ST. LOUIS — A franchise as storied as the St. Louis Cardinals has hero after hero, legend after legend, and 37 former Cardinals in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But only one player is the Cardinals' Jackie Robinson.
"The Cardinals celebrate Tom Alston as the first African-American in team history and a lot of fans don't recognize his name," said Brian Finch, Manager of Stadium Tours & Museum Operations for the Cardinals.
1953 was the last season the Cardinals fielded an all-white team. Seven years after Major League Baseball integrated, Tom Alston became the first African-American to play for the Cardinals. To say it wasn't easy would an understatement.
In 1953 Fred Saigh sold the Cardinals franchise to the Anheuser-Busch brewery headed by August Busch.
"Gussie Busch recognized by just the casual glance of the roster that the Cardinals did not have any African American players on the roster," said Finch. "And so he began looking immediately to see how he could change that."
The result was a $100,000 trade for Tom Alston, between the Cardinals and the San Diego franchise in the Pacific Coast League. It could hardly be a more pressure-packed a situation for Alston. He was a rookie simply trying to make it in professional baseball, an African-American in a Jim Crow city on a team that had waited seven years to integrate, and Alston had a secret he kept from the Cardinals: that he was hearing voices during his rookie season.
"I think he was fighting for a job and trying to live up to the expectations, possibly unrealistic expectations that were placed upon him," said Finch. "I can't imagine the pressure that Tom Alston was feeling when he came to the Cardinals in 1954 but Tom made his major league debut on April 13, 1954 and broke the color barrier for the St. Louis Cardinals."
Although his first two major league hits were home runs, Alston never became a star. During four seasons when he struggled and bounced back and forth between the majors and Triple-A, Alston experienced anxiety and a 15-pound weight loss that sent him to Jewish Hospital.
"Clearly something was going on," said Finch. "Obviously we're not doctors to be able to make a diagnosis now, but we do feel for this situation, but I don't know, based on the research that I've been able to do that Tom was honest about the condition."
The condition apparently was schizophrenia. After dropping out of baseball, Alston was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial for burning down a church in Greensboro, North Carolina, his hometown. Newspaper reports indicate a psychiatrist testified that Alston had schizophrenia. Multiple psychiatric hospitalizations followed over the years. Alston died in 1993.
Ten years after Alston’s big-league debut, the Cardinals became World Series champions in 1964, building a reputation as a franchise that embraced diversity. Players like Bob Gibson, Bill White, Curt Flood, Lou Brock and Julian Javier sent the franchise to three World Series in the 1960s, including two championships. Tom Alston helped make that possible.
"No one can ever take away the fact that he was the first African-American player in St. Louis Cardinals history and that's something that we will always be proud for him and with his family," said Finch. "And we do celebrate that here at the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame. We're proud to have one of his jerseys on display. We have one of his bats in our collection and it will always be a story that we tell here within the Cardinals franchise."