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Mudville: April 11, 2021 7:50 am PDT
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The Original Slam Daddy

That the Padres have become one of the most talked-about teams in baseball this spring has fans in San Diego conjuring up images of a division title, post-season play and possibly a World Series berth. The Slam Diego vibe has engulfed the southern California city with Fernando Tatis, Jr., Manny Machado, Wil Myers and Eric Hosmer leading the way.

There was a time, however, in the organization’s infancy that one player epitomized that Slam Diego vibe as well as any of the aforementioned stars. Nate Colbert was the Padres first true superstar. The slugging first baseman/outfielder, who finished eighth in the 1972 National League MVP voting, shares a Major League record with Hall-of-Famer Stan Musial and will forever be linked with the Padres despite playing for four other teams in a 10-year career cut short by back and vision problems.

Colbert, 74, is living a quiet life with his large, extended family in Las Vegas. It’s a long way from being the splashy home-run hitter who terrorized National League pitching in the early 70s. While Colbert’s health never truly allowed the St. Louis native to achieve the kind of success many envisioned for him, he remains San Diego’s all-time career home run leader [163] while holding the fifth and sixth spots on the single-season home-run list [he hit 38 in 1970 and 1972, respectively].

The 6-foot-2 right-handed slugger was a staple in San Diego’s lineup between 1969 and 1974, averaging nearly 600 plate appearances a season during that stretch.

“I was with them [the Padres] six years and I can honestly say that I didn’t take any days off,” Colbert said. “I gave them everything I had every day. I played with the kind of injuries that most players right now would be on the DL with whether it was a broken toe, a fractured finger, wrist injuries or a bad back. I played because that’s what we did. I left it all on the table and you can never say I didn’t hustle or give it my all.

“I was feeling pretty confident. I had no idea I was going to have that kind of a day. I remember where all five balls went. I kind of put it in my memory bank. When I hit my fifth, I didn’t even realize it until someone said you hit five in a doubleheader.”

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS

Colbert was a prep star in St. Louis and a huge fan of his hometown team, particularly Musial, in the late 50s and early 60s. He attended 40 or so games each year at the old Busch Stadium on Grand Avenue. There were not many televised games and with the Yankees or Dodgers dominating the national game of the week on Saturdays, the only way to see his team and his hero was to do so in person.

So when he had the chance to sign with St. Louis as a free agent in 1964 – the year before the MLB First-Year Player Draft was introduced and the same year the Cards would win the World Series – Colbert didn’t give it in a second thought. He wowed the club in a tryout at Busch Stadium and signed for a reported $20,000. He was assigned to The Sarasota Rookie League, where he hit .217 with a pair of homers and 13 RBIs in 45 games.

“The Cardinals were a great organization,” Colbert said. “I went to Spring Training the year after the Cards won in ’64 and there was [Bob] Gibson, [Curt] Flood and [Lou] Brock. They were all there and it was awesome.

“I was only with the Cardinals for the one Spring Training that Musial came [1965]. I had done a lot of things with the Cards before that, in high school and had went through tryout camps and stuff like that. He knew I was a big fan.”

Colbert advanced to Cedar Rapids of the Class-A Midwest League in 1965 and, with a year of pro ball on his resume, showed more of the ability that initially got him noticed. He hit .274 with nine homers and 45 RBIs in 81 games and even stole 14 bases before a fractured hand cut his season short. He then hit .309 in 45 Instructional League games that fall, adding another homer and 17 more RBI.

His dream of playing for his hometown team was shattered that November, though, when the Cardinals left him exposed in the Rule 5 Draft. He was taken by Houston in the regular $25,000 Major League Selection portion of the draft. Because he was taken in the Major League Phase of the draft he had to stay on the Major League roster all season. The Astros could send him down but would risk losing him if they did.

The result was not pretty. Colbert appeared in 19 games, went hitless in seven at-bats and wasted what could have been a learning year.

“Houston had a lot of talent at the time at the positions I played,” Colbert said. “They just came up with John Mayberry, Rich Chiles, Denny Walton, these were all great players and they didn’t know what to do with them. But that particular year, I tore it up in instructs.”

Colbert hit .287 with nine homers and 32 RBIs in 42 Instructional League games. He then played Winter Ball and went into 1967 with a renewed sense of confidence. The Astros sent him to Amarillo of the Double-A Texas League and he tore up the circuit, hitting .293 with 67 RBIs. He led the league in homers [28] and stolen bases [26] and took home MVP honors.

While 1968 appeared to loom brightly on the horizon, a broken hand limited Colbert to 92 games with Oklahoma City of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He did get a pair of call-ups, one in mid-season and the other in September, but was unimpressive in both stints, hitting .151 with four RBI. The Astros, seeing what they thought they didn’t have in Colbert, left him unprotected in the 1968 expansion draft and San Diego chose him with the 18th overall pick.

“I was told they left me open because they were planning on drawing me right back if I wasn’t selected,” Colbert said. “Fortunately I wasn’t and I got a chance to play in the Majors.”

