This article was written by Bruce Markusen. You can find Bruce on Twitter at @markusen_s.
There’s little doubt that Nate Colbert enjoyed his 76 years on this earth. Colbert, who died earlier this month, always seemed happy. And he loved to smile. Evidence of that can be found on his 1969 Topps card, where he flashes a full and uncontrolled smile for the cameraman. Although Colbert was still an unproven player at the time the photograph was taken, his card seems to reflect his sheer happiness over simply being in the major leagues.
Aside from his extreme and ever-present smile, something else stands out about Colbert’s 1969 Topps card. He is not wearing a cap, not for the team that first signed him (the St. Louis Cardinals), not for his previous team (the Houston Astros), or his new team (the San Diego Padres). The decision to have players pose capless was a common technique used by Topps at the time. In the event that a player changed teams over the course of the winter or during spring training, the capless photographs maintained a more generic appearance. With the capless pose, Topps could easily crop the photo so as to eliminate the name or logo of the old team on the jersey.
In the case of Colbert, other factors were at play. As an expansion team, the Padres had yet to play a game, which would have theoretically limited Topps’ opportunities for an updated photograph showing Colbert wearing his new team’s colors. More pertinently, in a development involving all major league players in 1969, a lingering dispute between Topps and the MLB Players Association caused havoc with the production of baseball cards. Unhappy with the paltry compensation given to players for the rights to use their images on cards, Marvin Miller had instructed players to refuse posing for photographs in 1968, both during spring training and the regular season. That explains why so many of the cards in the 1969 Topps set feature photographs that are two or three years old (or even older). Those photos often depict traded or otherwise relocated players without caps, or sometimes show them from angles that obscure the logos of their old teams.
In contrast, Colbert would appear on Topps cards in his full Padres regalia from 1970 to 1974. By 1970, the union had negotiated a new and far more favorable deal with Topps, allowing the card company to resume its business of taking updated photographs. Of that series of Colbert cards, the most memorable is the 1973 version, which once again gives us a smiling Colbert. Even more noticeable is Colbert’s uniform, the Padres’ all-yellow uniforms that they first introduced in 1972.
Those duds, arguably the gaudiest uniforms of an outlandish era, may have been ugly, but as Colbert pointed out during a 2008 visit to the Hall of Fame, he looked at that uniform with a philosophical approach. “The yellow ones, which were called ‘Mission Gold’—I don’t know where they got that name from—when I first put them on, I felt really embarrassed. But I looked at it like, this is the major leagues; this is the uniform I was required to wear,” said Colbert. “I took a lot of ribbing, especially from the Reds and Pirates players. Even my mother used to tease me. She said I looked like a caution light that was stuck.”
While Colbert would become most associated with the Padres’ yellow-and-brown look, his career path could have gone far differently; he might very well have worn the more conservative cap and uniform of the New York Yankees. As an amateur free agent in 1964, the year before the major league draft came into being, Colbert was pursued aggressively by the Yankees. They had promised to exceed any offers given to him by any other team, but ultimately Colbert chose to go elsewhere.
If the Yankees had signed Colbert, they presumably would have brought him to the majors by the late 1960s. That would have been good timing for a struggling franchise filled with aging players and prospects who were not up the standards of the organization during its glory years. In particular, the Yankees had an unstable situation at first base. The retirement of Mickey Mantle at the start of spring training in 1969 forced the Yankees to switch Joe Pepitone from the outfield to first base. But Pepitone himself would depart after the 1969 season, via a trade with Colbert’s old team, the Astros.
From 1970 to 1973, the Yankees struggled to find anyone capable of giving them the ideal power expected from a first baseman. Role players like Danny Cater, Johnny Ellis, and Mike Hegan, the oft-injured Ron Blomberg, and an aging Felipe Alou took turns playing the position. Blomberg was the best hitter of the group, but injuries curtailed his production, while his poor defensive play made him a better fit at DH starting in 1973. Even if healthy, it’s doubtful that Blomberg would have matched the production of Colbert. A young Colbert would have supplied some much-needed right-handed power to a Yankees lineup that leaned heavily to the left.
