RIP to slugger Nate Colbert, who became one of the first stars of the Padres franchise and is still the team’s all-time home run leader. He died on January 5 at the age of 76. According to a family statement, he died in his home in Las Vegas, surrounded by his wife Kasey and their children. Colbert played for the Houston Astros (1966, 1968), San Diego Padres (1969-1974), Detroit Tigers (1975), Montreal Expos (1975-76) and Oakland Athletics (1976).
Nathan Colbert was born in St. Louis on April 9, 1946. He grew up as a Cardinals fan, as you would expect, and he said that he was in the stands of Busch Stadium on May 2, 1954, when Stan Musial hit a major-league record 5 home runs in a doubleheader against the New York Giants. In 1971, Colbert would match that feat, and they are the only two people in baseball history who can lay claim to homering five times in one day.
Colbert was a top ballplayer in St. Louis, where he attended Charles Sumner High School and also played ball for the Knights of the St. Louis Municipal Baseball Association. The Knights won the league championship in 1963, and Colbert was one of six players on the team named to the St. Louis Argus All-Star team. He spent a year as a halfback in high school, but after suffering a knee injury, he decided to stick to baseball. Colbert graduated from Sumner in 1964 and was a Second Team first baseman on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Metropolitan All-Star high school team. The Cardinals signed him following graduation and assigned him to their instructional team in Sarasota. Colbert, at 18 years old, had not developed the power that he would later show as a major-league All-Star. In his first taste of pro ball in 1964, he hit .217 with 2 home runs. He showed more power (9 homers) and a better average (.274) for the Cedar Rapids Cardinals of the Midwest League in 1965, despite missing time with a broken hand. However, he was left unprotected by St. Louis in the 1965 November minor-league draft and was claimed by the Houston Astros.
Colbert had to stay with the Astros for the entire season as a result of being a Rule V draft pick. Houston had a young team, as regulars Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, Sonny Jackson and Jim Wynn were all under 25 years old. But Colbert was one of the youngest players on the team, just five days past his 20th birthday, when he debuted as a pinch-runner on April 14. Colbert appeared in a total of 19 games for Houston and was hitless in 7 at-bats, with 4 strikeouts. He didn’t get a major-league hit or appear on defense until 1968. By then, he had established some solid credentials as a good prospect. He clobbered 28 home runs for Double-A Amarillo in 1967 and added 14 homers for Triple-A Oklahoma City in 1968. He joined the Astros for stints in July and September. He made his first major-league start on July 1, in right field against Cincinnati. He was 1-for-5 with a single off Jim Maloney and a run scored. Manager Harry Walker didn’t use him regularly, and Colbert had sat around on the Astros bench for long enough.
“I know it’s tough to break in, but the best way is for somebody to tell you, ‘Okay, get in and play,” Colbert said in July, just before he was returned to the minors. “Maybe I’ll have a chance with an expansion club next year.”
That’s exactly what happened, actually. Colbert had 8 hits with the Astros in 1968 for a .151 batting average and was left unprotected in the expansion draft that brought the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos into the National League. He was taken by the Padres and made the team out of spring training as a backup first baseman to starter Bill Davis. Davis, who had come from the Cleveland organization, failed to hit early on, and Colbert was given some starts in late April. He started against the Houston Astros on April 23 and 24 and found himself ducking away from high, inside fastballs. Colbert had already broken his hands twice in the minors after being hit by inside pitches, and he didn’t appreciate the treatment. On April 24, in the midst of a 1-1 game, Colbert hit the ground after a brushback pitch from pitcher Jack Billingham and belted the next pitch out of the park for a tie-breaking 3-run homer. It was his first major-league round-tripper, and it gave his new team a 4-1 win over his old one.
“It was real nice hitting that homer, especially after they knocked me down so many times,” Colbert said after the game. His 2-for-4 performance kicked off an 11-game hitting streak, in which he hit 5 home runs. Colbert stayed in the starting lineup and finished the year with a .255/.322/.482 slash line, with 20 doubles, 9 triples, 24 home runs and 66 runs driven in.
Colbert said a spring training tip that helped his hitting came from an unlikely source: umpire Doug Harvey. “The tip from Harvey was more like a joke. I didn’t have a real good spring. He said I was standing too close to the plate, and most of the balls I hit weren’t going far,” he explained. “I did move a little bit away from the plate and it actually did help me. I began to see the ball a little better and got in a groove.”
Colbert was a streaky hitter, but he never had the chance with Houston to stay in the lineup long enough to show his abilities. The Padres gave him time to ride through the hot streaks and cold streaks, and he ended up as one of the team’s top offensive weapons. The Padres, like most expansions teams, were terrible and finished their first season with 110 losses. They would remain bad for the length of Colbert’s time there, but he still appreciated the opportunities that came with being an expansion ballclub.
