Nate Colbert of the San Diego Padres tied a Major League record on August 1, 1972 by hitting five home runs in doubleheader. The story surrounding the first baseman’s feat reflects how the baseball dreams of African-American boys changed as a result of Jackie Robinson erasing Major League baseball’s “invisible color line” in 1947.
On May 2, 1954 in a doubleheader against the New York Giants; St. Louis Cardinal right fielder Stan Musial hit five home runs. There were 26,662 in attendance that Sunday afternoon at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium to see him do what no other Major League player had accomplished. In the first game, Musial hit three home runs and drove in six runs in the Cardinal’s 10 – 6 victory. He hit 2 homers and drove in three runs in the nightcap, but the Giants won 9 – 7.
In the stadium that spring afternoon with his father was eight year old African-American Nate Colbert. I can visualize the excitement on little Nate’s face in seeing his favorite Cardinal ballplayer, “Stan the Man”, hit those five home runs. But Colbert that day also saw Cardinal rookie first baseman Tom Alston, the first African-American to appear in a Major League game for the St. Louis Cardinals.
For the first time in the franchise’s history, the 1954 Cardinal team had African-American players. The 28-year-old Alston made his Major League debut on April 13, earlier than Brooks Lawrence (June 24) and Bill Greason (May 31), the other two African-Americans on the team. A good defensive first baseman, he had a hot bat against the Giants in the doubleheader witnessed by little Nate. In the first game Alston got four hits including a home run, his third of the young season, and two RBIs. The second game he hit a bases loaded double (3 RBIs) in the Cardinals’ first inning. He ended the day batting .313.
Little Nate also saw that day three former Negro League baseball players who appeared in both games for the Giants: Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, and Hank Thompson. Irvin and Thompson in 1949 were the first African-Americans to play for the Giants.
Fast forward this story to 1964. 18-year-old Nate Colbert is signed by the Cardinals, but they lose him to the Houston Astros in the 1965 Rule Five draft and he never plays a game in the uniform of his hometown team. The Astros then traded him to the San Diego Padres in 1969.
On August 1, 1972; in Colbert’s fourth season with the Padres, he ties the record he saw Stan Musial set in 1954. Colbert hits five home runs in a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. He hits two home runs and drives in five runs as the Padres win the first game 9-0 and hits three homers driving in eight runs in his team’s 11 -7 victory in the nightcap. For the second time in his six years with the Padres, Colbert hits 38 home runs in 1972.
Little Nate Colbert’s Major League career did not come close to that of Stan Musial who is a 1969 Hall of Fame inductee. To tie or break a record in baseball; however, is considered a great accomplishment. And Colbert being present to see the record set that he would eventually tie makes this a unique circumstance. In addition, Colbert got the opportunity to be able to do what he saw his childhood favorite Cardinal ballplayer do because of what he also witnessed that May afternoon.
By seeing Tom Alston, Willie Mays, Hank Thompson, and Monte Irvin play that day; Colbert witnessed the new day in Major League baseball that was occurring. It had dawned in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball. It was a new day in which the baseball dreams of little Nate Colbert and other African-American boys were no longer confined to Negro League baseball. A new day that would produce stories like Nate Colbert’s and others as the racial barriers in professional baseball were pulled down in the 1950s and 1960s.