Image credit: Earl Cunningham (Photo by Larry Goren/Four Seam Images)
A much-ballyhooed outfield prospect as the eighth overall pick in the 1989 draft by the Cubs, Earl Cunningham failed to advance past high Class A after eight seasons in the minors. Yet Cunningham reflects on his professional baseball career with no regrets.
“Sometimes you’ve got to be careful what you pray for,” says Cunningham, whose pleasant demeanor shines through laughter. “I prayed all the time to God that I wanted to be a professional athlete. I didn’t pray to be a major league player for a long time.”
Today, at age 49 and 21 years removed from the game, Cunningham says he is just happy someone remembers him as a former pro baseball player. He paints and works drywall as a subcontractor for Crescent Construction in Columbia, S.C. In his spare time, he dotes on his son and two stepchildren.
Rather than reflect on what might have been, he says he is grateful for the opportunity to play a game he loved.
Cunningham developed a fondness for the game while watching his father Henry and several uncles play for the Cunningham Quarters semipro team in the backwater bush leagues near his hometown of Lancaster, S.C.
After clubbing a since-broken state record 34 home runs in four years of high school, Cunningham weighed offers to play as a 6-foot-2, 225-pound tight end from several college football programs, including Clemson and Georgia Tech.
Cunningham never had a breakout season. He belted 19 home runs in 1991 at low Class A Peoria but hit just .239. He struck out an eye-opening 152 times in 321 at-bats with Peoria and high Class A Winston-Salem in 1992.
Over 2,040 minor league at-bats, Cunningham batted .224 with 84 home runs and 739 strikeouts.
“I wasn’t consistent enough,” says Cunningham, who denies that his weight was an issue despite adding 25 pounds in his first couple of seasons in the minors. Cunningham says he remained in outstanding shape with the added weight.
Perhaps Cunningham just came along at the wrong time and could have thrived today when swings and misses are not weighted as heavily against power hitters.
Cunningham finally adjusted his swing while playing in 1998 at age 28 for Catskill in the independent Northeast League. He batted .326 that season, but he lost the desire to play baseball upon the death of his father.
“I didn’t have the fight anymore,” Cunningham says. “I didn’t have that phone call to my dad anymore to share what was going on.”
These days, Cunningham passes along his love for the game and his expertise to his stepson.
“He’s got a lot of polishing to do,” Cunningham says of 10-year-old Nathan Miles. “I tell him if he works with me every day, he’ll be able to play high school baseball someday.”