August 19, 2017

Greensboro’s Cardinal Finally at Peace

October 31, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

GOSHEN COMMUNITY – Thomas Edison Alston is buried within sight of first base, resting peacefully after the tumultuous life of a baseball player who never quite lived up to his potential.

At least, that’s how the story goes now. The story is a lot more complicated than that.

Edison was the first African-American to play for the St. Louis Cardinals. His brief career is preserved in numbers—91 games played, 271 at bats, .244 batting average, four home runs and 35 runs batted in.

The cold numbers all add up. They always do in baseball. But not much else about Tom Alston does. Here in the old community, they still tell the stories of a young boy who could hit a baseball farther than anyone they’d ever seen. Some of the other stories aren’t told as much.

He was 6-5 and weighed about 210 pounds. He played first base in the field behind Goshen School, a field that lies fallow now only a few yards from the cemetery behind New Goshen United Methodist Church out off Randleman Road.

Folks in the community drive by it every day as the land around it disappears under asphalt and apartment buildings.

“A few of the old roads are still there,” Rev. Juan P. Gray of New Goshen said. “And the folks from the community are still there, too. Some of them anyway, the old families.”

Out on the road is a marker placed there in 1994, the year after Alston’s death. The marker commemorates the “original home place of the Greensboro Red Wings.” It was where Alston and so many other young men of his day attended grade school and learned to play baseball.

The cars speed past the marker now, and the school, the church and the ball field. And they speed past the grave of the best baseball player to ever play the game around here.

Lefty O’Doul, one of the best hitters from the era just before Alston broke in with the Cardinals, called him one of the best prospects he’d ever seen.

“He was bright, hardworking, and eager to learn,” O’Doul says in the 2006 book ‘Crossing the Color Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947-1959’. “He was a brilliant defensive first baseman and had good size and power. He just never hit in the majors.”

Alston lasted four years, his 1954 rookie season his only mark on the game. His career and his life spiraled down after that. He was injured. He bounced back and forth from the minors to the Cardinals. By 1957, he was out of the game, diagnosed with a mental disorder and headed for a life on disability.

He talked to the Greensboro News & Record in 1993, a few months before his death. He said he was proud to be a major-leaguer but he wasn’t proud of his career.

“It can’t say it was ‘fine’,” Alston said. “You’ve got to produce.”

They say he was a fine person, a kid who went to Dudley and got his degree at N.C. A&T where he’s in the sports hall of fame. He served in the Navy . They say he was fast and could field his position and run the bases.

And they say he tried to burn down New Goshen United Methodist Church.

“Yes, that did happen,” Mary Booker, a member of the congregation said. “Something happened to his mind.”

Baseball historian Dr. John Harris said in the “Baseball Almanac” that Alston was diagnosed with Neurasthenia, a mental disorder triggered by stress or anxiety.

“Alston was swamped by fatigue, began hearing voices, attempted suicide, and was institutionalized on multiple occasions after his career ended,” Harris wrote.

We’ll never understand Thomas Edison Alston. Even those closest to him never completely understood him. His greatest impact on the Cardinals was his role in helping other young African-American major leaguers who joined the franchise in the 1950s, players like future hall of fame pitcher Bob Gibson. In his book ‘October 1964,’ writer David Halberstam credits Alston with helping Curt Flood get his footing in the predominantly white sport. Flood would eventually usher in the era of free agency in sports.

His old team was in the World Series again. His name probably won’t come up, though. St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa wore Alston’s old number—10. There was talk of commemorating the number a few years back, but it didn’t get very far.

He’s mostly forgotten now. Everywhere except here in Goshen. Most of his family and friends are gone now. Those still around talk of him fondly.

“He was a Christian fellow,” his brother James said this week. “He was a good man.”

The ball field where they played is still here, back behind the school and the church. The people in the little community around it still talk about Alston when they talk about baseball.

They rebuilt the damaged church a few years back.

“Everything’s fine now,” Booker said. “No one wants to bring up the bad things. We’re a tight church looking to get stronger.”

They’re looking for ways to raise money, she said. They’re considering starting a Little League team.

Ed Hardin is a sports columnist for the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record.

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