These Men Changed Baseball: Tom Alston

Moving from a small second baseman liked Curt Roberts, it is time to look at a very large first baseman named Tom Alston whose career is gutted by segregation and health issues.  Most of the later integrators, minus Elston Howard, fall in the large category of prospects that did not pan out.  Alston, though, was much too old to be a prospect, and his career is for that reason abbreviated.

Alston was born on January 31, 1926 in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1944, he joined the Navy then went to North Carolina A&T, an historically black college. He graduated in 1951, then he went to play for the Jacksonville Eagles, a black minor league team. From there he was signed by the Saskatchewan Rockets, then the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. In the offseason after the 1953 season, new St. Louis Cardinals owner Gussie Busch pushed for the team to be integrated, leading to an offseason trade for Alston (The trade included Dick Sisler, son of Hall of Famer George Sisler). Alston, then, would come up on April 13, 1954 as the player who integrated the Cardinals. By this time he was already 28. Now, many players have come up late in life, especially players like Alston who had short careers. Why do I think segregation is an important part of this story? Alston’s size.

Tom Alston was 6′ 5″, 210 lbs. Consider those numbers in the context of the 1950’s. He was a massive man for his day and age, and that alone would have qualified any white player as a top prospect. Alston, instead, got lost in the shuffle by white organizations who spent little time scouting black players. Alston slid through college and was picked by Jacksonville because the Negro Leagues had died by 1951. In this sort of world, we lose the first 3-5 years of his career.

Alston never adjusted well to the majors, for reasons we will discuss below. On April 13, 1954, Alston played first base and hit 6th for the Cardinals. He committed an error on his very first play, dropping a foul pop hit by the Cubs leadoff hitter. That sort of mental error is I think emblematic of the problems that beset his entire career. In his rookie year, he hit .246 with 4 home runs, a far cry from his last year with the Padres when he hit just below .300 with 20 home runs. From that point on, Alston bounced between the majors and the minors, always doing better in AAA then failing in his call-ups. He played in 25 more games before bowing out of professional baseball in 1957. He died on December 30, 1993 in Winston-Salem and is buried in Greensboro.

What went wrong for this player who consistently put up such good minor league numbers? Neurasthenia. Neurasthenia is mental disorder triggered by stress or anxiety, and it is not primarily hereditary. The environment of discrimination in which Alston lived, then, is an important part is his eventual mental collapse. Alston was swamped by fatigue, began hearing voices, attempted suicide, and was institutionalized on multiple occasions after his career ended.

What else did Alston do? It is easy to dwell on the negative, so let’s remember the positive in closing. He is another part in the Canadian legacy of MLB integration, playing in Canada before he reached the big leagues. David Halberstam, in October 1964, credits him with an important role in acculturating Curt Flood to professional baseball in Flood’s first season with the Cardinals, 1957. He was also critical in Bob Gibson’s first year in the minors, with Omaha in 1957. Alston, at the end of his career, held his mental problems in check long enough to help the first great African-Americans to play for the Cardinals. Flood and Gibson? Not a bad legacy for Tom Alston.

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