But Colbert-to-the-Yankees never happened. He briefly considered the Yankees’ offer before choosing to sign with his hometown team, the St. Louis Cardinals. That was Colbert’s dream; he had always wanted to play for the same team as one of his boyhood heroes, Stan Musial. Unfortunately, the Cardinals did not think Colbert was ready to succeed Bill White at first base and had no room for him in left field (where Lou Brock resided). After the 1965 season, the Cardinals left Colbert unprotected in the Rule Five draft.
The Astros jumped in and picked up Colbert, who by the requirements of Rule Five had to stay on the major league roster the entire season or be offered back to the Cardinals. In the spring of ’66, Colbert made his major league debut. According to Colbert, he became the second member of his family to play in the major leagues, after his father, Nate, Sr. The younger Colbert claimed that his father was a catcher who was a onetime batterymate of the great Satchel Paige, but there is no official record of Nate Colbert, Sr. having appeared in an official Negro Leagues game.
As for the junior Colbert, he played in only 19 games for the Astros, accumulating a mere seven at-bats without a hit. For some reason, Astros manager Grady Hatton refused to use Colbert in the field, instead giving him only the handful of bats and a few pinch-running appearances. It turned out to be a wasted summer for the 20-year-old Colbert.
By 1967, the Astros were free to send Colbert back to the minor leagues, where he could accrue both actual playing time and badly needed experience. They assigned him to the Amarillo Sonics, their Double-A affiliate in the Texas League. He then returned to the Astros midway through 1968 and was later given a September looksee at first base, but he did not hit well and showed a propensity for striking out. He also clashed with Astros manager Harry Walker, who tried to force Colbert into becoming a contact hitter who hit to all fields. Colbert wanted to pull the ball—and hit with power.
Still, Colbert found his fair share of fun away from the field. Some of that came through sharing a clubhouse with the most colorful teammate of his career. During his visit to Cooperstown in 2008, where he regaled visitors with stories from his major league days, Colbert recalled playing with Doug Rader, the quirky and unpredictable third baseman who was forever playing pranks and testing the limits of sanity. “When we were with the Astros,” Colbert said, “[Rader] and one of the guys, another player on the team, went down to the pet store. That’s when it was legal to own alligators. And they bought three alligators, baby alligators. They waited until we were all in the shower, and they let them loose in the shower, down in Cocoa, Florida. We were trying to climb the walls, these little baby alligators all around us.”
Rader made life in Houston memorable for Colbert, but he longed for an opportunity to do more on the field. A much-needed break would soon come his way. After the 1968 season, the National League added the Padres and the Montreal Expos as expansion franchises. The Astros left Colbert unprotected in the expansion draft, giving the Padres the chance to select his contract. With the 18th pick of the draft, after such obscure selections as infielder Jose Arcia and pitcher Al Santorini, the Padres took Colbert. He would soon become their best player.
After starting the season in a platoon role at first base, Colbert caught the attention of his new manager, Preston Gomez. At first, the Padres planned to platoon Colbert with the lefty-hitting Bill Davis, who was six-feet, seven-inches tall and was known as “The Jolly Green Giant.” Colbert went on a short hot streak, impressing Gomez. The Padres soon traded Davis, clearing the way for Colbert to play every day.
From 1969 to 1972, Colbert put up huge power numbers, twice hitting 38 home runs in a season and twice posting slugging percentages of better than .500. Those numbers become even more impressive given his home ballpark, San Diego Stadium, which featured a distance of 420 feet to center field and outfield walls that stood 17 feet high. In 1972, Colbert’s best year, he collected 111 RBIs, accounting for nearly 23 per cent of the Padres’ run total for the season. That remarkable 23 percent figure remains a major league record.
Colbert was never better than he was on August 1 that season, when the Padres played a doubleheader against the Braves at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. Colbert hit two home runs in the first game, one against Ron Schueler and one against Mike McQueen, and then smacked three more in the nightcap, victimizing Pat Jarvis, Jim Hardin, and Cecil Upshaw.
