This story begins on May 1, 1954. A little over two weeks into the season, the National League was bunched up, with nobody making a strong early run. The New York Giants were in St. Louis for an early season double header. They were not prepared for what the Cardinals would unleash on them. Or, more specifically, a Cardinal.
May 1, 1954
The Cardinals would get out to a quick lead in the first game, helped by a Stan Musial solo home run in the third inning. The Giants would roar back, taking a 5-4 lead of their own on back to back home runs to start the fifth inning. The lead would not last long when Stan Musial answered with his second home run of the game – this time a 2 run shot. Later that inning, one of the best nicknames in baseball, Peanuts Lowrey, would pinch hit for Cardinals starter, Gerry Staley.
Al Brazle would take over for Staley, but would also be unable to hold the lead. With the game tied at six, the outcome of the first game would be determined when Stan Musial steps up to the plate in the 8th inning with 2 on and nobody out. Musial hits a three run homer, to give the Cardinals a 9-6 lead. The Cardinals would tack on another run, but it was Musial’s blasts that made this game so special.
Stan would go a perfect 4-4 with a walk, three home runs and 6 RBIs.
Oh wait, there is still another game to be played.
That one would not be so kind to the Cardinals. Joe Presko and two relievers gave up 8 runs in the top of the 4th inning, and the Giants would win the game easily. The 9 Giants runs are not the story here, it is the 7 runs the Cardinals would put up.
Trailing 8-3 in the fifth inning, Red Schoendienst would lead off the inning with a triple. Stan Musial would follow that with a 2 run homer, his fourth on the day. His RBI total is now 8. He is not done. Leading off the seventh inning, Musial would hit his second home run of the day off Hoyt Wilhelm, establishing a new major league record of five home runs on the day.
Sitting somewhere in Sportsman’s Park that day was an 8 year old with a dream to play in the major leagues. That little slugger was Nate Colbert. Little did he, or anybody else in attendance know, 18 years later, Colbert would match one of those records and shatter the other.
Off to Houston via Rule 5
That youngster watching Stan Musial put his name in the record book grew up to be a big strong first baseman/outfielder. He would be drafted by his hometown team, the Cardinals, in 1964 where he would start his professional career playing in the Rookie League in Sarasota, alongside future MLBers Gaylen Pitts and Sal Campisi. Colbert would spend 1965 in Cedar Rapids where he would hit a respectable .274 with 7 doubles, 2 triples and 9 home runs.
Following Colbert’s solid season in A-ball, his career would take an unexpected turn when he was selected by the Houston Astros in the Rule 5 draft. The Rule 5 draft was first introduced in 1959 and was intended to replace parts of the “bonus baby” rules that came into play when a team signed a prospect to a large initial contract.
The Rule 5 draft takes place in December, and it allows teams to select a player from another team’s farm system that is not protected by being on the 40 man roster. The drafting team must pay the original team a fee, now at $50,000. There is a catch, and it comes from the “bonus baby” legacy: the drafting team must keep the player on the major league active roster for the entire following season. After that, the new team controls the player’s contract and can option them back to the minors. If the drafting team does not keep the player on the active 25 man roster, the player must be offered back to the original team for half of the Rule 5 fee.
As it so often happens, that just took place in St. Louis.
Last December, the Washington Nationals drafted right handed pitcher, Brian Broderick (11-2, 2.77 ERA, 2 complete games, 1 shutout) from Springfield(AA). After a few appearances out of their bullpen in 2011, the Nationals decided not to keep Broderick on their active roster. Since they could not option him to AAA, they had to offer him back to the Cardinals, and the team gladly paid the $25,000 to get him back.
The situation was much different in 1965 when Houston drafted Nate Colbert. Teams carried fewer pitchers, and as a result, they could hold on to an infrequently used bench player longer than teams do today. Add in that Houston was still in building mode after entering the National League in 1962 as an expansion team and you have all of the ingredients to a successful Rule 5 pickup.
