Position: First base
First, Last Names: Thomas Edison
Date of Birth: Jan. 31, 1926 Date and Place of Death: Dec 30, 1993, Winston-Salem, NC
Burial: New Goshen United Methodist Church Cemetery, Greensboro
High School: Dudley High School, Greensboro
College: N.C. A&T State University, Greensboro
Bats: L Throws: R Height and Weight: 6-5, 210
Debut Year: 1954 Final Year: 1957 Years Played: 4
Team and Years: St. Louis Cardinals, 1954-57
G AB H R RBI HR BA. OBP. SLG. WAR
91 271 66 30 36 4 .244 .311 .358 -0.1
Tom Alston’s story isn’t a happy one. He possessed a tormented soul. He heard voices that told him to slit his wrists and to set a church on fire. He was sent off to mental hospitals where electrodes were attached to his head. He couldn’t hold a job, never married. He lived in abject poverty until rescued by friends he didn’t know he had. And in the end, cancer got him.
This should be an inspiring story. Because Tom Alston was among the pioneers of baseball. He was the first black man from North Carolina to play in the major leagues, the first to don a uniform for the St. Louis Cardinals.
But, no, this is not a Jackie Robinson tale of courage and perseverance. Maybe it could have been had Alston stuck around the majors for a while. Yes, maybe Tom Alston’s story would be different if he could have only hit an inside fastball.
Seven years after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, St. Louis was still very much a Southern town. Most of its stores and restaurants wouldn’t serve blacks. The owner of its baseball team, Fred Saigh, refused to sign them. The Cardinals had the sport’s largest radio network, blanketing the South and Midwest, and the team had cultivated a white, Southern fan base. Its ballpark would be the last to abolish segregated seating. When Robinson played there as a visitor, Cardinal players yelled from the dugout that he was a black bastard and worse. Their manager, Eddie Stanky, told the local newspaper that he didn’t think that should offend anyone.[I]
The changes began in 1953 when Anheuser-Busch bought the team. The new owner, August A. Busch Jr., was by no means a civil-rights crusader, but he was an equal-opportunity capitalist. He wanted to sell beer to everyone, regardless of race. By then, most of the 16 major-league clubs had black players on their rosters. Busch decided it was time for his Cardinals to have a few as well. He hired a Negro League veteran to search out the best black ballplayers and signed more than a dozen in his first year of ownership.
That search eventually led to Tom Alston.
Thomas Edison Alston grew up in the black community of Goshen, which has since been swallowed up by Greensboro. He was one of five sons and two daughters of Shube and Anna Alston, a maid who brought home newspapers from the houses she cleaned. Young Tom became an avid reader of the sports pages and later had a paper route delivering a black newspaper.
His segregated Dudley High School didn’t have a baseball team. Tom played in the pastures around the house with broom handle bats and balls made of twine. He joined the Navy after graduating in 1944 and played his first organized baseball. Alston continued playing after his discharge at what was then called the Negro Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina, now N.C. A&T State University, in Greensboro. He hit .400 during his three years on the varsity team.
Alston played for black semipro teams after graduating in 1951 with a degree in physical education. He signed his first professional contracts a year later, first in the Class C Southwestern International League and then with the San Diego Padres in the Pacific Coast League, the country’s premier minor league that had produced superstars like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.
Lefty O’Doul, former major-league star himself and the Padres manager, gushed about his 6-5 first baseman, who was agile in the field and fast on the base paths. “I believe Tom has a chance of hitting 50 homers this year,” he said at the start of the 1953 season. “He has improved so much I can hardly believe it.”[II]
Alston hit only 23 but knocked in 101 runs while batting .297.
The Cardinals came calling. They bought Alston’s contract from the Padres in January 1954 for $100,000. They also threw in four players. Baseball people then were shocked that Busch would pay so much for an unproven player.
