Greatest Cardinals No. 79: OF-1B Joe Cunningham
NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener.
NO. 79: JOE CUNNINGHAM
A lot was new at the corner of Grand and Dodier in Midtown St. Louis, come 1954.
Anheuser-Busch and its beer baron, Gussie Busch, bought the St. Louis Cardinals at a bargain price from bankrupt Fred Saigh to keep the team from moving to Houston. Then it purchased the neglected Sportsman's Park from Bill Veeck — who had sold off his Browns to Baltimore to become the Orioles — and nearly tripled that investment with a major renovation. They even changed its name to Busch Stadium.
Next, the Cardinals went young on their roster, trading away the aging Swifties, who had won their last of three World Series Championships seven seasons earlier. Even Enos Slaughter, a 16-year-veteran, was dispatched to the New York Yankees for a rookie, Bill Virdon.
Meanwhile, slugging away in the minors was 22-year-old Joe
Cunningham, a left-handed hitter who had given away the previous two seasons to military service during the Korean War. The only thing blocking his path to the big leagues was the only thing nailed down in St. Louis — Stan Musial's spot at first base.
It took three more years and a new manager, Fred Hutchinson, for “Jersey Joe” to finally get a serious look at an alternate position.
Hall of Fame baseball writer Bob Broeg once wrote that, as an outfielder, Cunningham was “interesting more than he was good.” But he could hit, and it was in the outfield that he stayed.
Over the next three seasons, Cunningham batted no worse than .312 and produced on-base percentages that dipped no lower than .439.
In 1958, he batted .318 and struck out just 23 times in 424 plate appearances. The following year, he hit .345 — second only to the Braves' Henry Aaron in the National League — and reached base at a league-leading .453 clip.
But the Cardinals, even though they were now the only show in town, fielded middling teams during the 1950s. With 87 wins in 1957, Cunningham's first full season, they finished in second place, eight games behind the Milwaukee Braves. Then they slumped to fifth place in '58 and second-to-last in '59.
After the team won 80 games in 1961, General Manager Bing Devine traded Cunningham to the Chicago White Sox for 36-year-old shortstop Minnie Minoso, who appeared in all of 39 games for the Cardinals.
Finally reunited with his natural position, Cunningham gave the South Siders one great season by coupling a .410 OBP with a career-best 70 runs batted in and 91 scored. But he never fully recovered from a broken collarbone sustained in a collision at first base in 1963, and lasted just three more seasons in limited duty.
Once his playing days were done, the Cardinals welcomed Cunningham back, first as a coach and minor league manager, and later as a long-time marketing executive. A section on the left field line at Busch Stadium III, near the Champions Club, was rededicated “Cunningham's Corner” in honor of his 85th birthday in 2015.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1954, 1956-61 KEY STATS
.304 average with Cardinals | .403 career OBP | 2x All-Star
TOP 100 SCORE: 2.39
Joe Cunningham missed two seasons for military service.