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.
Born March 22, 1921 in Whiteland, Indiana, George Daniel Crowe always declared basketball as his favorite sport. Named Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball” his senior year in high school (1939), Crowe went on to play basketball and baseball at Indiana Central College. After serving in the military, Crowe first played semi-professional basketball (Harlem Rens) in 1946. However; seeing the money potential for him in professional baseball, he also signed with the New York Black Yankees in 1947 and began his short Negro League baseball career. In 1949, he went uptown to play with the New York Cubans.
When the Negro National League (NNL) disbanded after the 1949 season, Newark Eagle co-owner Effa Manley recommended Crowe to the Boston Braves who signed him as a first baseman. He made his Major League debut on April 16, 1952; hitting .258 in 73 games with four home runs his rookie season.
Crowe played for nine years (1952 – 1961) in the Major Leagues on three different teams: Boston/Milwaukee Braves (1952 – 1955), Cincinnati Reds (1956 – 1958), and St. Louis Cardinals (1959 – 1961). The former Negro League ballplayer became a premier pinch hitter once holding the Major League record for career pinch hit home runs (14). Crowe hit 31 home runs for the Reds in 1957 and was a National League All Star in 1958.
Known as “Big Daddy” (6’2”, 210 lbs.), Crowe also became a mentor for young African-American Major League ball players in the 1950s (Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Henry Aaron, etc.). He helped them navigate through the racial prejudice and discrimination that existed in Major League baseball during that period.
To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
In celebration of Black History Month, here is Today’s Negro League Baseball History Fact: Charlie Peete.
Born February 22, 1929 in Franklin, Virginia; Peete had a short and unproductive stint in Negro League baseball. He played 31 games with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1950, batting only .231. However, this did not prevent him from going further in baseball.
After serving in the military, he became one of the African-American players that integrated the Piedmont League (Class B minor league) in 1953. The speedy center fielder got the attention of the St. Louis Cardinals who signed him in 1954. Peete won the batting title hitting .350 in 1956 with the team’s Omaha Class AAA minor league club.
When given the opportunity to play with the Cardinals towards the end of the 1956 season, Peete only hit .192 with six RBIs in 23 games. However, the team kept him on roster for the for 1957. After team officials saw he had the skills to play centerfield and had promise as a hitter, they still considered him a good prospect. In addition, the Cardinals had been criticized for misfiring on two previous African-American players. Pitcher Brooks Lawrence won 19 games in 1956 after they traded him to the Cincinnati Reds. Tom Alston, who in 1954 became the first African-American to play for the Cardinals had been demoted to their minor league system. He and Peete were teammates at Omaha in 1955.
The center fielder for the Cardinals in 1956, Bobby Del Greco, only hit .216. Depending on how Charlie Peete would have hit in spring training of 1957, he had the opportunity to be the Cardinals’ main centerfielder. However, on his way to play winter baseball in Venezuela; Peete, along with his wife and three children were killed in a plane crash on November 11, 1956.
Negro League baseball is not just a part of African-American history, but is woven into the fabric of 20th Century American history.
To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
William “Bill” Greason played professional baseball in many different places and at several different levels during his career. Born on September 3, 1924 in Atlanta, Georgia, Greason applied his talent as a right-handed pitcher in both Negro and Major League baseball; in addition to high and lower levels in the minor leagues. He pitched in cities across the United States, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Like other African American ballplayers of his era (1947 -1958) Greason saw the final demise of Negro League baseball, participated in the integration of the minor leagues, and experienced racism in the Major Leagues after the “invisible color line” had been erased.
The 5’ 10’’ and 170 pound ex-Marine first pitched in 1947 with the Nashville Black Vols and Ashville (North Carolina) Blues, both considered minor league African American teams. It was the year Jackie Robinson became the first African American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball. Greason was a power pitcher with a fastball and a sharp breaking pitch that he could throw sidearm. By the end of that season he had pitched his way onto the roster of the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro American League (NAL).
1948 was his breakout year. Greason pitched three scoreless innings in that year’s Negro League Baseball East-West All-Star game. Also, with him as one of its top pitchers, the Black Barons beat out Buck O’Neil’s Kansas City Monarchs to win the NAL pennant. Both Negro League stars Lorenzo “Piper” Davis and Arte Wilson were also on the Black Barons that year. In addition, a 17-year-old kid named Willie Mays played centerfield for the team. In what would be the last Negro League World Series, Greason pitched the Black Barons to their only victory against the Homestead Grays winning 4 – 3.
After leaving the Black Barons following the 1950 season, Greason pitched in the Class AAA and A levels in the minor leagues. He also pitched in the Mexican League and spent a short second stint in the Marines. When he returned to baseball in 1953, he became the third African American to play in the Class AA Texas League.
In 1954, Greason along with Brooks Lawrence and Tom Alston were the first African American players invited to a spring training camp by the St. Louis Cardinals. He made his Major League debut on May 31 at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs. In three innings, Greason gave up five runs on six hits in the Cards 14 – 4 lost. Three of the hits off Greason were home runs, one by the Cubs young shortstop and former Negro League player Ernie Banks. After appearing briefly in two more games, Greason at the end of June was sent to the minor leagues.
For the remainder of the decade he pitched with the Houston Buffs (Class AA Texas League), the Rochester Red Wings (Class AAA International League), and winter league baseball in the Caribbean. He never again played in the Major Leagues, getting only that one chance like a number of former Negro League players in the 1950s.
Greason retired in 1959 and was called into Christian ministry. He was pastor of a church in Birmingham, Alabama for 30 years and was cited by the Alabama State Legislature in 2001 for outstanding ministry achievement.