Unless you were a baseball card prospector in 1990, or a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan the name Earl Cunningham most likely means nothing to you.
Earl Cunningham defines my baseball card collecting childhood. The first Cubs prospect I sought was Ty Griffin, the team’s first round pick in 1988. Griffin was a standout at Georgia Tech and was on Team USA in 1988. Griffin appeared in the 1989 Topps set, which quickly became my favorite card.
Then the 1990 Topps set was released and again a player I had never heard of appeared in the Cubs team set. It was Earl Cunningham. He was the Cubs first round draft choice (8th overall) in the 1989 Major League Baseball draft out of high school.
Cunningham started his pro career with the Wytheville Cubs in 1989, smacking seven home runs in 182 at bats. Cunningham also struck out 40 times while drawing 12 walks.
By 1990, Cunningham advanced to low Class A Peoria of the Midwest League. This was also the year that my baseball card collecting went from casual to obsessive. Topps, Fleer, Score, Donruss, I collected them all.
Not only was Cunningham in the Topps set, he got a card in the Score set. As an 8-year old I loved Score. It seemed there were “hits” in every pack. Superstar cards and several star subsets were a part of wary Score issues.
We all had friends that we ran with at this age, as I type this feeling as if I’m Richard Dreyfus narrating Stand by Me. The Carpenter brothers were sports fanatics like myself and were also Baseball Card collectors/hoarders.
1990 was a wonderful time in the hobby. Baseball cards were at a peak, and it seemed a hobby shop or two or three were in every small city. Card shows were popping up in every town. Even my small town of Annawan (population: 800) had a card show monthly at our small community center.
Kewanee was the nearest “city” to us, and boasted three card shops at this time. Not bad for a city with a population of 12,000. The Knights of Columbus hall also hosted card shows once or twice a month.
By early summer one of these KofC shows had a special autograph signer: Earl Cunningham. The Carpenter family’s patriarch loaded up the station wagon and hauled a small group of us the 10-minute drive to the show where we had our Cunningham cards ready for signatures.
I took a 1990 Score and Cunningham signed it beautifully in blue sharpie. I encased it and for some reason my parents allowed me to display it on our living room’s entertainment center. (The below card is from Google. Unfortunately, my signed card was misplaced years ago).
In the years since losing my Cunningham autographed card, I have looked online for autos for sale. They have become very rare. Cunningham does not sign through the mail, nor will he agree to private signings. Just this morning I did an Earl Cunningham EBay search, which resulted in 0 autograph results.
Surprising for a once too prospect that fizzled out in single-A. That 1990 season in Peoria was a mighty struggle for the young power hitter. Cunningham hit just five home runs and struck out 108 times in 269 at bats. He repeated the level in 1991 and fared worse with 145 strikeouts in 381 at bats. He did show off that power with 19 home runs. In eight minor league seasons, Cunningham hit just .224. His career was marred by 739 strikeouts against only 456 hits.
Recently, I tweeted out a search for an Earl Cunningham card that was missing from my collection. It’s a little known set from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The Little Sun set was released for a few years starting in 1989. Its final set, 1992, is sought after for the Derek Jeter card.
Little Sun featured the top high school baseball prospects and Earl Cunningham appeared in the inaugural set. He’s pictured in his high school, Lancaster Bruins, uniform. I picked this card off eBay for $2.04 shipped.
If anyone had any leads to Earl Cunningham autographs, especially an autographed baseball, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At any rate, that trip to meet Cunningham with my baseball card collecting buddies defines the hobby for my childhood. It was just one day, but it set the tone with great memories. Much like the weekend for the boys in Stand By Me, without the search for a dead body.