Shawon Donnell Dunston was one of the most recognized shortstops in the game for a period in the mid-1980s. Known for his remarkable throwing arm, he played alongside Ryne Sandberg as a double-play combination on some of the best Cubs teams at that time. Injuries limited his playing time and Dunston eventually became a journeyman player in the latter part of his career.
Dunston was born on March 21, 1963, in Brooklyn, New York. As a youth, he lived in a public housing facility called Linden Apartments with his father, Jack, his mother, Brenda, and his younger sister, Kindra. Jack worked as a cab driver and delivered furniture while Brenda worked in a women’s clothing store.
Dunston felt very fortunate to have caring parents who instilled a serious discipline regarding school in their children. “They told us, ‘No matter what you do in life, you’ll need to have an education to fall back on.’ My parents were strict about it. There were Saturdays and Sundays when I was behind in class and they made me stay in. I’d be looking out the window at everybody playing outside. It was rough.” Dunston’s father described their neighborhood as a “ghetto, or slum, or whatever you want to call it. The block’s not beautiful, no green trees, there’s an abandoned building next door.”1
Dunston attended Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn. He played for the school’s baseball team as an infielder. Dunston said that his teachers were supportive of both his baseball and his academics. “I remember Mr. Eisenberg, who taught algebra, and he told the baseball coach, Mr. Nathanson, that he was going to fail me if I didn’t do better, even if I was the best player on the team. It meant I wouldn’t play baseball. They wouldn’t let me get away with anything.”2
Dunston excelled during his time at Thomas Jefferson. He homered in his first at-bat as a freshman and had 25 homers in his high-school career. Dunston had a .790 batting average, 10 home runs, and stole 37 bases without being caught stealing in 26 games during his senior season. He was a three-time baseball all-star and twice named team MVP of his high school team. He played American Legion baseball and won three batting titles and two MVP honors.3
The Cubs chose Dunston as the overall number-one pick of the June 1982 major-league amateur draft. He was represented by his parents in negotiations with the Cubs. Dunston eventually signed a one-year contract with a $100,000 bonus. “If I didn’t think that the pay was high enough, I would have gone to college,” he said at the time.4
Dunston was sent to the Cubs team in the Gulf Coast League after he graduated high school. He batted .321 in 53 games. Dunston also finished with an .888 fielding percentage. He showed promise but still needed to work on his game, as he himself noted when he signed his contract. “I have to mature. There is no rush. I have the capabilities but I’m not ready yet.”5
Dunston spent his sophomore year with the Cubs at Quad Cities (Class A, Midwest League). He batted .310 and had 58 stolen bases that season. Dunston continued to move up the ladder, spending most of 1984 with the Midland Cubs (Class AA, Texas League). He was batting .329 with a .920 fielding percentage when the Cubs promoted him. Dunston spent the remainder of the season with the Iowa Cubs (Class AAA, American Association). His batting average dropped to .233 but he continued to perform defensively, finishing with a .907 fielding percentage.
The Cubs were so confident in Dunston that he competed with Larry Bowa for the starting position in 1985. He initially won the job but struggled early in the season. Dunston made his major-league debut on April 9, getting a single in the Cubs’ 2-1 opening-day victory over the Pirates.
Dunston was batting just .194 when he was sent back to the minors. Cubs General Manager Dallas Green said at the time, “Every at-bat seems like an ordeal for him. It was time for him to go down and play and have fun, and get his offense together. Shawon has had a lot of instruction while he’s been here. Unfortunately, we might have jammed too much at him.”6
After 73 games with the Iowa Cubs, Dunston was batting .268. The Cubs felt that he had regained his confidence and wanted to give him another look. Cubs Manager Jim Frey noted that they wanted to “bring him up at the right time.”7 Dunston started for the Cubs for the remainder of the season, batting .287 during that time.
He had played winter ball in Venezuela in the offseason to improve his game. Ruben Amaro, his coach there, said “With all Shawon’s talent, with that terrific arm, those instincts of his, wait until he learns more about how to play the hitters. The natural ability, the added experience, he’ll be even better.”8 This was significant because Amaro was a former Gold Glove shortstop himself, noted for his positioning.
The Cubs made Dunston their everyday shortstop in 1986. Dunston started 150 games for the Cubs that season. He finished with a .250 batting average and hit 17 home runs, the most of his career to date. He finished with a .961 fielding percentage. But he led the league’s shortstops in errors with 32 as well as in assists with 465.
