Cunningham, who boosted Cards at bat and as exec, dies at 89

FILE In this Jan. 25, 1971, file photo, Stan Musial, center, vice president of the St. Louis Cardinals, jokes around as he reaches to feel a blond wig worn by Joe Cunningham, right, manager of the Cardinals, as Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron, left, watches in St. Petersburg, Fla. Cunningham, who got off to a smashing start with the Cardinals and later became a minor league manager, major league coach, key figure in their front office and team ambassador, has died. He was 89. (AP Photo/Fred Waters, File)
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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Joe Cunningham, who got off to a smashing start with the St. Louis Cardinals and later became a minor league manager, major league coach, key figure in their front office and team ambassador, has died. He was 89.

Popularly called as “Smokey” Joe, he died Thursday in St. Louis, the Cardinals said.

Cunningham homered and drove in five runs during his big league debut against Cincinnati in 1954. The next day, he homered twice off future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn and drove in four runs at Milwaukee.

Cunningham was an All-Star in 1959 when he led the majors with a .453 on-base percentage. He hit .345 that season, second in the NL to Hank Aaron at .355.

Signed by the Cardinals at 17 years old, Cunningham spent two years in the military during the Korean War before reaching the majors.

In 12 seasons with St. Louis, the Chicago White Sox and the Washington Senators, he batted .291 with a .403 on-base percentage, along with 64 homers and 436 RBIs in 1,141 games. He drew 599 walks and struck out just 369 times.

Cunningham started out as a first baseman. When Cardinals star Stan Musial moved in from the outfield to take over the spot, Cunningham shifted mostly to right field.

Cunningham managed in the minors for several season, including a stint with the Class A St. Petersburg Cardinals.

In 1982, he was on Whitey Herzog’s coaching staff when St. Louis won the World Series.

Cunningham was credited with building the Cardinals’ group and season ticket departments. Hired as the team’s director of sales in 1972, he designed programs that included community nights, high school baseball games at Busch Stadium and national anthem performances.

“Joe Cunningham will be remembered as a pillar of the Cardinals organization,” team President Bill DeWitt III said in a statement. “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.”

Cunningham became the Cardinals’ community relations director in the early 1990s. In 2015, the team dedicated a new area of Busch Stadium as “Cunningham Corner” for group events, programs and postseason celebrations.

Cunningham was a member of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame and the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame.

He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Kathe; son Joseph Jr., a former Cardinals minor league player and coach; son Pete; and three grandchildren.

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