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Smokey Joe’s long Cardinal career

Joe Cunningham’s career as a Cardinal extended beyond his playing career.

When baseball was first called off, I actually had a pretty good run of ideas for article ideas despite having no new information. We are now in the later stages of June and I have officially run out of things to say. I don’t want to comment on the player-owner negotiations, because it’s been well-trod territory on this site. And that’s just about the only baseball relevant information coming in at this point.

So I did what any writer certain for inspiration would do: I googled random number generator between 1 and 100, with the intention of talking about a player during whatever season that number landed on. It landed on 59, so the search was on to find a player during the 1959 season. This is not an ideal year to land on randomly, but I lucked into finding a pretty interesting player, despite the team itself not being all that good.

First baseman and outfielder Joe Cunningham’s contributions to the Cardinals organizations are arguably more impactful in his post-playing career, but we’ll get into that later. First, his playing career. Cunningham was signed before the 1949 season by the St. Louis Cardinals at just 17-years-old. Cunningham built himself into a quality MLB player, but he had two problems delaying his debut: Stan Musial and the Korean War.

By the beginning of 1954, the Korean War was no longer a problem. He had served for two years and was now looking for a starting spot. Stan Musial wasn’t going away as easily. On June 30th, 1954, he was sent to the Cardinals from the minors and he jumped at the opportunity. He became the first Cardinal player to hit two home runs in his first four games, a feat unmatched until Jeremy Hazelbaker. The odd thing was that Cunningham wasn’t much of a HR hitter. He ended up hitting 11 in his rookie season in half a season, which was one less than his career high.

Despite a strong debut - 115 wRC+ as a 22-year-old - he didn’t play a game in 1955. That’s because from 1954 to 1955, Stan Musial moved back to 1B, Cunningham’s position. Cunningham only batted 4 times in 1956 as well. In 1957, they made him a bench player and had him also play the outfield, because otherwise he would simply never play if he had to wait for Musial to become unplayable.

Now 25-years-old, Cunningham became an unbelievably elite hitter for a short stretch of his career. In 122 games and 329 PAs, the lefty hit for a 145 wRC+. His speciality was not power, which was mediocre, but an otherworldly patience (17 BB%). He got better in his third season, walking at a 19.3% clip, striking out only 5.4% of the time, and hitting a career high 12 homers. He still only played in 131 games and 424 PAs, but he managed to, in such short amount of playing time, have back-to-back 3.4 fWAR seasons.

Luckily, my randomly generated season - 1959 - also happened to be when the Cardinals finally played him like a full-time starter. He hit for a career high .345 average, but his strikeouts rose and walks fell, so he wasn’t actually a better hitter than before. Of course not better than before was still a 145 wRC+. His fWAR didn’t improve despite the full-time starter (3.3 fWAR), but that’s because the defensive numbers were... not great. In 1959, he was a -9 fielder in RF. He was never worse than that, but he also lasted just two more seasons as a RFer.

His bat fell off a cliff in 1960, and he was still an above average hitter. Unfortunately, being a bad defending RFer, that did not make him a good player in 1960. He recovered in 1961, but by this point was put back on the bench. He was a solid bench player, with a 114 wRC+ and 1.1 fWAR in 113 games, but the Cardinals understandably tried to move him after the season when it became clear that he should only play 1B.

The Cardinals traded the now 30-year-old Cunningham for a 36-year-old Minnie Miñoso. The trade did not work. Cunningham moved to 1B full-time for the Chicago White Sox and his bat improved close to his previous levels with a 131 wRC+. Seeing a position he was more capable of playing, he had a career high 4.4 fWAR. But he also suffered a broken collarbone in the middle of the season from a collision from which he would never fully recover. He return to being a bench player the very next season. He had a solid first year on the bench, a bad second one which resulted in a trade to the Washington Senators, where he batted .229 but walked so much that he was an above average hitter. He played in 3 games in 1966 and his career was over.

Miñoso meanwhile struggled mightily and missed two months of the season from crashing into the outfield wall with a fractured skull and broken wrist. He ended up only playing in 39 games and 108 PAs and he was very bad in that limited time, with a 44 wRC+. He was purchased by the Washington Senators the next year and had a -1.1 fWAR season. Whether it was due to the injury, the Cardinals had acquired Miñoso when he was done as a player.

Shortly after Cunningham retired, he returned to the Cardinals to manage the Cardinals Class A team for a few years. Sometime later, although it’s not clear when specifically, the Cardinals hired him for a front office position, the Director of Sales. By the 1970s, the Cardinals were struggling with fans and it was his job to get the Cardinals back on track. He is credited with changing the game-day experience, so much so that a lot of his changes still stand today.

For instance, unused football press boxes became festive party rooms. He created theme nights, promotions, community nights, on-field ceremonies, and group outings. He seems to be responsible for why, I, as a child was able to walk on the field through my school a few times. Those are the kind of programs and promotions he used to help generate more fan interest.

He also apparently introduced Fredbird at the beginning of the 1979 season to helped generate interest among younger fans, which was wildly successful. In 2015, Cunningham was honored for his contributions by having calling a new area of the ballpark adjacent to the UMB Champions Club called Cunningham Corner.

The Cardinals blog that posted about Cunningham Corner also said his nickname was “Smokey Joe” although that nickname isn’t posted on B-R so I’m not sure how commonly he was referred to as that. He appears to have been on Whitey Herzog’s coaching staff in 1982, but I see no evidence he was coach for any other season. Information on him ends at that point, but Smokey Joe is still alive to this day and will turn 89-years-old in August. Maybe he’d have a more acclaimed career if he weren’t blocked by Stan Musial, but even with that 19.5 career fWAR player is quite an achievement.