“With an expansion team, you get to play. They’re patient with you. An established club pushes you in the spotlight and says, ‘Hurry up and show us what you can do.’ You go zero-for-4, you sit down,” Colbert told syndicated columnist Jim Murray.
Colbert hit 38 home runs in 1970, which was a career-high and remains sixth-best all-time in Padres history, and he had 86 RBIs. He also had 150 strikeouts, which was third-most in the National League. But as baseball was entering an era of home runs, high strikeout totals weren’t frowned upon as much as they had been in the past. He lowered his strikeouts to 119 in 1971 while raising his batting average from .259 to .264. His home run numbers slipped to 27, but he remained the biggest power threat in the Padres lineup. He was also selected to the NL All-Star Team — the first of 3 straight seasons he would earn that honor. He struck out against Mike Cuellar in his only at-bat in the 1971 game.
Colbert struggled at the plate in 1972 but was named to the All-Star Team again, anyway. He walked against Dave McNally as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the tenth inning, was sacrificed to second base by Chris Speier and scored the winning run on a Joe Morgan single. Colbert hit just .233 in the first half, albeit with 22 home runs, and he carried that same batting average into a doubleheader against the Braves in Atlanta on August 1 — the day he put his name in the record book.
Colbert wasted no time, belting a 3-run home run off Atlanta starter Ron Schueler in the first inning of the first game. He added an RBI single in the top of the third inning, knocking Schueler out of the game. He singled off reliever Mike McQueen in the fourth inning and then homered off McQueen to lead off the top of the seventh inning. Only Atlanta’s George Stone was able to retire Colbert that game, with a strikeout looking in the ninth inning. Still, he was 4-for-5 with 5 RBIs and 3 runs scored, and he had another game to play. Atlanta’s second-game starter Tom Kelley walked Colbert in the first inning, but reliever Pat Jarvis had no place to put Colbert in the second, when he stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded. Of course, Colbert hit a grand slam to left field. Jarvis retired him on a grounder to third in the fourth inning, but Colbert came right back with a 2-run homer off Jim Hardin in the top of the seventh and another 2-run bomb off Cecil Upshaw in the ninth inning. All totaled, Colbert went 7-for-9 with 5 home runs, 7 runs scored and a record 13 runs driven in, though Mark Whiten of the Phillies tied it in 1993. Colbert also totaled a record 22 bases, eclipsing Musial’s mark on his five-homer day by 1.
Colbert warmed up at the plate over the final two months of the season, batting .281. He ended the year with a 15-game hitting streak that left him with a .250 batting average and 38 home runs, tying his career high. He also drove in 111 runs, the only time in his career he reached triple digits in RBI. Colbert finished eighth in the MVP voting, with good reason. Factor in his career highs with 15 stolen bases, 70 walks, and OPS+ of 145, it was Colbert’s best all-around season.
When Colbert rounded first base after his final home run on his record-setting day, he looked at second-base umpire Bruce Froemming and said, “I don’t believe this.” Froemming said, “I don’t believe it either.” But it wasn’t like Colbert was a moderate hitter who had a lucky day. At that age and stage of his career, he was hitting home runs at a pace that was close to or better than the likes of Hall of Famers Bench, Stargell and McCovey. Unfortunately, bad teams and injuries made 1972 his peak season instead of his breakout season.
Colbert hit a career-best .270 in 1973 and earned his final All-Star selection, though his power numbers dropped off to 22 homers. With very little production in the rest of the Padres lineup, pitchers were able to pitch around Colbert or throw him nothing but breaking balls. The whole Padres team was in a state of transition. Off the field, ownership signed a deal to move the ballclub to Washington D.C. — which obviously didn’t happen but threw the National League into turmoil. On the field, the Padres attempted to load their lineup with fading veterans like Willie McCovey, Glen Beckert and Matty Alou. The veterans didn’t help, as the 1974 Padres lost 102 games for another last-place finish in the NL West. It also resulted in the worst season of Colbert’s time in San Diego.
When the deal to acquire McCovey was made, Padres president Buzzie Bavasi called Colbert and asked if he could play 50 games in left field, to give the new arrival time at first base. “I told him I could play anywhere I wanted to play,” Colbert told columnist Larry Littlefield in December of 1973. “But I think it would be an injustice to ask a guy of McCovey’s caliber to play as few as 50 games next season.”
