If you are familiar with Leon Anderson, you are probably a dedicated sports historian or a truly committed baseball fan. In the 1930s Anderson played center field for the Stars and the Bees, two African American teams in the St. Louis industrial leagues. His day job was with the St. Louis Public Service Authority, but he spent his weekends playing the game that he loved, and playing it well, with a consistent 300 batting average. Anderson could have made it into the major leagues, but for the color of his skin.
If you know the name Tom Alston, you are probably a very knowledgeable Cardinals fan. Nearly forgotten today, Alston was the first African American to sign with the St. Louis team. His first game with the Cardinals was in 1954, seven years after the great Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier.
Alston was an excellent prospect, but despite a solid rookie year as first baseman, he couldn’t live up to his potential. In the next three seasons he appeared in only 25 games and then retired from the game, suffering from a rather vague disease called neurasthenia. For the rest of his life he was plagued with insomnia, chronic fatigue, general aches and pains, recurrent depression. Unlike Jackie Robinson, Tom Alston found life in the major leagues a debilitating experience. Yet people who knew him in his later years said he was a kind and gentle person, always ready to talk baseball. His gravestone—he died in 1993—includes that inimitable Cardinal logo, the “birds on the bat.”
Tom Alston worked first base at St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park, up on Grand and Dodier, now the location of the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club. Leon Anderson played often at a field around Grand and Market; no trace of it remains. But the stories are still here, in a worn baseball glove and frayed spikes that Anderson‘s family gave to the History Museum, in a yellowed newspaper article that published the standings of the Negro League and saved by several generations of a baseball-loving family, and in the distinctive marker on Tom Alston’s grave in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Every April 15 major league baseball players wear Jackie Robinson’s number 42 on their uniforms. That’s in honor of this man who was not only a Hall of Fame second baseman but also a figure of courage, patience, and strength. It’s also a reminder of how far we have come – and a caution that we still have some way to go.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Bob Archibald is the President of the Missouri Historical Society