September 8, 2004
The Search for the Oldest Living Cardinal
by Brian Walton
Well-known author and Birdhouse contributor Rob Rains always has a number of projects underway at any given point in time. One of these is another “Where are they now?” book, focused on former Cardinals players, of course, scheduled to be published in the spring. Rains previously penned a most entertaining one about the 1982 World Championship team.
As we were discussing the project recently, Rob mentioned his desire to include an interview with the oldest living former Cardinal player among his up to 50 subjects in the book. That is assuming the player was someone older than Stan Musial, to whom he already had access. On first blush, I had to admit that I was unaware of any former Cards players older than Musial. But, I wanted to know the real answer.
For me, getting involved provided an intriguing challenge; a way to do some amateur detective work (sorry, Ray), work on another interesting Cardinal project and relive aspects of a very enriching family genealogy project from a few years back.
To get started, I knew there was no better person to ask than Official Cardinals Historian Erv Fischer. After he spoke with Cardinal long-timer Marty Marion, they came up with the following list: Don Gutteridge, now 92, who lives in Kansas. Next in the pecking order was Marion, who will be 87 in December, Musial, who will be 84 in November and Red Schoendienst at 81.
Rains had another idea, however. One of his publishers recalled a former player named Ray Cunningham, seemingly lost in the sands of time. A quick check of the record books verified that Raymond Lee Cunningham, born in January, 1905, had indeed appeared during the 1931 and 1932 Cardinal seasons. In fact, that was entire major league career.
“Lee” Cunningham played third base during three games in 1931 and 11 games at second and third the following season. He hit .154, going 4-for-26. Cunningham collected a double, an RBI, walked three times. In the field, he was error-free in 31 chances, registering 11 put-outs, 20 assists and participated in a single double play.
The 1931 team, under Gabby Street, swept through the regular season as the first Cardinals squad to win over 100 games, finishing the regular season at 101-59. They took the World Championship, besting Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in seven games. The 1932 squad won 29 fewer games and settled in sixth place. Cunningham did not appear in either post-season.
Returning to our dime-store detective novel, I was able to confirm with the National Baseball Hall of Fame that Cunningham is recognized as the oldest living former major league player. So, as it turned out, Cunningham is both the previously-unknown oldest living Cardinal, as well as the oldest former major leaguer at 99 years old.
The previous oldest player, Paul Hopkins, pitched in a total of 11 major league games from 1927 to 1929 with the Washington Senators and St. Louis Browns. His claim to fame was on September 29, 1927 when he allowed Babe Ruth's record-tying 59th home run that season. Hopkins passed away January 2 in Deep River, CT at the age of 99.
An interesting sidelight is that neither Hopkins was nor Cunningham is the oldest former player. That honor belongs to former Negro Leagues catcher Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, who is still living at age 102. The charismatic ex-barnstormer was born on July 7, 1902 in Mobile, Alabama.
Continuing our attempt to locate Cunningham, Fischer got a lead from Bill McCurdy of the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. McCurdy recalled seeing the Texas native Cunningham at the Houston Winter Baseball Dinner a few years back and set off to work on locating information. Checking his archives, Bill provided the photo and stats that are included. Being the neophyte Lee Cunningham expert that I am, I happened to notice that on his “baseball card”, he is calling himself 101 years old, not the 99 that all the other record sources state. I wonder if this is an early example of age doctoring. It’s not a new invention, after all. Then again, what is?
In parallel, Rains headed for the Sporting News archives and came back with an address for Cunningham, not knowing if is current. With that, I was able to quickly locate a corresponding phone number. Though it is now attached to a different address in the same town, it is for none other than one R.L. Cunningham.
Once he is contacted, we’ll share what we learn from the oldest living Cardinal. I can’t wait.