PADRE COLBERT

Colbert began the 1969 season in a fashion similar to the one in which he closed out 1968. He was hitting .211 through 12 games before going 2-for-3 on April 24 at Houston. He hit his first career homer [a game-winner off Jack Billingham] and drove in three runs to kick off what would be an 11-game hitting streak, during which he would raise his average to .333. Colbert hit five homers [including homers in three consecutive games to begin the streak] and drove in 14 runs during the streak.

He continued to be the darling of San Diego through mid-June. Colbert collected the first of six career grand slams on May 25th against the Cubs and had his first multi-homer game on June 1 at Montreal. Colbert, however, joined the National Guard for mandatory service during the second week of the month and by the time he returned to the lineup full-time at the end of the month, his early-season mojo had disappeared.

Colbert’s batting average bottomed out at .246 on Sept. 4 before a strong month pushed him back up to .255 by season’s end. He had 24 homers and 66 RBIs as San Diego [52-110] finished last in the National League West.

“People liked us in ’69 but we didn’t draw,” Colbert said. “We had no name players and if we did, we would trade them because we needed bodies. We had Ollie Brown and Dick Selma and we traded them. We had Al McBean, our star reliever, and they traded him. We needed bodies.”

The Padres [63-99] improved slightly in 1970 though they finished last once again in the West and in the National League in terms of attendance. Colbert, however, blossomed, connecting for 38 homers and 86 RBIs though much of his damage came on the road, where he hit .302 with 22 homers, 47 RBIs and a .970 OPS. Home, however, continued to be a problem. He hit .215 with a .720 OPS at San Diego Stadium and finished third overall in the NL with a career-worst 150 strikeouts.

The stadium would prove to be the least of his worries, though, in 1971. His chronic back issues [a degenerative condition in his vertebrae], which had plagued him since birth, hampered him that spring. Still, he battled through and finished the season with career bests in hits [149] and batting average [.264] while shaving 31 strikeouts off his previous season’s total. His 27 homers were a drop off as were his 84 RBIs but the decline wasn’t enough to prevent him from earning the first of three consecutive All-Star berths.

It also all set the stage for what would be a monstrous 1972 season, a campaign that cemented his place among the Friar faithful.

ONE SPECIAL SEASON

Colbert’s 1972 season remains special in the history of the San Diego franchise. He finished eighth in the MVP voting after setting career highs in homers [38], RBIs [111], runs [87], OPS [.841], stolen bases [15] and plate appearances [643].

“The ball looked bigger than a basketball all year,” Colbert said. “Whenever we got a guy on second, I’d drive him in. I might only get one hit in a game but I would drive someone in with it. The guys played real well in front of me; they hustled when they were on base and I have to give them a lot of the credit.

“We had John Jeter, who was one of the fastest guys to ever play. I’d hit a long single somewhere and he would score from first. That’s how they played for me.”

The season started two weeks late because of a players strike and Colbert seemed ill-prepared for April, hitting .237 with four homers and nine RBIs. His year would change, though, when the calendar turned to May and the Padres went on an East Coast swing through New York, Philadelphia and Montreal. Colbert exploded on the first seven games of the trip, hitting five homers and driving in 12, raising his average to .266 in the process.

The stretch would mark a seesaw run for Colbert, who would see his average drop to .194 on June 15 before another power outburst put him back near the top of the NL production leaders. That run garnered him a place on the All-Star team. He would go on to score the winning run in the 10th inning of the All-Star Game in Atlanta, catapulting him to a big month while setting the setting stage for a his career day, which took place back in Atlanta on Aug. 1.

Colbert was leading the Major Leagues with 25 homers by Aug. 1 but admits that he was not physically ready to play in the doubleheader that day against the Braves.

“That was one of the worst days I ever felt physically,” Colbert said. “My back was bad and when I first stepped out of bed, I thought I was going to fall. I had therapy when I got to the park and [manager Don] Zimmer said take batting practice and see how you feel. I took 10 swings and hit all 10 out of the park, seven fair and three foul.”

His pre-game effort left little doubt as to whether he would play and once the twin bill began, Colbert was unstoppable. He went 7-for-9 with five home runs and 13 RBIs while setting a Major League record for total bases [22] in a doubleheader.

What made the day even more special was the fact that he equaled the mark set by Musial in a 1954 doubleheader for which Colbert was in attendance. Colbert went 4-for-5 with two homers and five RBIs in the opener before going 3-for-4 with eight RBIs in the nightcap.

“After the first game Zimmer said something to me about sitting [in the second game] but I said I’m in there,” Colbert said. “I was feeling pretty confident. I had no idea I was going to have that kind of a day. I remember where all five balls went. I kind of put it in my memory bank. When I hit my fifth, I didn’t even realize it until someone said you hit five in a doubleheader.

“I got five homers off five different pitchers. Four of them came on the first pitch and one was on the second pitch. I saw six pitches and hit five home runs. I hit one to the very top deck in Atlanta. It was the best ball I ever hit, right down the line. I should have had six. I hit another one but the umpire called it foul. Later he said it was a misstep on his part and that would have been six. He said it was twilight so he wasn’t sure.”