McCovey played in 128 games with the Padres and hit .253 with 22 homers. The Padres outfield was filled by newcomers Bobby Tolan and rookie Dave Winfield, as well as center fielder Johnny Grubb. There were few places for Colbert to play, and when he got off to a cold April (.156 batting average and 1 home run), the playing time decreased. He also had not played the outfield regularly since he was a minor leaguer, so he had to re-adjust to the position as well. He appeared in 119 games — the lowest total for his Padres career, and batted .207 with 14 home runs.
The Padres traded Colbert to Detroit in November of 1974 in a 3-team deal that saw San Diego land pitchers Bob Strampe from the Tigers and Rich Folkers, Alan Foster and Sonny Siebert from the St. Louis Cardinals. “Three of those pitchers we got ought to really help us. I mean, them,” Colbert said of the trade. He said he bore the Padres no hard feelings but added, “They put me out to pasture as if I couldn’t play any more. I intend to prove they are wrong.”
Braves star Henry Aaron predicted that Colbert would hit 40 home runs in the hitter-friendly Tiger Stadium. Unfortunately, his Tigers career lasted only for a half of a season and 45 games. Colbert homered in two of his first three starts, including a grand slam that beat the Yankees, but he went into a tailspin and never recovered. His batting average fell to .147, and the strikeouts piled up. He had 4 home runs with Detroit and 18 RBIs in those games. His morale fell apart as the boos and angry letters from fans increased, and Detroit manager Ralph Houk called it the worst slump he had seen in 40 years. Colbert said he was struggling to adjust to pitchers throwing him anything but fastballs. “I’ve been way ahead of the ball. I’ve been all out of whack and that’s why I look so bad up there.”
After being unable to work out a trade with any team, general manager Jim Campbell finally sold Colbert’s contract to Montreal for $75,000. He didn’t hit much better — a .173 average — but he homered 4 times in 38 games and was brought back in 1976 as a backup outfielder and first baseman. His time in Montreal ended on June 2, 1976. Colbert hit .200 in 14 games and was released in a roster crunch. The team had acquired Andre Thornton from the Chicago Cubs, and there was no room for Colbert after that transaction. He signed a minor-league deal with Oakland and spent most of the season with the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Tucson. He returned to the majors at the end of the season and was 0-for-5 with a walk and 3 strikeouts in 2 games. Colbert elected free agency in the offseason and spent the 1977 spring training with the Toronto Blue Jays, but he did not make the team. His career was over.
In 10 seasons, Colbert had a career slash line of .243/.322/.451. His 833 hits included 141 doubles, 25 triples and 173 home runs. He remains the Padres all-time home run leader with 163. Colbert also drove in 520 runs and scored 481 times. Though he was a big first baseman, and there were some complaints later in his career about his weight, he was about average defensively at first base. He had a lifetime OPS+ at 119, and Baseball Reference credits him with 14.4 Wins Above Replacement.
Colbert attributed the quick end of his career to the fact that pitchers just stopped throwing him fastballs. Another culprit is that Colbert was born with a degenerative back problem, and the pain began to bother him the longer his career went on. In fact, Colbert’s back was hurting so much that he almost was given a day off on the day he hit 5 homers in 1972. His sore back got worse and worse as his power numbers in San Diego began to decline, and it probably had as much to do with his career’s abrupt end as much as all the breaking pitches from opposing pitchers.
Colbert returned to California and became an ordained minister at the Cottage Christian Fellowship in Escondito. He wife, Kasey, was a minister as well. Colbert returned to baseball in 1983 as a hitting instructor in the Padres organization. “I’m going to be working with the young kids coming up,” he told The Los Angeles Times. “I want to work with the emotional side of baseball. Most kids can handle the physical part.”
Colbert’s desire to work on the emotional and mental well-being of people led to a role as a cha[plain and the Padres Community Relations Director. It was a position created for him by team president Ballard Smith and owner Joan Kroc. Colbert was heavily involved in youth sports and drug prevention, and he organized many fund-raisers for sports programs and drug counselling programs. His time with the Padres ended when he was indicted for bank fraud in 1990. Colbert pleaded guilty and sentenced to a year in prison in 1991; he served six months in a penitentiary in California. But as soon as he was able, he and Kasey started a new ministry, and he resumed his traveling baseball camp and youth clinics. Colbert spent some time as a manager in independent baseball leagues in the mid-’90s, but outside of that, he saved his coaching for American Legion teams. Colbert was inducted into the Padres Hall of Fame as a part of its inaugural class of 1999, along with former owner Ray Kroc and Cy Young pitcher Randy Jones.
“Nate was devoted to his community off the field as well, dedicating his time to disadvantaged youth through his ministry. He was a magnetic person who will be dearly missed,” said Padres chairman Peter Seidler in a statement.
For more information: San Diego Union-Tribune