Nate Colbert was the Padres first star. I was not lucky enough to see him play, but his numbers tell the story. After struggling in just a handful of games with the Houston Astros, Colbert was picked in the expansion draft by the San Diego Padres. In his first year with the Padres, Colbert hit .255/.322/.482 with 24 home runs. He was an instant hit. In his career with the Padres, Colbert hit .253/.331/.469, clubbed 163 home runs, and accumulated 15.3 WAR in his 6 seasons with San Diego.
Colbert wasn’t in the opening day lineup. He wasn’t in the second game lineup. He wasn’t even in the third game lineup. But he made his first appearance with San Diego in game two of their inaugural season on April 9, 1969 as a pinch runner for Bill Davis. In the bottom of the sixth, Bill Davis singled with two outs. Colbert was called upon to pinch run, but he never got a chance to show much in that game as the very next batter grounded to second.
Colbert would soon see his first at-bat as a Padre. In game three of the series, a series that featured Colbert’s former team interestingly enough, the six-foot-two, power hitting righty stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth after replacing Bill Davis at first base. With the Padres winning 2-0, Colbert swung hard and made contact. Unfortunately, it was a simple pop-up to Astros first baseman Curt Blefary.
It took the Padres some time to realize what they had in Colbert. He didn’t make his first start until the fourth game of the season – the fourth game in franchise history – against the San Francisco Giants. The Giants had moved out west 11 years prior and still featured one of the game’s most feared hitters: Willie Mays. Mays did what he did best. He hit. He went 2-for-4 with a walk and three runs scored. He also hit a fourth inning home run to give the Giants a 4-0 lead. Colbert, on the other hand struggled.
In four plate appearances, Colbert grounded out, walked, and struck out twice. He also made a fielding error in the seventh. It was a tough day for the future star. In fact, the entire start to the season was a struggle for Nate Colbert. He was playing in a new city, with a new team, and trying to understand what being a Padre in 1969 meant. The city of San Diego was welcoming, but the league was not. The Padres struggled after taking two of three games from the Houston Astros. It’s not hard to imagine those struggles carried over to members of the team, especially a player who was still trying to make a name for himself in the big leagues.
It was still early in the season, but Colbert had just four hits as the Padres entered play on April 24, 1969. In 15 games, Colbert didn’t get much opportunity because he was failing much more than an every day player should. He still had to prove himself. If any player was due, it was him. The Sporting News captures the moment Colbert broke through in vivid detail:
“In the eighth ining in Houston’s Astrodome, the 23-year old draftee from the Astros walked up to the plate with the score tied, 1-1, and with Padres on first and second.
Colbert dug in against Houston reliever Jack Billingham after being “knocked down,” and slammed a pitch into the left field seats for the first home run of his major league career.
The blow not only won the game for the Padres, 4-1, but most important to Colber, it pulled him out of a slump and started him on a hitting spree that was to win him the regular first base job.”
Colbert never looked back from that moment on, hitting 23 more home runs that year alone. Perhaps the brush back pitch from Billingham was what it took. Competitive men often need something to ignite them. They often need someone to light the fuse. But when that fuse lights, anyone on the receiving end better watch out, because more often than not, the person doing the brushing back is going to get brushed back himself. That’s exactly what happened on that momentous day in late April of 1969.
Nate Colbert’s power took hold and sent Bill Davis to the pine. Davis appeared in just 31 games that season and never played baseball again after 1969. Colbert, however, went on to be a three-time All-Star with the Padres, played ten seasons in the Majors, and hit 173 home runs. But it was that day in Houston that ignited a run that saw Colbert hit 14 or more home runs in six straight seasons. It was that day that eventually led to Colbert’s most famed day in his career when he smacked five home runs over the course of a double-header on August 1, 1972.
Without the Padres and their expansion draft, we may never have seen Nate Colbert. Without Jack Billingham and his “knock down” pitch, Colbert may never have earned to right to start at first base for the Padres. 1969 was a special time for San Diego, and it was a special time for Nate Colbert.
Special thanks to Retrosheet for providing the boxscores used in this piece.