Alston’s reaction? “I can’t believe it,” he said. “Me on the same team with Stan Musial?”[III]
The Cardinals made the signing a media event, renting a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Hollywood, with Busch himself arriving from St. Louis to sign the contract. Sportswriters sipped Bud while nibbling on caviar. “The only blacks in the room were me and the valet who served the beer,” Alston recalled years later.[IV]
Although he was the black, $100,000 man, Alston didn’t remember any open resentment. “The Cardinals had the rap of being bigoted,” he later said. “I didn’t experience anything real bad. None of the players were friendly to me, but they weren’t rude.”[V]
National League pitchers were far from friendly. They soon discovered Alston’s weakness: He couldn’t hit high, inside fastballs. Alston batted only hit .181 in June of his debut with no home runs. Brooks Lawrence, a black, rookie pitcher who joined the Cardinals that month, was Alston’s roommate. “I’d wake up some nights and hear him praying,” Lawrence told author Peter Golenbock. “He’d be saying, ‘I can hit. I know I can hit.’ And he’d go out the next day and he wouldn’t hit anything.”[VI]
At the end of the month, the Cardinals sent Alston down to Class AAA Rochester. He would get token call-ups for the next two seasons, only because Busch insisted on it.
By then, the voices had started. Alston later said he began hearing them during his first year with the Cardinals but told no one. In 1956 or ’57 – Alston was never firm on the year — a woman’s voice told him, “It’s time to meet your maker.” He drove out into the country of Guilford County and slit his wrist with a razor blade, luckily inflicting only a minor wound. Deputy sheriffs found him and sent him home.[VII]
Alston was a wreck at the start of the 1957 season. He had lost 15 pounds and his behavior was erratic. “The poor guy is so weak, the bat seems to be swinging him,” Musial said.
The Cardinals sent Alston to see a doctor, who hospitalized him for “a nervous condition.” He saw a psychiatrist for the first time. “He didn’t ask no questions or nothing,” Alston told an author in the 1990s. “He just administered shock treatment.”[VIII]
He returned briefly to the Cardinals in September and went home to live with his father after the season. Alston never returned to baseball.
He was arrested for assault a few months later, in early 1958, and spent 30 days on a chain gang before his sentence was suspended. One night that September he set fire to the New Goshen Methodist Church. It was the church where he had grown up and had taught Sunday school and where he would be buried. Alston offered various explanations over the years. He had an argument with his sister and did out of spite; the voices told him to set the fire because the congregation needed a new building.
The fire did about $500 worth of damage.
Alston was arrested but was judged mentally incompetent to stand trial. He spent the next eight years in a state psychiatric hospital. Two months after his release in 1967, Alston set fire to his apartment and was committed again. Released in 1969, Alston remained on drugs for the rest of his life. His later interviews ranged from lucid to barely coherent. He never married or held a steady job, subsisting on Social Security disability benefits.
N.C. A&T inducted Alston into its sports hall of fame in 1972. He had shown up occasionally on campus to give batting tips to varsity players.
By 1990, Alston was destitute and living in a nursing home when Joe Garagiola called. The former Cardinal catcher and longtime broadcaster had heard of Alston’s plight. “He was so lonely,” Garagiola remembered.[IX]
Garagiola was one of the founders of the Baseball Assistance Team, or B.A.T., which provides financial aid to needy players and their families. With B.A.T.’s help, Alston was able to move into his own apartment.
The Cardinals invited him to a game where he threw out the first ball and recognized his place in team history.
Alston was diagnosed with prostate cancer soon afterwards and spent his last months in hospice. He died at age 67 on Dec. 30, 1993.
Alfred Fleishman, a rabbi and a columnist for a Jewish newspaper in Indianapolis, noted at the time that Augie Busch had asked him to talk with Alston when the Cardinal signed him, to try and prepare him for what life might be like in a city like St. Louis. When the rabbi was done, Alston put a hand on his knee.
“Mr. Fleishman, I guess you are trying to tell me there are people who don’t like Negroes. I am a Negro. I know that,” Alston said. “I guess what you and Mr. Busch want to know is how I feel. I’ll be glad to tell both of you. I feel sorry for them. I don’t think you have to pity people who don’t like you because they don’t have the same color of skin as you, don’t cut or comb their hair the same as you, don’t wear the same clothes and don’t go to the same church as you. You gotta pity people like that.”
“That’s what I’ll never forget,” Fleishman concluded in his column. “The only tragedy with Tom Alston was that he couldn’t hit major-league pitching and dint last a full season. Too bad.”[X]
[I]Costello, Rory. “George Altman.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/george-altman/.
[VI]Golenbock, Peter. The Spirit of St. Louis. New York: William Morrow and Co., 2000.
[X]Fleishman, Alfred. “Using Dignity, Not Chutzpah.” Jewish Post (New York). January 19, 1994.
Augie Busch told the press that his scouts and manager, Eddie Stanky, were urging him to sign Alston. Stanky, however, threatened to resign if he did.