RIP to Dave Roberts, the Panamanian outfielder/first baseman who played in the National League in the 1960s. He died on October 2 in Huntsville Ala., at the age of 88. Roberts played for the Houston Colt .45s (1962, 1964) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1966) before embarking on a successful career in Japan with the Sankei/Yakult Swallows (1967-73) and Kintetsu Buffaloes (1973).
David Leonard Roberts was born on June 30, 1933, in Panama City, Panama. He was the eighth Panamanian ballplayer to reach the American/National Leagues — there had been others in the Negro Leagues going back to the early 1940s. He was also the first of four players with the name of Dave Roberts to reach the big leagues. Among the Dave Robertses, there was the pitcher who played from 1969 through 1981, an infielder/catcher who played from 1972 through 1982, and the outfielder from 1999-2008 who is presently the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Dave Roberts of this story first appears in professional baseball with the Porterville Comets of the Southwest International League in 1952. He was brought there by veteran Negro Leagues pitcher Chet Brewer, who saw Roberts playing amateur ball in the Canal Zone. Brewer, who was the manager of the Comets, signed him as an outfielder. Another Negro Leagues pitching star, Andy Cooper, was finishing up his lengthy career there as well. The teenager held his own, batting .314 with 10 home runs for the Comets. When Brewer was let go as manager, Roberts switched to first base. The following year, he moved to the Grand Forks Chiefs of the Northern League and led the team with 15 home runs. His contract was sold to the Baltimore Orioles after the season, on the recommendation of scout Barney Lutz.
By the time that Roberts entered the Orioles organization for the 1954 season, baseball had been integrated to some extent. Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and the other pioneer black major-leaguers had opened up the sport, but not every team had been integrated, and not every organization was rushing to move minority ballplayers through the minors. Roberts, for example, destroyed the Northern League in 1954 with Aberdeen. He hit .297 and finished second in the league with 33 home runs and 114 RBIs. He also drew 99 walks and stole 27 bases, so there was plenty of raw talent. Though he was an All-Star in the Northern League, the Orioles didn’t race to move him up the ranks. He was advanced to the San Antonio Missions of the Double-A Texas League and remained there for most of the next three seasons. Missions manager Don Heffner stated that Roberts had all the tools needed for a major-league career, and that was before the young lefty hit a couple of homers on Opening Day of the 1955 season. The website Astros A to Z reported that, at one point, Roberts was demoted from San Antonio to Class-A ball because the team in Shreveport didn’t want to play against black ballplayers.
Roberts’ numbers ebbed and flowed over the years in the Texas League. He could hit in the .270s or down into the .230s, and his home run totals varied as well. He became a pretty capable defender at first base or in the outfield, depending on where he was needed on any given season. In July of 1957, Roberts’ contract was sold to the Austin Senators, another Texas League team. That move put him in the Milwaukee Braves franchise, and he began moving up the minor-league ranks once again. After a full year in Austin in 1959, in which he batted .294 with 20 homers, Roberts was promoted to Triple-A Louisville in 1959. He got off to a hot start but cooled afterwards, finishing the year with 20 doubles, 10 home runs and a .252 batting average.
“I don’t know what it is but I never hit well in July,” Roberts said. “I can’t figure it out. I thought maybe playing winter ball was the cause so I cut it out before last year. But it wasn’t that.” Roberts filled the hours he would have spent playing winter ball taking a fine arts course. He worked in a Los Angeles supermarket in the offseason but wanted to be a commercial artist when his playing career had ended.
Roberts became a well-traveled player. In 1960, he started the season in Louisville, was transferred to Sacramento, came back to Louisville, was re-assigned back to Austin, and then sold to Dallas-Fort Worth — all by early July! The movement didn’t affect his game that much, as he was still was a productive hitter, but it didn’t get him any closer to the majors until 1962. That season, his contract was acquired by the expansion Houston Colt .45s. Now 29 years old, Roberts was assigned to the Oklahoma City 89ers and had a marvelous season, with a .322 batting average, 38 doubles, 15 home runs, 86 runs scored and 96 RBIs. He was voted the Most Popular 89er by the fans, and at long last, Houston called him to the major leagues that September.
