January 10, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Nate Colbert, a former Montreal Expo and three-time National League All-Star, passed away on January 5 at the age of 76.
The San Diego Padres, whom Colbert enjoyed his most success with, shared the news of his death on social media on Thursday night. Colbert died at his home in Las Vegas with his wife Kasey and his children at his side. No cause of death was provided.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Padres Hall of Famer Nate Colbert,” said Padres chairman Peter Seidler in a statement. “Our hearts go out to his wife, Kasey, and the entire Colbert family at this very difficult time.
“An original member of the Padres in 1969, Nate was a trailblazer in the San Diego sports community. He was a three-time National League All-Star in brown and gold and became the Padres all-time home run king (163), a record that still stands today. 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.”
Most will recall Colbert as a fearsome slugger with the Padres, whose 149 home runs from the 1969 to 1973 seasons were the most by any major leaguer. But Canadian fans might remember him for his parts of two seasons with the Expos in 1975 and 1976 and his short stint with the Toronto Blue Jays in the spring of 1977.
Cito Gaston (left) with Nate Colbert in the San Diego Padres dugout. They played together for six seasons.
The menacing 6-foot-2, 210-pound Colbert also played six seasons with Cito Gaston on the Padres from 1969 to 1974. The two forged a fast friendship as road roommates.
Born in St. Louis, Mo., on April 9, 1946, Colbert went to Charles H. Sumner High School, which was located just north of Sportsman’s Park, home of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Colbert’s power was evident at an early age and his starring role on his high school squad landed him a contract with the Cardinals in 1964.
After starting his pro career in Rookie Ball that same year, he batted .274 with nine home runs in 81 games for the class-A Cedar Rapids Cardinals in 1965 before he was selected by the Houston Astros in the Rule 5 draft. Draft rules stipulated that the Astros had to carry the 21-year-old on their roster for the entire 1966 campaign. It was a wasted season for Colbert. He would have just seven at bats, while being used mostly as a pinch-runner.
In 1967, he was assigned to the Astros’ double-A Amarillo Sonics, where he broke out with a .293 batting average and hit 28 home runs in 120 games. He spent the bulk of the following season with the triple-A Oklahoma City 89ers, but was also promoted for 20 big league games. He failed, however, to impress the Astros enough to convince them to protect him in the National League Expansion Draft that October and the Padres chose him with the 18th pick.
Colbert became the Padres starting first baseman and his major league career took off. He would belt at least 20 home runs in each of the next five seasons. During that span, he was named to three National League All-Star teams and established the Pads’ home run record (163).
August 1, 1972 was his most memorable day in baseball. In leading the Padres to a doubleheader sweep of the Atlanta Braves, Colbert socked a record-tying five home runs (two in the first game and three in the second) and set major league records with 13 RBIs and 22 total bases. That performance was part of a season in which Colbert would club 38 home runs (second in the National League) and drive in 111 (fourth in the National League).
But Colbert was battling back woes and when his production dropped in 1974, his new manager John McNamara began platooning him at first base with Willie McCovey. Colbert was unhappy and asked to be traded, so the Padres dealt him to the Detroit Tigers for Ed Brinkman, Dick Sharon and Bob Strampe.
He struggled in Motown, batting just .147 with four home runs in 45 games before his contract was sold to the Expos on June 15, 1975. The Expos reportedly paid $80,000 for Colbert.
Colbert platooned with the left-handed hitting Mike Jorgensen at first base. In his first start with the Expos, Colbert had two doubles and scored the winning run in a 7-6 win over the New York Mets.
“I like the surroundings here very much,” Colbert told reporters after the game. “These guys are here to win.”
Unfortunately, that performance failed to translate into significant playing time. Expos manager Gene Mauch used him almost exclusively against left-handers or as a pinch hitter, so he never had an opportunity to get into a groove at the plate. But that’s not to say he didn’t have some big moments as an Expo.
On August 2, 1975, with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning at Jarry Park with two runners on and the Expos trailing the Phillies 3-1, Colbert was summoned to pinch-hit and promptly walloped the first pitch he saw from lefty Tom Underwood over the right-centre field fence for a three-run walk-off home run.