Dunston started 1987 as the Cubs shortstop but he played in just 95 games after suffering a broken finger in June. Dunston finished the season batting .246 and there were talks that the Cubs might trade him late in the season. But Green, the Cubs’ general manager, quashed those rumors saying “I still think that Shawon has a chance to do a lot of neat things before he’s done.”9
Dunston bounced back from his injury in 1988, playing 155 games. His solid play at shortstop earned him his first All-Star selection, where was he chosen as the backup to Ozzie Smith, but did not play. Smith complimented Dunston prior to the game saying, “Shawon’s done a super job. He has the talent to be a great shortstop and he’s right on the threshold now.”10
Dunston cemented his role as the double-play partner of Sandberg that season and he finished with a .249 batting average and 30 stolen bases. He improved his hitting in 1989 and played a key role in the Cubs’ NL East division title that year when he .278 with 20 doubles, six triples, and 19 stolen bases. Dunston also hit .316 in the NLCS where the Cubs fell to the Giants in five games.
One of the memorable aspects of the 1989 season was the “Shawon-O-Meter.”11 It was a sign that one of the bleacher fans would hold up showing changes in Dunston’s batting average. The 30×40-inch sign was created by Cubs fan Jim Cybul. He said he chose Dunston because he “typifies the Cubs. They are always the underdogs, the little team that could, the lovable losers. Dunston wraps it up in one ballplayer. You have to be behind him because you know he could be great.”12 Dunston noted his appreciation of the sign later, saying “I loved those Cubs fans. Whether you were the best player on the Cubs or not, they treated you like you were the best.”13
He played well again in 1990 and was again chosen for the All-Star team. This time Dunston played, getting two at-bats, but failing to get a hit. Dunston finished the season with a .262 batting average with 17 home runs. The Cubs signed him to a one-year, $2.1 million contract at the end of the season even as Dunston was mentioned in different trade rumors. “It really makes me pleased; I feel wanted. I’m looking to stay a Cub all my life.”14
Dunston continued his solid play as the Cubs shortstop in 1991. He batted .260 and finished with a .968 fielding percentage. He was due to become a free agent after the season but the Cubs signed him to a four-year, $12 million contract. “I’m glad that I didn’t have to file for free agency. People might say ‘You could make more somewhere else.’ I don’t want to make more. I want to stay here.”15
Dunston injured his back in the off-season and required surgery to repair a herniated disk in May 1992. The injury limited him to just 18 games that season. When the Cubs did not protect him in the 1992 major-league expansion draft, Dunston initially told the press that he would not be able to play for the Cubs again but later softened, “I have mixed feelings but I’m all right. I’m still going to perform. I’m going to do the best that I can.”16 The injury sidelined him again in 1993, limiting Dunston to just seven games that season.
Despite the back injury, Dunston played in 88 games in 1994. He batted .278 with 11 home runs while maintaining a .966 fielding percentage at short. His injury was a constant worry for the Cubs, who had counted on him to be their everyday shortstop.
Dunston said that it took tremendous effort to play. He said that he loosened up when he got out of bed and did a set of stretching exercises three or four times. Then he went running. “After the game, especially, I’m real loose. During the game, I’m almost dead but my mind has taken over my body.”17
Dunston eventually worked through his injury and played 127 games in 1995. He improved his hitting, batting .296 and hitting 30 doubles. Dunston learned through the press that the Cubs wanted to move him to third base to reduce the chances of another injury. “If they had said to me, ‘We want you to play third base — we’ll be a better team,’ I would’ve signed. But nobody ever talked to me, not directly. It was never a money issue. I would’ve taken a pay cut.”18
The Cubs granted him free agency and Dunston signed with the San Francisco Giants for the 1996 season, receiving a one-year contract worth $1.5 million. Giants first-base coach Bob Brenly shared the significance of Dunston joining the club saying, “Nobody plays harder than he does. He can catch the ball, throw it, run and hit. It just wonderful for us to have a veteran like him who works as hard as he does.”19
Dunston lasted just one season in San Francisco, playing 78 games at short. He finished with a .300 batting average, but only had 19 extra-base hits and a .408 slugging percentage. At the end of the 1996 season, he returned to the Cubs, signing a one-year contract with the team. At the time, Chicago was hoping that Dunston’s bat would boost their offense when Rey Sanchez batted just .211 after taking over Dunston’s spot at short. “My goal is to play 150 games,” the often-injured shortstop said after his signing.20
Dunston ended up playing in 114 games for the Cubs in 1997 before he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates on the trade deadline on August 31. The Pirates were in playoff contention at the time and needed a shortstop. The Cubs justified the trade as an opportunity to give “see what some of our younger players can do” according to General Manager Ed Lynch.21 Dunston played in 18 games for the Pirates, batting .394 with a .690 slugging percentage.