The 13 RBI were the most ever in a doubleheader, breaking the record [11] that was first set by Cleveland’s Hall-of-Fame outfielder Earl Averill [1930], then equaled by Boston Red Sox Jim Tabor [1939] and Baltimore’s Boog Powell [1966].

“Musial knew how I felt about him and afterwards he told me it [tying the record] had to be you,” Colbert said.

Colbert finished the year second only to Hall-of-Famer Johnny Bench [40] in homers while finishing fourth to Bench [125], Chicago’s Billy Williams [122] and Pittsburgh’s Willie Stargell [112] in RBIs. He also set a Major League record by accounting for 22.75 percent of San Diego’s runs. The previous mark was set by Wally Berger, who drove in 22.61 percent of the Boston Braves’ run in 1930

LEAVING SAN DIEGO, ON PAPER AND IN REALITY

The uncertainty surrounding the Padres swirled in 1973 and that spring it seemed like a forgone conclusion that the club would be playing elsewhere in 1974. Still, Colbert had a solid year, hitting a career-best .270 though his power numbers [22 HR, 80 RBI], dropped dramatically.

The Padres averaged 59 wins a year through their first five seasons and not even Colbert’s power or All-Star presence could change the fact that they were a terrible organization from top to bottom. So, it was not surprising that the Associated Press reported on May 27, 1973 that a group of Washington businessmen had purchased the club for $12 million and would be moving the team across country for the 1974 season. The new ownership group ultimately couldn’t complete the deal, though, and Ray Kroc, he of McDonald’s fame, stepped in, bought the team for $12 million and kept it in San Diego.

One of the oddities surrounding the Padres during the spring of 1974 was that the sale to a DC businessman was one of the worst kept secrets in the game. So much so that the Topps baseball card company printed a 15-card subset in 1974 that featured 13 players, a team picture and a manager card that featured players depicted as playing for Washington “Nat’L LEA.” The set, of which Colbert [card No. 125] was a part, became a collector’s item when production was stopped following the announcement that Kroc had bought the team.

“I was actually kind of excited about playing in D.C.,” Colbert said. “Some of the people in D.C. had already offered me off-season jobs, a Cadillac, a place to live, it was kind of exciting. I wanted to stay, too, because I had a home in San Diego. It sounded like a unique situation but when it fell through, I was just fine. I do have quite a few of those baseball cards.”

Finding himself on an error baseball card proved to be one of the highlights for Colbert in 1974. His health continued to deteriorate, he clashed with new manager John McNamara and he had a hard time dealing with the move to left field after the Padres acquired future Hall-of-Famer and former MVP Willie McCovey to play first base.

Colbert appeared in 79 games at first base and 48 in left field but his 368 at-bats, 14 homers, 54 RBIs and .207 batting average were all low points of his time in San Diego. The result was an off-season trade to Detroit. He was purchased by the Expos midway through 1975 and released almost a year later. Colbert signed on with Oakland but appeared in only two games, spending most of the year in the Pacific Coast League.

The once-feared slugger appeared in 99 games over his final two Major League seasons, hitting 10 homers and driving in 35 runs. Colbert picked up the final hit of his career on May 2 in Cincinnati in what was his 999th career game. His final Major League appearance was Oct. 1, 1976 when he went 0-for-1 with an intentional walk against the Angels in Oakland.

“After 1974 I had a really bad back and it just started to give out,” Colbert said. “It turns out that I didn’t know I had vision problems, too. I had glaucoma and didn’t know it but that’s why I was having trouble seeing the ball. The doctor told me I had unusual pressure in my eye and attributed it to glaucoma.

“Between that and the back, it made it real hard to play. I had to change my style of hitting. I had to hit more straight up. I couldn’t turn in pitches. I couldn’t hit the ball out of the park. I couldn’t use my legs because my back was so bad. When I was younger a doctor told me if I even make it to the majors it would be a gift. I got 10 years in the big leagues, though, so I thought that was pretty good.”

Colbert finished his 10-year career with 173 homers, 520 RBIs and a .243 batting average. He had some of his greatest success against a pair of 300-game winners, combining to hit 12 homers while knocking in 22 runs against Don Sutton and Tom Seaver. He also hit .625 [10-for-16] against Selma.

“I can’t say I was cheated or imagine what would have been because it didn’t happen,” Colbert said. “I think I gave it my all. What I got is what happened. You can’t say things like if I had been healthy because you don’t know. If I played in the park where they [the Padres] play now, I know I would have hit more home runs. Sad Diego had a 20-foot wall and I hit a lot of line drives that hit that wall.”

Colbert is retired now and says he’s just enjoying his family, which includes 30 grand-children, 21 great- grand-children and one great-great grand-child.

While his overall career numbers may seem a bit pedestrian, they can’t hide the fact that he was the Padres’ first full-fledged slugger and the original Slam Diego superstar.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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