The story of former Major League player Nate Colbert 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 am sure little Nate was excited about seeing his favorite Cardinal ballplayer, “Stan the Man”, set a Major League record with 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-Americans 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: Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, 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 trade 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 Hall of Famer Stan Musial. 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. However, 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.
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“Smokey” Joe Williams, Leon Day, Hilton Smith, and other fantastic pitchers who toiled their entire careers in the Negro Leagues never received the opportunity to appear on professional baseball’s main stage; the World Series. When Jackie Robinson erased Major League Baseball’s “invisible color line in 1947 opening the door for African American and dark-skinned Latinos to play, many of the better Negro League pitchers were past their prime. However, there were four former Negro Leaguers who did get the opportunity to take the mound in a World Series game. Three are familiar names in Negro League baseball history. The fourth and last one, Marshall Bridges who was born June 2, 1931 in Jackson, Mississippi, reflects how slow the progress of integration took in the Major Leagues during the 1950s.
On October 10, 1948 Satchel Paige became the first African American to pitch in a Major League World Series game. He pitched 2/3 of an inning in Game 5 for the Cleveland Indians in the 1948 World Series giving up no runs or hits. The Indians lost the game to the Boston Braves 11 – 5, but won the World Series 4 games to 2.
Don Newcombe pitched in the 1949, 1955, and 1956 Series for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The team’s leading hurler and innings workhorse during the regular season, Newcombe seemed to run out of gas in the World Series against the Dodgers’ main nemesis each of those years; the New York Yankees. In five World Series’ starts, he lost four with an ERA of 8.59.
On October 1, 1952 Joe Black of the Brooklyn Dodgers defeated the New York Yankees 4 – 2 to become the first African American pitcher to win a World Series game. He pitched a complete game giving up only six hits in the first contest of that year’s Series. Black, however, lost Game Four and the deciding Game Seven by the identical score of his victory, 4 – 2.
Marshall “Sheriff” Bridges began his professional baseball career as a pitcher and first baseman for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League. Signed by the New York Giants in 1953, the hard throwing left hander spent five seasons pitching in the minor leagues. When he turned 28 years old, Bridges finally made his Major League debut with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1959 winning 6 games while losing 3. He finished second in strikeouts among Cardinal relief hurlers with 76 in 76 innings pitched
The Cardinals released Bridges in August of 1960 and he finished the season with the Cincinnati Reds. The next season, Bridges did not make a mound appearance when Cincinnati lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series four games to one. However, due to a surprising shift of fortune it would be different for him the next year.
A little more than 2 months after the Series, the Reds traded Bridges to New York and he went on to become the top relief pitcher for the 1962 Yankees. In 52 relief appearances, Bridges had his best Major League season winning eight games while saving 18 others and helping the Yankees capture the American League pennant.
The “Sheriff” made two appearances in the World Series pitching a total of three and two- third innings as the Yankees defeated the San Francisco Giants to win the World Championship. However; he made a place in baseball history by surrendering the first World Series grand slam home run hit by a National League player, Giants’ second baseman Chuck Hiller, in the Yankee’s 7 – 3 Game 4 lost.
After being shot by a 21 year old married woman (Carrie Lee Raysor) in a bar during spring training the next season, Bridges fell out of favor with the Yankees. Although there had been off the field incidents involving Yankee star players Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, Bridges had crossed the Yankees’ behavior double standard line that his fellow African American teammate Elston Howard had for seven years been able to toe. Bridges recovered from the gunshot wound in his leg, but made only 23 relief appearances for the 1963 Yankees. After the season, the team traded him to the Washington Senators.
For more on Negro League Baseball history, read “Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. (http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown)
William “Bill” Greason played professional baseball in many different places and at several different levels during his career. Born on September 3, 1924 in Atlanta, Georgia, Greason applied his talent as a right-handed pitcher in both Negro and Major League baseball; in addition to high and lower levels in the minor leagues. He pitched in cities across the United States, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Like other African American ballplayers of his era (1947 -1958) Greason saw the final demise of Negro League baseball, participated in the integration of the minor leagues, and experienced racism in the Major Leagues after the “invisible color line” had been erased.
The 5’ 10’’ and 170 pound ex-Marine first pitched in 1947 with the Nashville Black Vols and Ashville (North Carolina) Blues, both considered minor league African American teams. It was the year Jackie Robinson became the first African American in the 20th Century to play Major League baseball. Greason was a power pitcher with a fastball and a sharp breaking pitch that he could throw sidearm. By the end of that season he had pitched his way onto the roster of the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro American League (NAL).
1948 was his breakout year. Greason pitched three scoreless innings in that year’s Negro League Baseball East-West All-Star game. Also, with him as one of its top pitchers, the Black Barons beat out Buck O’Neil’s Kansas City Monarchs to win the NAL pennant. Both Negro League stars Lorenzo “Piper” Davis and Arte Wilson were also on the Black Barons that year. In addition, a 17-year-old kid named Willie Mays played centerfield for the team. In what would be the last Negro League World Series, Greason pitched the Black Barons to their only victory against the Homestead Grays winning 4 – 3.
After leaving the Black Barons following the 1950 season, Greason pitched in the Class AAA and A levels in the minor leagues. He also pitched in the Mexican League and spent a short second stint in the Marines. When he returned to baseball in 1953, he became the third African American to play in the Class AA Texas League.
In 1954, Greason along with Brooks Lawrence and Tom Alston were the first African American players invited to a spring training camp by the St. Louis Cardinals. He made his Major League debut on May 31 at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs. In three innings, Greason gave up five runs on six hits in the Cards 14 – 4 lost. Three of the hits off Greason were home runs, one by the Cubs young shortstop and former Negro League player Ernie Banks. After appearing briefly in two more games, Greason at the end of June was sent to the minor leagues.
For the remainder of the decade he pitched with the Houston Buffs (Class AA Texas League), the Rochester Red Wings (Class AAA International League), and winter league baseball in the Caribbean. He never again played in the Major Leagues, getting only that one chance like a number of former Negro League players in the 1950s.
Greason retired in 1959 and was called into Christian ministry. He was pastor of a church in Birmingham, Alabama for 30 years and was cited by the Alabama State Legislature in 2001 for outstanding ministry achievement.