Pittsburgh granted him free agency after the season and Dunston signed a one-year contract with the Cleveland Indians shortly before the 1998 season. Indians Manager Mike Hargrove said at the time that Dunston’s acquisition “gives you another All-Star-caliber player. I’ve found that shortstops are usually some of the best athletes on your team and are very adaptable.”22
Dunston played in 62 games with Indians and was batting .237 when he was traded along with José Mesa and Alvin Morman to the Giants for Jacob Cruz and Steve Reed on July 23, 1998. The Giants were contending for a playoff spot and were hoping that Dunston’s experience would help them down the stretch.
He said that he was glad to return to San Francisco, saying “I was happy in Cleveland. But I like the Giants. I would play for three teams. San Francisco, Cleveland, Chicago (Cubs). I know I can still play shortstop every day. I’m only 35. Guy who are 32 look older and play older than me.”23 Dunston batted .176 in 51 at-bats for the Giants.
Dunston became a free agent after the season. The St. Louis Cardinals, seeking infield depth, signed him to a one-year contract worth $610,000 and planned to use him as a backup for shortstop Edgar Renteria and second baseman Carlos Baerga. Dunston played in 62 games in 1999, primarily in the outfield, and batted .307 for the Cardinals.
St. Louis traded him at the deadline to the New York Mets for Craig Paquette. Mets Manager Bobby Valentine said that the Mets were “upgrading the veteran status from the right side of the plate.” He said that Dunston was “an exciting player. An effective input force. He always runs real fast to first. He always runs real hard.”24 Dunston played in 42 games for the Mets down the stretch, batting .344 while playing the outfield.
Dunston played in the postseason for the second time in his career when the Mets made the playoffs. He batted just .143 and got one hit during the National League Championship Series against Atlanta. But that hit was memorable. With the Mets down by a run in the 15th inning of the fifth game, Dunston battled Braves reliever Kevin McGlinchy for nine minutes, 12 pitches and six foul balls before he hit a single up the middle. Dunston then stole second and ended up on third on Edgardo Alfonzo‘s sacrifice bunt. Dunston brought the tying run home when Todd Pratt walked after John Olerud had been given an intentional pass. Moments later, Robin Ventura hit his “Grand Single” to give the Mets the win. Unfortunately, the Mets would fall in Game Six of that NLCS, denying Dunston an opportunity to play in that year’s World Series.
The Mets released Dunston after the season, and he returned to the Cardinals, signing as a free agent on February 3, 2000. He played in 98 games for St. Louis in 2000, hitting .250. When the Cardinals made the playoffs, he batted .429, primarily as a pinch-hitter but getting a start in the second game. The Cardinals released the 37-year-old Dunston when the season ended and he signed with the Giants for the second time on December 8, 2000.
Dunston played with the Giants in 2001 and 2002. He averaged 80 games over the next two years, primarily playing in the outfield as a reserve player. Dunston’s batting average was .258 during those two years.
Dunston reached the 2002 World Series, his first, as a member of the Giants. He hit a home run off Kevin Appier of the Anaheim Angels in the sixth game of the series to give the Giants a 2-0 lead. It was just his second home run of the season, the previous one coming on April 15. Dunston met his 9-year-old son, Shawon Jr., at home plate. He said the chance to share his first Series with his son made it that much sweeter. “It’s more enjoyable to have my son here with me. He just talks: ‘Daddy, is this really the World Series?’” he asked.25 Dunston’s son was in the dugout along with Barry Bonds’ son Nikolai as honorary batboys for the game.
Dunston retired after the 2002 season and became a special assistant in the Giants organization. He was put in charge of the Giants’ replay system as well as providing on-field instruction for nine years. Dunston took on a new role in 2020 in the Player Development department.
Dunston married Tracie White in 1990. They have four children, Shawon Jr., I’sha Salina, Jasmine, and Whitnie. Shawon Jr. was born in 1990 and he joined the Cubs organization after they drafted him in the 11th round of the major-league amateur draft. His son said of his father at the time, “I see him as dad, but I am very fortunate to have a father that played baseball. I’ve been around the clubhouse since I was six, seven years old.”26
Dunston was expected to become one of the best shortstops in baseball when he came out of high school. Although injuries shortened his career, he persevered and continues to work in baseball to this day.