Roberts went 0-for-3 in his major-league debut on September 5 against Pittsburgh. However, he delivered a pinch-hit, walk-off 2-run double the very next day off Pirates reliever Elroy Face. The hit ended a 3-run, ninth-inning rally and resulted in a 4-3 Houston win. Roberts played steadily the rest of the month of September, making starts at left field, right field and first base. His first major-league home run came on September 18 off Mets starter Larry Foss. Roberts even put together a modest 6-game hitting streak and ended the season with a .245/.349/.358 slash line in 16 games.
After Roberts’ spectacular season in Oklahoma City and a solid September audition, he spent all of 1963 back in the minors. It just so happened that the three positions that Roberts could play well were occupied with rookie first baseman Rusty Staub, the team’s best hitter in left fielder Al Spangler and a decent right fielder in Carl Warwick. Rookie Jim Wynn also spent time in left field. Age certainly could have played a factor — Roberts was older than all four of the aforementioned players. While the young Colts struggled to a 96-loss season, Roberts helped lead the 89ers to the Pacific Coast League championship. He hit .270 in the regular season with 16 homers and 86 RBIs, and he got Oklahoma City off to a good start in the championship series against Spokane by hitting a homer and double, accounting for all four of the team’s runs in a 4-3 win.
Roberts got off to an even hotter start in 1964. He smashed three home runs in a game against Hawaii on April 30, driving in 7 runs in a 12-4 win. He was batting .371 when the Colts brought him back to the majors. He spent the rest of the season as a pinch-hitter and a backup first baseman for Walt Bond, with Staub having been relegated to a utility role. He hit just .184 in the role, possibly because he had never been a bench-warmer to that point in his professional career. His only home run of the season spoiled a shutout for Milwaukee’s Tony Cloninger, who threw 8-2/3 scoreless innings until Roberts homered to make the final score 5-1.
Houston, rebranded as the Astros in 1965, once again kept Roberts in Oklahoma City for the entire year, and he ended up the league’s most valuable player after a monster season. He slashed .318/.428/.615 with 38 home runs, 114 RBIs and 97 bases on balls. The 89ers once again won the PCL championship. Roberts was an extremely popular player and even had one of his cartoons, of teammate Sonny Jackson, published in The Daily Oklahoman. He said that drawing was a good way to relieve pressure as a ballplayer.
“Of course I can’t work at it [during the season] like I do in the offseason at home in Compton, Calif., where most of my equipment remains. During the winter I do some oils, too,” he said.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, looking for a left-handed bat off the bench, picked Roberts in the 1965 Rule V Draft and broke training camp with him on the roster in 1966. He was used almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter and pinch-runner, going hitless in 2 starts at first base. After 14 games and a .125 batting average (2 hits in 16 at-bats), he was sent back to the minors and finished the season hitting 26 homers for the Columbus Jets of the International League.
By 1967, Roberts was 34 years old, and with fewer than 100 major-league games under his belt, his hopes to catch on with another club were fading. However, his career was granted a new lease on life when he joined the Sankei Atoms of the Japan Central League. For the next seven seasons, he became one of the top American sluggers in Japan. He slammed 40 home runs in 1968, second only to the legendary Sadaharu Oh, and batted .296 for the Atoms. The following year, he hit .318 and once again finished second to Oh with 37 home runs. Even on his down years, he cracked home runs with regularity. He played for the Sankei/Yakult Atoms from 1967 until 1973 and finished out the ’73 season with the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes.
Over three seasons in the majors, Roberts appeared in 91 games and had a .196/.282/.278 slash line. He had 38 hits that included 8 doubles, 1 triple and 2 home runs, and he drove in 17 runs while scoring 15 times. That’s only the tiniest part of Roberts’ 22-year professional career. In seven seasons in Japan, he slashed .275/.362/.524 with 183 career home runs. In 15 seasons in the minor leagues, he had 239 more homers and batted .284. Add everything together, and he had a total of 2,611 hits, including 449 doubles, 78 triples and 433 home runs. Those numbers do not count the winter ball statistics he had while playing in Panama, either.
The 38 home runs that Roberts hit for Oklahoma City in 1965 remains a franchise record. In 2012, The Oklahoman caught up with Roberts, who by then was living in Fort Worth. He reported that his health was good, but “I’m walking with a cane right now because I had both of my hips replaced in May. But I’m getting around. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to bounce back from things like this.”
Roberts had a career in child care development after his retirement from baseball. He didn’t seem to have much ill will toward his short major-league career. “Those teams had some ‘bonus players’ who could really hit the ball all over the place,” Roberts told Scott Munn of The Oklahoman. “They would want to play them, so they would send me back to the minors.”
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