The focus for my blog posts during this COVID 19 shortened 2020 Major League baseball season has been baseball time capsules from the 1950s. During that decade, the pace of integration in the Major Leagues slowly, but steadily went forward. As a consequence, due to the decrease in its talent pool, Negro League baseball had begun a journey towards extinction by the early 1960s. All of this with the early Civil Rights movement as a back drop.
This week’s post is about Tom Alston, the first African American to appear in a Major League game for the St. Louis Cardinals. On May 2, 1954, in a doubleheader against the New York Giants, the rookie first baseman had the best game of his short Major League career. In the first game Alston had four hits including a home run, his third of the young season, and two RBIs. The second game he hit a bases loaded double (3 RBIs) in the Cardinals’ first inning. He ended the day batting .313.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers erased Major League baseball’s “invisible color line” that had kept out African American and dark-skinned Latino players since the end of the 19th century. Over the next six years, along with the Dodgers, African American and/or dark-skinned Latinos would play with seven other teams; the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, New York Giants, Milwaukee Braves, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, and Philadelphia A’s. In 1954, the color line would be erased on four other teams; the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Senators, and St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cardinals, one of the Major League’s most renowned franchises, had been reluctant to accept the changing winds for racial diversity in professional baseball. The progress of racial integration in St. Louis mirrored that of cities in southern states at that time. Many stores and restaurants refused to serve African American customers. Also, the Cardinals were the last Major League team to abolish racially segregated seating at their home stadium. However after buying the team in 1953, new Cardinals’ owner August A. Busch, Jr. wanted the team to be reflective of the African American target market for his company’s product; Budweiser beer.
Born 1/31/26 in Greensboro, North Carolina; Thomas Edison Alston played baseball at North Carolina A & T following a stint in the military. After two minor league seasons on teams coached by former Negro League pitcher Chet Brewer, he caught the Cardinals’ attention while playing for San Diego (Pacific Coast League) in 1953. With Alston having a power hitters’ body (6’, 5” and 210 lbs.) along with showing agility playing first base, the Cardinals paid $100,000 to obtain his contract.
For the first time in the franchise’s history, the 1954 Cardinal team would have African American players; Alston along with pitcher Brooks Lawrence and former Negro League pitcher Bill Greason. The 28 years old Alston made his Major League debut on April 13 becoming the first African American to play in a game for the St. Louis Cardinals. Although not as historic, his debut occurred a little more than a month before the 1954 landmark US Supreme Court Brown vs Board of Education ruling (May 17) that struck the first blow in making racial segregation against African Americans unconstitutional.
After a slow start, hitting only .211 in April, Alston hit .411 the first 11 days of May which included that May 2 doubleheader against the New York Giants. But, National League pitchers discovered his weakness; the high inside fastball and Alston hit .181 in June with no homes runs. The Cardinals sent him to the minor leagues and moved Hall of Fame outfielder Stan Musial to first base. Alston tried regaining his batting hitting 21 home runs with 80 RBI playing for AAA Omaha in 1956. However, it never resurfaced for him at the Major League level. In 1955 – 1957, he hit .139 in 25 games with the Cardinals.
Alston began a battle with mental illness during the 1957 season. Diagnosed as having schizophrenia in 1958, he would spend the next 11 years in a North Carolina psychiatric institution. It is unclear if Alston’s mental condition played a role in his inability to handle the pressure of being the Cardinals’ first African American player his rookie season. However, what happened on May 2, 1954 is forever clear. On that day, Tom Alston had the best day of his short Major League baseball career.
The story of former Major League player Nate Colbert reflects how the baseball dreams of African-American boys changed as a result of Jackie Robinson erasing Major League baseball’s “invisible color line” in 1947.
On May 2, 1954 in a doubleheader against the New York Giants; St. Louis Cardinal right fielder Stan Musial hit five home runs. There were 26,662 in attendance that Sunday afternoon at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium to see him do what no other Major League player had accomplished. In the first game, Musial hit three home runs and drove in six runs in the Cardinal’s 10 – 6 victory. He hit 2 homers and drove in three runs in the nightcap, but the Giants won 9 – 7.
In the stadium that spring afternoon with his father was eight year old African-American Nate Colbert. I am sure little Nate was excited about seeing his favorite Cardinal ballplayer, “Stan the Man”, set a Major League record with those five home runs. But Colbert that day also saw Cardinal rookie first baseman Tom Alston, the first African American to appear in a Major League game for the St. Louis Cardinals.
For the first time in the franchise’s history, the 1954 Cardinal team had African-Americans players. The 28-year-old Alston made his Major League debut on April 13, earlier than Brooks Lawrence (June 24) and Bill Greason (May 31), the other two African Americans on the team. A good defensive first baseman, he had a hot bat against the Giants in the doubleheader witnessed by little Nate. In the first game Alston got four hits including a home run, his third of the young season, and two RBIs. The second game he hit a bases loaded double (3 RBIs) in the Cardinals’ first inning. He ended the day batting .313
Little Nate also saw that day three former Negro League baseball players who appeared in both games for the Giants: Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, and Hank Thompson. Irvin and Thompson in 1949 were the first African-Americans to play for the Giants.
Fast forward this story to 1964. 18 year old Nate Colbert is signed by the Cardinals, but they lose him to the Houston Astros in the 1965 Rule Five draft and he never plays a game in the uniform of his hometown team. The Astros then trade him to the San Diego Padres in 1969.
On August 1, 1972; in Colbert’s fourth season with the Padres, he ties the record he saw Stan Musial set in 1954. Colbert hits five home runs in a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. He hits two home runs and drives in five runs as the Padres win the first game 9-0 and hits three homers driving in eight runs in his team’s 11 -7 victory in the nightcap. For the second time in his six years with the Padres, Colbert hits 38 home runs in 1972.
Little Nate Colbert’s Major League career did not come close to that of Hall of Famer Stan Musial. To tie or break a record in baseball; however, is considered a great accomplishment. And Colbert being present to see the record set that he would eventually tie makes this a unique circumstance. However, Colbert got the opportunity to be able to do what he saw his childhood favorite Cardinal ballplayer do because of what he also witnessed that May afternoon.
By seeing Tom Alston, Willie Mays, Hank Thompson, and Monte Irvin play that day; Colbert witnessed the new day in Major League baseball that was occurring. It had dawned in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball. It was a new day in which the baseball dreams of little Nate Colbert and other African-American boys were no longer confined to Negro League baseball. A new day that would produce stories like Nate Colbert’s and others as the racial barriers in professional baseball were pulled down in the 1950s and 1960s.
All photos provided by Google Images
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