September 17, 2004
Our Search for the Oldest Living Cardinal Is Done
By Bill McCurdy
The search for the world’s oldest living Cardinal, the one that began with Rob Rains, Brian Walton, and Erv Fischer, is now complete. The ball that Rob caught caroming off the wall of baseball history was hurled through his two cut-off men to me and I finished the play at the plate, quite literally, at the plate of a convalescent home lunch service. I’ve never had a more satisfying day for my part in the resolution of a mystery.
When I arrived at his suburban Houston convalescent home, I found 99 year old Lee Cunningham sitting in a wheel chair, way back in the physical therapy room. It was just past 10 o’clock in the morning. Lee had finished his workout and was eagerly awaiting me for our first meeting. “He’s been talking about you coming since breakfast,” one of the nursing home staff whispered. “Mr. Cunningham loves to talk baseball any time of the day.”
Lee smiled broadly as I walked in the door. He reached out to shake my hand vigorously when I introduced myself. He was wearing an older Astros cap when we met, but I gave him a choice of two new caps that I had brought as gifts. One was the Cardinals cap that you see in the picture. The other was a newer version of the current Astros cap. Lee was gleeful, but couldn’t decide which of the new caps to put on. “I have fond memories of my days with the Cardinals,” Lee stated, “but I’m a Houstonian now and I’ve become a big Astros fan over the years. Which one of these caps do you think I should wear?” At my urging, Lee adorned himself with the Cardinals cap. As he again put on the colors and logo of the only big league club he every played for, I had to admit that he looked pretty great.
For a man approaching the century mark, Lee Cunningham is very alert, quite funny, and totally likeable. He suffers the general failure of memory that comes with age, but he is still on top of many things that are going on in baseball. For example, Lee is aware that the Astros are still alive in the wild card chase. When I reminded him that Roger Clemens was slated to pitch against the Cardinals that night, his face lit up like the old Christmas tree. “What time is the game?” Lee asked, as he clapped his hands. “I can’t miss that one.”
When 99 year old Paul Hopkins died on January 2nd , Ray “Lee” Cunningham became the oldest living former big league baseball player. After also turning 99 on January 17th, Lee received the following message from Commissioner Bud Selig in a letter dated February 9th:
Dear Ray (Lee):
“Congratulations on your 99th birthday! Major League Baseball joins with me in extending our best wishes to you for a very special birthday on January 17,
You have been an important part of baseball for many years. Your career with the St. Louis Cardinals helped pave the way to make baseball the great game it is today. Your contributions to Major League Baseball will long be remembered.
Again, I send my congratulations and best wishes to you on this wonderful occasion. I hope you will celebrate many more birthdays in good health and happiness."
Allan H. Selig
Commissioner of Baseball”
“Just my good luck,” said Lee. “Nobody can count on living as long as I have. It either happens or it doesn’t.” Despite his disclaimer and genuine modesty, Lee Cunningham feels pretty good about being the oldest former big leaguer. When I brought out the fact of his current baseball status with nursing home staff and other residents who wandered into the physical therapy room where Lee and I first talked, he couldn’t resist speaking up too. “When Bill says that I’m the world’s oldest living big leaguer, he don’t mean ‘just in the United States,’ he means ‘oldest in the whole world!’” Lee made a large circling motion with his arms as he clarified his position to anyone who possibly may have misunderstood.
Who is Ray “Lee” Cunningham? In service to brevity, here’s a thumbnail sketch of what I learned about this very gentle man during our visit. Lee was born on a small farm near Mesquite, Texas on January 17, 1905. The youngest of five boys, Lee worked the place with his family while he was growing up, going to school, and learning to play the game he loved. The family raised cotton, corn, and “a whole lot of other good stuff,” according to Lee.
After achieving a local reputation as a pretty good infielder in high school and town ball, he was scouted and signed by Cardinal scout Charlie Barrett and assigned to Greenville of the East Texas League in 1926. Lee didn’t recall his original salary, but he remembers his family being behind his decision to play professional baseball.
“I loved everything about playing baseball,” Lee offered. “It was just a thing I put my whole heart into. The way I figured it, I didn’t want to put my life into anything that my heart was not up to following too. Baseball filled the bill for me.”
Based on his performance during the first three years of his career, Lee’s heart was joined by some considerable ability. After hitting .360 with Greenville in 1926, Lee followed up with a .311 mark at Topeka in 1927. A really stellar year came next with Dayton of the Central League in 1928. As a Dayton Aviator, Cunningham collected 183 hits on the season for a .350 average that included 14 home runs. He also was named as the third baseman on the league all-star team.
“I was a little guy at 140 pounds in my playing days and not a power threat, but I could hit line drives that found a way of falling in,” Lee exclaimed. “Those 14 homers in 1928 were my all-time high. I’m still not sure how I got that many.”
