Cards franchise icon Cunningham dies at 89

March 26th, 2021

“Smokey” Joe Cunningham, a two-time All-Star over seven years for the Cardinals who challenged Hank Aaron for the 1959 batting title and was later an innovator in St. Louis’ front office, died this week at the age of 89, the club announced.

“Joe Cunningham will be remembered as a pillar of the Cardinals organization,” Cardinals president Bill DeWitt III said in a statement on Friday. “Not only was he an outstanding player, but his contributions off the field were paramount in building the Cardinals' fan base through innovative group sales and fan outreach initiatives.”

“A guy that served this organization so well, [in] so many roles -- on the field in the big leagues, player, coach, Minor League setting, front-office setting,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said on Friday. “Just a real strong legacy to our organization that was with us a lot of years and did a lot of positive things. Our condolences to the Cunningham family.”

Cunningham joined the Cardinals in 1949 as a 17-year-old rookie, spending four years in the Minor Leagues before serving in the military during the Korean War. A native of Paterson, N.J., Cunningham, debuted in 1954 as a first baseman before switching to the outfield by the time he returned to the bigs for good in ’57 to accommodate Stan Musial’s move to first.

Cunningham was a threat at the plate in his first two full seasons, hitting .314 while getting on base at a .445 clip. But his finest year came in 1959, when he was twice named a National League All-Star (back when there were two All-Star Games per season) and led the Majors with a .453 on-base percentage. Cunningham finished 10 points behind Aaron’s .355 average that season for second in the NL batting race.

After the 1961 season, Cunningham was traded to the White Sox for Minnie Miñoso, and he proceeded to play three years in Chicago and three more for the Washington Senators before finishing his playing career after the 1966 season as a .291 lifetime hitter with .403 on-base percentage across 1,141 games. Cunningham collected 599 walks in his career and struck out only 369 times.

It took just two years for Cunningham to return to the game he loved on a full-time basis, managing the Cardinals’ Class A affiliates in Modesto (1968-69) and St. Petersburg ('70-71) before serving a single season on manager Whitey Herzog’s Major League coaching staff in 1982. The Cardinals defeated the Brewers in the World Series that year.

Cunningham’s work extended to the front office, where he was named as the director of sales in 1972 and is credited with building the group and season ticket departments. He was behind the Cardinals creating programs such as community nights and high school games at Busch Stadium, as well as developing what’s known now as party suites by turning the vacant football press box at Busch Stadium II into a party room.

Cunningham also served as the club’s community relations director in the early 1990s, working intimately with local schools and developing the “Say No To Drugs” program, now referred to as the Fredbird & Friends Elementary School Program.

In 2015, the Cardinals surprised Cunningham with a ceremony, dedicating a new area of Busch Stadium -- adjacent to the UMB Champions Club -- as “Cunningham Corner,” which is utilized for various group events, programs and postseason celebrations.

Cunningham was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2012 and the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame in ’15. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Kathe, son Joseph Jr. -- a former Cardinals Minor League player (1984-88) and coach -- son Pete and his wife Kristen, and three grandchildren (Cassie, Joseph and Laci).