The fifth home run matched the doubleheader record set by his boyhood hero, Musial. (To make the story even better, Colbert claimed that he was one of the fans in attendance at Sportsman’s Park the day that Musial hit his five home runs.) Rather dramatically, Colbert hit the record-tying home run in the ninth inning against Upshaw, a tough right-handed reliever who threw with a submarine delivery. That home run gave Colbert 13 RBIs for the doubleheader, establishing a record for a single day.
Colbert’s years with the Padres provided other memorable moments, including the infamous night in April of 1974 when new team owner Ray Kroc took over the public address system on Opening Night at San Diego Stadium. “Well, we had just gotten thumped in LA,” said Colbert, setting the scene. “And we came home… and were getting thumped again [by the Astros]. So I was the hitter, and somebody comes on the mike and says, ‘People of San Diego…’ It scared me, I thought it was God. You know, I thought, oh gosh, the rapture was coming, and I’m not ready. And he said, ‘I want to apologize for such stupid baseball playing.’ So in protest, I said to myself, I’m not swinging.’ I just stood there and I walked… We eventually got a rally going. We scored five runs [actually three runs]. He [Kroc] apologized to us later. And I told him, ‘You own us. You can say what you want!’ ”
That same season, Colbert struggled in making the transition to the outfield. The Padres moved him there to make up for wintertime acquisition Willie McCovey, who took over first base. That was also the summer that Colbert’s chronic and longstanding back problems worsened. Diagnosed with a congenital condition caused by degermation of his vertebrae, Colbert’s hitting mechanics were severely affected by 1974, leaving him with a batting average of .207 and a paltry 14 home runs. That winter, the Padres traded Colbert, sending him to the Detroit Tigers for a package of shortstop Eddie Brinkman, outfielder Dick Sharon, and a minor league pitcher named Bob Strampe.
Colbert would spend an unproductive tenure of two and a half months in Detroit before being sold to the Montreal Expos at the June 15th trading deadline. (That explains why Colbert appeared on only one Topps card as a member of the Tigers. Appropriately, the 1975 card shows him with an upturned cap and another large smile.) He would fare little better with the Expos before being released in June of 1976.
Later that summer, Colbert signed with the Oakland A’s. Although he appeared in only two games and went hitless in five at-bats for the A’s, he enjoyed his time playing for another controversial owner, one who surpassed Ray Kroc for unpredictable behavior. “As far as Charlie Finley, I loved Charlie Finley,” Colbert said. “I thought he was awesome. When he traded for me, he told me that he always wanted me to play for him. He told me couldn’t afford me the next year , but he wanted me to have a good time that year . He told me if I needed anything, just call him. He treated my wife and I very well.”
Becoming a free agent after the 1976 season, Colbert drew little interest from teams. One team, the expansion Toronto Blue Jays, offered him an invite to spring training as a non-roster player. Colbert took the offer, but his back problems persisted, resulting in his release early in spring camp. The release officially ended his major league career.
It was during his brief tenure in Oakland that Colbert met his wife, Kasey, to whom he remained married for the rest of his life. The couple would have nine children and 22 grandchildren. They both became ministers and co-owners of an organization that provided advice and counseling to amateur athletes considering careers at the professional level.
While Colbert did a lot of good work with kids, his post-baseball life also involved controversy. In 1990, Colbert was indicted on 12 felony counts of fraudulent loan applications. He listed real estate assets that he did not actually own on several loan applications to banks. Under the maximum penalty, he could have faced 40 years in prison, but Colbert eventually pled guilty to only one charge and served six months in a medium-security facility.
After his release from prison, Colbert returned to his ministry and opened up several baseball schools. He also served briefly as a minor league manager in two independent leagues before again returning fulltime to his ministry work.
In more recent years, Colbert hosted a weekly radio show on KBAD Radio, an affiliate of NBC. He also hoped to write a book about his experiences, including his work as a minister, though he never did embark on such a project. But for Colbert, his ministry was clearly his obsession. “I love to pray,” Colbert said during his visit to the Hall of Fame. “And I love to teach. I love the involvement with other people.”
Given the broad smile on his 1969, 1973, and 1975 Topps cards, Nate Colbert’s affinity for people should have come as no surprise. He made life fun for many of his teammates and helped a lot of youngsters along the way. And there’s little doubt that he enjoyed just about every day that he spent playing our game.