A lot of things were hard for Lee to recall, but he told me how he felt about doing our interview, right off the bat. “My daddy always taught us to just tell the plain truth and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to tell you what I know and remember without enlarging on it, or trying to make anything sound bigger than it actually was. Things were what they were. Things are what they are. It’s as simple as that.”
Lee finally got his call to the big leagues in 1931, making his debut with the Cardinals on September 16th. Lee went hitless in four times at bat. He came back with the Cardinals in 1932, remaining for only 22 times at bat that garnered him three singles and a double. That was it.
According to information I have since obtained from Cunningham’s son, Gary, his dad’s trial with the Cardinals was cut short by an unfortunate injury. On the same kind of one-handed bunted ball play to first base that Lee relished making as a third baseman, Cunningham hurt his arm and was no longer able to make the strong throws that are required at the hot corner. The injury even left a knot in his neck that remained for years without proper diagnosis or treatment. The injury spelled the end to Cunningham’s brief big league career. Early in 1932, he was sent down to the Houston Buffs of the Texas League and shifted to playing second base because of his weakened arm, according to the younger Cunningham. Lee was never the same player after the injury, and he would never again see action in the big leagues.
After being out of baseball in 1933 because of his arm trouble, Lee came back to play about half a season with Palestine of the West Dixie League. He hit .360 in 1934, but his throwing arm was gone. The comeback effort failed and another promising baseball career had ended early due to injury. At age 29, Lee Cunningham’s professional career had reached the end of the road.
“I quit baseball and took a job with the Grand Prize Brewery in Houston,” Lee explains. “As much as I loved baseball, the beer business paid better and I needed the money.” He later married Madaline, his wife of 50 years, and he stayed with Grand Prize until his retirement. He also kept his foot in baseball by playing for the semi-pro club that the brewery sponsored for years. Madaline died about a month prior to their 50th wedding anniversary in 1999. Lee has one son named Gary, plus two grandsons, and two-great grandsons.
Lee holds on to fond memories of St. Louis, Sportsman’s Park, and several teammates. Jim Bottomley and Joe Medwick stand out as favorite hitters he saw, along with Mel Ott of the Giants. He also loved the hustle of Pepper Martin, but his favorite player, and the man he named also as the greatest pitcher he ever saw, was the great Dizzy Dean. His favorite hitter of all time came later. It was a fellow named Musial.
“Diz and me was roommates for a short time with the Cardinals,” Lee said. “He was a whole lot of fun to be with. He didn’t put on no airs and, heck, he just liked to go out and have some fun. Back in 1932, so did I! – I’ll always be glad to know that I once played ball with one of the greatest pitchers of all time.”
The right-handed hitting Cunningham played second base and shortstop too, but his identity and memories are all tied into third base, the position he lost to injury while making the very kind of play he described to me here. “I loved playing third base,” Lee recounted. “You had to react fast, and you had to watch the guys that tried to fool you with a bunt. It felt good to come racing in on a bunt and to grab that ball with a meat hand for the quick throw to first. I’d get ‘em pretty often on that play.” (Check out the photo. Lee Cunningham is a small man, but he has the large hands of a much larger guy. Those hands were made for foiling bunt attempts.)
Lee’s fondest memory in baseball is now little more than a sketch. He cannot recall when or where it happened, but he remembers the play in his mind’s eye. “It was a close game in the late innings. I was playing third base and the other team had an important runner there. We had to keep him from scoring. The next thing I knew, the batter hit a hard line smash at me that I managed to knock down with the heel of my glove. The runner had been going for home, but he stopped for a minute to look at me when the ball got hit. Then he took off again when he saw the ball bounce to the ground. That was his mistake. I pounced on that ball with my bare hand and winged it like a bullet to our catcher. That runner slid right into a surefire out. I can’t recall if that play decided the game. I just remember that we kept that runner from scoring when he had to.”
We’ve invited Lee Cunningham to be our special guest at the November 12th induction banquet of the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame in Houston. He was delighted and we are honored. “If I’m still here, I’ll be there!” Lee answered. At age 99, Lee Cunningham knows something that we all need to keep in mind, - never take tomorrow for granted.
I’ll never forget our meeting. It was one of those golden moments that we all live for, the chance to connect with someone who is not only a living tie to baseball history, but a really decent human being, as well.
One other thing I’ve learned from Lee’s son, Gary, which I want to share with you. It’s the sort of thing that chills the spine. The date we will be honoring Lee Cunningham, November 12th, just happens to also be the wedding anniversary date of Lee and Madaline Cunningham. Had Madaline lived, the couple would’ve been celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary that same night. Draw your own conclusions about whether this sort of thing shows the power and energy of grace - or the simple ubiquity of coincidence. I know what I prefer to believe.
Lee does like to get fan mail. For those who care to write him, please direct your requests in care of his son, Gary. Please be aware that requests for long signatures on anything are difficult for him to handle.
The mailing address is:
c/o Gary Cunningham
3646 Wingtail Way
Pearland, TX 77584