Last revised: December 3, 2020
This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin, Rory Costello, and David H. Lippman and fact-checked by Paul Proia.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author used Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball-Almanac.com, and Retrosheet.org for player, team, and season pages, and other pertinent material.
1 Ira Berkow, “Dunston Reminded of Old School,” New York Times, March 2, 1992: C5.
3 “Dunston Goes First in Draft,” Meridien (Connecticut) Journal-Record, June 8, 1982: 9.
4 “Dunston Goes First.”
5 “Dunston Goes First.”
6 “Dunston Sent Down,” New York Times, May 16, 1985: B15.
7 “Cubs Drop Larry Bowa, Recall Shawon Dunston,” Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, August 13, 1985: 11.
8 Bob Verdi, “Dunston Digs Himself Out of Hole,” Chicago Tribune, May 12, 1986: 23.
9 Fred Mitchell, “Cubs Seek Pitching But Not for Dunston,” Chicago Tribune, August 27, 1987: D4.
10 Alan Solomon, “Old Notebook Holds Talk of New Dunston,” Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1988: 42.
11 The “Shawon-O-Meter was created in 1989 and Jim Cybul and Dave Cihla displayed it a game on June 5. Cybul and his friends were looking for a way to get noticed when they attended a Cubs game. They chose Dunston after reading that his teammates presented him with the game ball after raising his batting average about .200. They put together the sign with changeable numbers for the batting average and added “And Rising. Go Cubs” at the bottom of the sign. Cybul explained their reasoning as follows: “We can take this bit of information, put it on a sign, and for four games we can actually track his batting average…he’s batting .203, early in the season, it’s going to jump with every at bat, it’s going to be something noticeable.” The sign quickly caught the attention of the Bleacher Bums at Wrigley Field as well as the local media. Dunston batted .318 after the sign appeared and finished the season with a .278 batting average. When the Cubs made the playoffs at the end of the season, Cybul and Cihla even used their notoriety to obtain playoff tickets from the Cubs. R. Bruce Dold, “Creators of Shawon-O-Meter Won’t Go 0 for 3 on Tickets,” Chicago Tribune, September 28, 1989: 30. The “Shawon-O-Meter” sign remained a common sight at Wrigley until 1995. Cybul even presented the sign to the Smithsonian Institution after the season so that it could become part of their American history collection. Ryan Lothian, “The Sign of a Lifetime,” https://versatilehuman.com/som/
12 Eileen Pech, “Berwyn Cub Fans Celebrate in Sign, Song,” Berwyn (Illinois) The Life, October 8, 1989: 3.
13 Steve Greenberg, “Giants coach Shawon Dunston still feels love for, pride in the Cubs,” Chicago Sun Times, May 21, 2017.
14 Robert Markus, “Dunston, Cubs Agree on a New 1-year Deal,” Chicago Tribune, January 12, 1991: 39.
15 Andrew Bagnato, “$12 million Contract Keeps Dunston a Cub,” Chicago Tribune, October 5, 1991: 40.
16 Joey Reeves, “Dunston, Still a Cub, Calms Down,” Chicago Tribune, November 19, 1992: 59.
17 Terry Armour, “Odd and Ins,” Chicago Tribune, May 31, 1994: 143.
18 Jerome Holtzman, “Dunston Sorry He Won’t Be Rejoining His Old DP Partner,” Chicago Tribune, February 22, 1996: 219.
19 Holtzman, “Dunston Sorry.”
20 Mike Kiley, “Dunston Return Means Sanchez Must Shape Up,” Chicago Tribune, December 3, 1996: 45.
21 Jerome Holtzman, “Wrigley Loses Ambience As Well As Dunston,” Chicago Tribune, September 2, 1997: 45.
22 (Associated Press), “Dunston Signs With the Indians,” New York Times, February 17, 1998: C7.
23 John Shea, “Older Players Ponder Retirement,” San Francisco Examiner, July 30, 1998: B3.
24 Jason Diamos, “Dunston’s Route Long In Becoming a Met,” New York Times, August 5, 1999: D3.
25 Tyler Kepner, “At 39, Dunston Savors the Moment,” New York Times, October 27, 2002: Section 8, p.8.
26 Greg Keller, “Like father, like son: Dunston Jr. starts pro career with Hawks,” Idaho Press.com, June 14, 2012.