ST. LOUIS — Joe Cunningham, who got off to a smashing start with the St. Louis Cardinals and later became a minor league manager, major league coach, key figure in their front office and team ambassador, has died. He was 89.
Popularly called “Smokey” Joe, he died Thursday in St. Louis, the Cardinals said.
Cunningham homered and drove in five runs during his big league debut against Cincinnati in 1954. The next day, he homered twice off future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn and drove in four runs at Milwaukee.
Cunningham was an All-Star in 1959 when he led the majors with a .453 on-base percentage. He hit .345 that season, second in the NL to Hank Aaron at .355.
Signed by the Cardinals at 17 years old, Cunningham spent two years in the military during the Korean War before reaching the majors.
In 12 seasons with St. Louis, the Chicago White Sox and the Washington Senators, he batted .291 with a .403 on-base percentage, along with 64 homers and 436 RBIs in 1,141 games. He drew 599 walks and struck out just 369 times.
Cunningham started out as a first baseman. When Cardinals star Stan Musial moved in from the outfield to take over the spot, Cunningham shifted mostly to right field.
Cunningham managed in the minors for several seasons, including a stint with the Class A St. Petersburg Cardinals.
In 1982, he was on Whitey Herzog’s coaching staff when St. Louis won the World Series.
Cunningham was credited with building the Cardinals’ group and season ticket departments. Hired as the team’s director of sales in 1972, he designed programs that included community nights, high school baseball games at Busch Stadium and national anthem performances.
“Joe Cunningham will be remembered as a pillar of the Cardinals organization,” team President Bill DeWitt III said in a statement. “Not only was he an outstanding player, but his contributions off the field were paramount in building the Cardinals fan base through innovative group sales and fan outreach initiatives.”
Cunningham became the Cardinals’ community relations director in the early 1990s. In 2015, the team dedicated a new area of Busch Stadium as “Cunningham Corner” for group events, programs and postseason celebrations.
Cunningham was a member of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame and the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame.
He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Kathe; son Joseph Jr., a former Cardinals minor league player and coach; son Pete; and three grandchildren.
Obituary released by the Cardinals:
CARDINALS MOURN PASSING OF FORMER ALL-STAR JOE CUNNINGHAM
Innovative Cardinals Marketing & Community Executive Died This Week At 89
ST. LOUIS, Mo., March 26, 2021 – The St. Louis Cardinals organization was saddened to learn of the passing of former All-Star first baseman/outfielder “Smokey” Joe Cunningham at the age of 89 this week.
“Joe Cunningham will be remembered as a pillar of the Cardinals organization,” said Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III. “Not only was he an outstanding player, but his contributions off the field were paramount in building the Cardinals fan base through innovative group sales and fan outreach initiatives.”
Signed by the Cardinals in 1949 as a 17-year-old, Cunningham played in the minor leagues for four seasons and served two years in the military during the Korean War before making his Major League debut as a first baseman in 1954. He returned to the Major Leagues three years later in 1957 and was moved to the outfield to accommodate Hall of Famer Stan Musial’s move to first base.
His finest season came in 1959 when he led the Majors with a .453 on-base percentage, was named to two National League All-Star teams and finished as runner-up to Hank Aaron for the National League batting title with a .345 average. After playing parts of seven seasons in St. Louis, Cunningham was traded to the Chicago White Sox following the 1961 season for long-time star Minnie Miñoso. He would finish his career with the Washington Senators. Over his 12-year big league career, Cunningham compiled a .291 average, .403 on-base percentage, 64 home runs and 436 RBI over 1,141 games.
Following his playing days, Cunningham returned to baseball as an instructor serving as manager for the Single-A affiliates Modesto Reds (1968-69) and St. Petersburg Cardinals (1970-71). He later served on Whitey Herzog’s major league coaching staff for one season during the team’s World Series championship run in 1982.
Cunningham’s biggest contribution to the organization may have been off the field, after being named as the Cardinals Director of Sales in 1972. He is credited with building the Group and Season Ticket departments, and creating the foundation for the organization to be one of the leading ticket sales teams in all of Major League Baseball for the past 30 years.
As a Group Sales innovator, he created programs such as community nights, high school baseball games at Busch Stadium, anthem performances and on-field experiences that built countless loyal Cardinals fans over the years, all of which are carried forward today. Cunningham also helped develop the Party Room and All-Inclusive experience at Busch Stadium when he turned the vacant football press box at Busch Stadium II into festive party areas. Party Rooms and All-Inclusive tickets continue to remain as one of the most popular game day experiences for thousands of Cardinals fans at each game.
“Joe was a tremendous leader and mentor for so many senior Cardinals staff members with his outgoing personality and focus on building long-term relationships,” said Dan Farrell, Sr. Vice President of Sales and Marketing. “It is his legacy that fundamentally established the fan-friendly customer service standards by which we teach and train our sales staffs to this day.”
Cunningham later served as the team’s Community Relations Director starting in the early 1990s. In that role, he developed the “Say No To Drugs” school program, which has evolved into the current Fredbird & Friends Elementary School program. This award-winning program has reached hundreds of schools and thousands of children over the years and Joe remained an active presenter well into his 80’s as the program and interaction with kids became one of his favorite passions.
In 2015, the Cardinals honored Cunningham with a surprise ceremony at Busch Stadium, dedicating a new area of the ballpark adjacent to the UMB Champions Club called “Cunningham Corner” that is utilized for various group events, programs and postseason celebrations.
Cunningham was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2012 and the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.
A native of Paterson and Saddle Brook, N.J., Joseph Robert Cunningham is survived by his wife of 60 years, Kathe, his son Joseph Jr., a former Cardinals minor league player (1984-88) and coach, his son Pete and his wife Kristen, and three grandchildren (Cassie, Joseph and Laci).