. By the end of the next decade, St. Louis was something of a model franchise for race relations, but in the early '50s, the Redbirds had been lily-white.
Under owner Fred Saigh, the Cards made little progress toward integration, but that changed when Gussie Busch and the Anheuser-Busch brewery took over the ballclub. Busch made it a priority to integrate his team, and Alston was the man. Alston made his debut 14 months after the sale was completed.
"He is a good ballplayer," said Bing Devine, later the GM of the Cardinals and at the time an adviser to Busch. "We were just breaking the line at that point, and he seemed to be ideal."
Alston's big league career was brief: a total of 91 games and 271 at-bats over four seasons, the majority of it coming in his debut season of '54. He hit .244 with four homers, all of those in 1954. He was a slick fielder at first base.
"He was a good fielder," said Devine, who later made the trade for Lou Brock. "He was kind of a picture ballplayer, really. He did everything with ease and kind of simplified everything at first base."
The Cards had high hopes for Alston, and not merely as a pioneer. According to Project Retrosheet, the club sent Dick Sisler, Eddie Erautt and $100,000 to acquire him from Triple-A San Diego. He was the only African-American player even in camp for the Cards that spring, and later broke the color line for St. Louis' farm team in Rochester.
The Red Wings, now affiliated with the Minnesota Twins, recognized Alston this past June for his significance. He didn't live long enough to see it however, passing away in late 1993 at the age of 67.
Alston presented a calm veneer, the sort of even temperament that made him well-suited to breaking the color line with the Redbirds.
"Very nice," Devine said when asked his impressions of Alston as a man. "He was an ideal person from every standpoint to start breaking the line. He was a gentleman and very calm and low-key. Everything about him was kind of with ease."
Internally, though, Alston was tortured. According to a 1991 story from the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle, Alston heard voices and was plagued by neurasthenia, a condition "characterized by general lassitude, irritability, lack of concentration, worry, and hypochondria."
Alston also told Democrat and Chronicle columnist Scott Pitoniak that the primary reaction to him among Cardinals players was indifference.
"The Cardinals had the rap of being bigoted," he told Pitoniak. "I didn't experience anything real bad. None of the players were friendly to me, but they weren't rude."
Devine said the team didn't receive a particularly poisonous reaction for its decision.
"Nobody said 'I'm never coming to a game again,'" he recalled. "It really wasn't that big an issue [for the team]. I think some people just waited to see how it worked, and it was a product of the times."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.