“I was just trying to hit it hard, and hit it straight away,” Colbert said of the home run after the game. “I wasn’t trying for a home run.”
Despite his heroics, Colbert didn’t find himself in the starting lineup until August 28 for a game against the Padres at San Diego Stadium. Colbert would homer in the second inning, single in the fifth and double in the sixth to propel the Expos to a 10-8 win.
Those two performances were just about the only highlights from his 38 games with the Expos in 1975 in which he hit .173. His dismal performance inspired him to play winter ball in Venezuela.
“I’ve got to play,” Colbert told The Montreal Star. “Evidently the reason I haven’t is they don’t think I can, I’ve got to prove it to them and to myself.”
After a successful winter ball season, a rejuvenated Colbert reported to Expos spring training. The Expos had fired Mauch and new dugout boss Karl Kuehl vowed to be open-minded about Colbert.
“Just because I didn’t produce for a couple of seasons and because I’m 30, there’s some people think I’m done,” Colbert told the Montreal Gazette. “That’s a lot of bull, Ain’t no way, I’m through. I just want playing time and a little patience. That’s all that’s on my mind, playing time and producing.”
But Colbert would have a rough start to the season. In April, his mother passed away and he had to leave the team. When he returned, he suffered from stomach pain so intense that he was taken to the hospital for treatment.
On April 28, he’d enjoy his last multi-hit game as an Expo when he homered and drove in three runs against the Astros in an 8-7 win. He was played sparingly in May and after the team acquired first baseman Andre Thornton from the Chicago Cubs, Colbert was released on June 2.
“In all fairness to Nate,” Kuehl told The Montreal Star, “he didn’t get a chance to get it going. He worked hard, he was good on the ball club. He was a victim of circumstance. I do feel bad about it.”
Seven days later, Colbert signed a minor league deal with the Oakland A’s and reported to the triple-A Tuscon Toros. He played two games with the A’s late in the season before becoming a free agent.
In early 1977, Colbert was still seeking a big league opportunity when Peter Bavasi, GM of the brand new Toronto Blue Jays, invited him to try out for the expansion club.
A confident Colbert arrived at Blue Jays camp in Dunedin, Fla., on March 2.
“I feel like I’m an old man with this team, but I still haven’t lost a thing at the plate,” Colbert told the Buffalo Evening News. “If I play full time, I know I’ll find the old groove again.”
But was he still capable of hitting 35 to 40 home runs in a season?
“Sure, I can do it,” Colbert told the Buffalo paper. “You know, (A’s owner Charlie) Finley cut me because he said I couldn’t hit the fastball anymore. That’s a lot of bunk. I make my living off the fastball. Don’t you worry. I’ll be back. You can count on it.”
Early in the spring, Colbert impressed the Blue Jays coaching staff. He was launching balls out of the park in batting practice and was helping the younger players.
“He’s been giving some good lessons to our younger players,” said Blue Jays hitting coach Bobby Doerr. “These ballplayers we have are so inexperienced, and they need to have someone like Nate around, who’s very patient and very anxious to help.”
When the Blue Jays played their first spring training game, against the New York Mets at Dunedin Stadium on March 11. 1977, Colbert batted cleanup, and he’d show flashes of his old self that spring.
On March 20, he went 3-for-4 with a home run, a triple and three RBIs. But he was struggling with off-speed pitches and on March 25, he was released.
Colbert then signed a minor league deal with the Phillies, but he retired before playing another game.
After hanging up his playing spikes, Colbert found his way back to the Padres organization to serve as a hitting coach for their class-A Riverside Red Wave. He also became an ordained minister and worked with disadvantaged children.
In recent years, Colbert made occasional appearances for the Padres.
“I never had a bad day in baseball,” Colbert once said. “It was, I woke up, I wanted to go to the ballpark. I liked playing every day. I didn’t need an off day. I played with a bad back, broken toe, fractured wrist, and concussion. I played. I just played, because I figured I’m going to hurt anyway, so I might as well play.”