In 12 years in the big leagues, Joe Cunningham hit two walkoff home runs. Both came within a span of three days for the Cardinals. One was his lone grand slam in the majors.
A first baseman and outfielder, Cunningham was a left-handed hitter with a knack for reaching base often. In seven years with the Cardinals, he hit .304 and had an on-base percentage of .413.
Cunningham died March 25, 2021, at 89.
Though he hit for average rather than power, Cunningham packed a wallop at times. His first major-league hit for the Cardinals was a three-run home run against the Reds’ Art Fowler in June 1954. The next day, he hit two more home runs versus Warren Spahn of the Braves.
Three years later, Cunningham capped a summer surge with his game-winning home runs.
Cunningham was born in Paterson, N.J. At 17, he impressed Cardinals scout Benny Borgmann with his hitting, but lacked speed. “That’s when Joe began to take up dancing to improve his agility,” The Sporting News reported.
Cunningham played three seasons (1949-51) in the Cardinals’ farm system before serving a two-year hitch in the Army. With Rochester in 1954, Cunningham impressed with a .471 on-base percentage and was called up to the Cardinals at the end of June to replace Tom Alston at first base.
After hitting .284 for the 1954 Cardinals, Cunningham went to spring training in 1955 as the incumbent first baseman. When he slumped, the Cardinals assigned him to Rochester and moved Stan Musial from the outfield to first base.
Cunningham “was stunned by the unexpected departure,” The Sporting News reported. Being demoted was “the darkest hour of my life,” he told broadcaster Harry Caray.
With Musial anchored at first base, Cunningham spent all of 1955 and most of 1956 in the minors. He worked as a steamfitter in New Jersey during the winters.
At spring training in 1957, Cardinals manager Fred Hutchinson suggested the way for a backup first baseman to make the Opening Day roster would be to show an ability to play the outfield as well.
“Joe grabbed a glove and plunged right into it,” Cardinals coach Terry Moore told The Sporting News. “The guy really wants to play.”
Though the Cardinals hadn’t considered Cunningham as an outfield candidate, “they had to change their minds early” after seeing him quickly learn, The Sporting News noted.
“He’s quite a character because he’s so intense, tries so hard that, gritting his teeth, glowering and bearing down so much, he looks like the meanest man in town,” Hutchinson said. “Yet he’s a real nice kid.”
Cunningham, 25, stuck with the 1957 Cardinals and excelled in a platoon with Del Ennis in right field, and as a pinch-hitter and backup to Musial at first base.
“It’s great to be playing,” Cunningham said. “I’ve come to like the outfield better than first base.”
With the score tied at 8-8 in the second game, Cunningham was in the dugout, getting ready to lead off the bottom of the 11th, when Hutchinson told Hal Smith to prepare to execute a hit-and-run play if Cunningham reached base.
“You won’t need a hit-and-run sign, Smitty,” Cunningham said. “I’ll hit one out of here.”
Good to his word, Cunningham hit the first pitch from Nellie King onto the roof in right for a walkoff home run. Boxscore
Cunningham “swings a 36-ounce bat and on occasions he loads it with dynamite,” the Pittsburgh Press noted.
Two nights later, on July 30, in a game against the Giants at St. Louis, the Cardinals had a runner on third, one out, in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied at 3-3.
Hoping to set up a double play or a force at home, Giants pitcher Ruben Gomez gave intentional walks to Musial and Wally Moon, loading the bases. Eddie Miksis, a defensive substitute, was due to bat, but Hutchinson sent Cunningham instead.
After throwing two screwballs outside the strike zone, Gomez grooved one to Cunningham, who crushed it. The ball hit a girder near the face of the Longines clock on the right-center field pavilion roof at the original Busch Stadium for a walkoff grand slam. Boxscore
Cunningham “makes Frank Merriwell look like a pale imitation of the boy wonder,” the St. Louis Globe-Democrat marveled.
Filling the bases
The game-winners highlighted an amazing July for Cunningham. He hit .411 for the month and his on-base percentage in 24 July games was .507.
Cunningham finished the season with a .318 batting average and .439 on-base percentage. He made 42 starts in right field and 22 at first base. In 38 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter in 1957, Cunningham hit .400 and his on-base percentage was .500.
Two years later, as the 1959 Cardinals’ right fielder, Cunningham led the National League in on-base percentage (.453) and was second in batting average (.345).
“Except for Stan Musial, Cunningham is the most popular Cardinals player,” Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote in May 1959.
He got the nicknames Jersey Joe and Smokey Joe, the latter because in his bachelor days in St. Louis he and teammate Don Blasingame had an apartment in Gaslight Square above a Greek restaurant called Smokey Joe’s Cafe, catcher Tim McCarver told author Danny Peary in “We Played the Game.”
Cunningham often was at his best against the Dodgers. In 102 games against them, he hit .356 with an on-base percentage of .475. He tormented tough Dodgers right-handers, hitting .434 against Don Drysdale and .500 versus Stan Williams.
“I grew up in New Jersey as a Yankees fan and hated the Brooklyn Dodgers,” Cunningham told the Post-Dispatch.
After his playing career, Cunningham was a manager in the Cardinals farm system for four years (1968-71). He was a coach on the staff of manager Whitey Herzog in 1982 when the Cardinals became World Series champions.
Cunningham also worked in ticket sales and community relations for the Cardinals.