Great­est Car­di­nals No. 79: OF-1B Joe Cun­ning­ham

Belleville News-Democrat - - Front Page - BY TODD ESCHMAN [email protected] The run­ning list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.

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

AP

Joe Cun­ning­ham missed two sea­sons for mil­i­tary ser­vice.

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