The 20 year old Nate Colbert would join the Houston Astros for the 1966 season. As expected, he was used infrequently – mostly as a pinch runner. Following the 1966 season, he would be optioned to AA to play with the Amarillo Sonics, where he would light up the Texas League with a .289 batting average, 28 home runs, 67 RBIs and 26 stolen bases. That prompted a late season promotion to Oklahoma City (AAA) where he would spend most of 1968.
Drafted Again ?
After a short injury call-up in July 1968, and a longer look in September, the Houston Astros lost their Rule 5 draftee when the San Diego Padres selected Colbert in the 1969 Expansion Draft.
It was in San Diego that Colbert would experience his best years in major leagues. In those 6 years, he would hit .253 with 163 home runs and 481 RBIs. A bunch of those would come on August 1, 1972.
August 1, 1972
The 6th place Padres would face the 4th place Atlanta Braves for a double header to start the month of August. Although the Braves had managed to stay close to .500, neither team had any hopes of catching the Cincinnati Reds on their first of five NL West titles over the next 8 seasons. That didn’t mean that they couldn’t still play some meaningful baseball.
The first game of this doubleheader was a curious one. Clay Kirby of the Padres would pitch a gem, where Ron Schueler of the Braves didn’t even make it out of the third inning. The scoring would be one sided, and the runs would come in bunches. And always when Nate Colbert came up to bat.
With one out in the top of the first, back to back walks to Dave Roberts and Larry Stahl led to the first of Colbert’s blasts. This one was a three run homer, and it gave the Padres all the runs they would need to win this game. But Colbert was far from done.
Roberts and Stahl would get on base again to start the third inning. This time it was some small ball from the bat of Nate Colbert, as the slugging first baseman hits a single, scoring Roberts. That’s four RBIs.
Colbert would hit a solo home run off Mike McQueen in the seventh inning, giving him 2 on the day to go along with five RBIs.
All in all, a good day for Colbert. Then came Game Two.
Like the first one, game two was a total slugfest, and also pretty one-sided. A late inning rally by the Braves makes this game look a lot closer than it was. It was all Padres, and pretty much all Nate Colbert.
With the Padres leading 2-0, Colbert would come up to bat in the second inning with the bases loaded. Pat Jarvis, from Carlyle Illinois, would make a mistake to the the Padres cleanup hitter, and cleanup is exactly what Colbert did. A grand slam homer, his third on the day, and RBIs six, seven, eight and nine. That blast broke the game open for San Diego, but more importantly, those RBIs tied Stan Musial from 18 years ago.
After a ground out in the fifth inning, Colbert came up to bat with one man on in the seventh. He would hit his fourth home run on the day, extending his single day RBI total to 11.
With two men out in the ninth inning, Nate Colbert comes up to the plate with Larry Stahl on first base again. He takes Cecil Upshaw for another 2 run homer, his fifth on the day. That would tie Stan Musial’s record from 1954. It would also give him 13 RBIs in the doubleheader, establishing a major league record that still stands today.
There are still two more St. Louis tie-ins to this Nate Colbert story, but it will require looking ahead 21 years, to September 7, 1993.
September 7, 1993
The Cardinals would visit Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati for a late season showdown between two teams that were well out of contention. The small crowd that witnessed this Tuesday night doubleheader saw one of the most entertaining games of the season, if not the decade.
The first game was a wild one, with a capital W. The Cardinals would use 21 players and the Reds would counter with 20 of their own. 41 of the 50 eligible players would see action in this game, and surprisingly, it would finish in regulation. The Reds would win the game, 14-13, thanks to a pair of runs in the bottom of the ninth on a Reggie Sanders triple that center fielder Mark Whitten misplayed. Perhaps driven by that poor defensive play, Mark Whitten would go on to have a legendary second game, but before we look at that one, there is one plate appearance in game one that needs some attention.
That at-bat would take place in the top of the 8th inning. Trailing 9-6, the Cardinals had roared back against Reds reliever, Scott Service. Rob Dibble had come into the game and gave up the tying run on a single by Gregg Jefferies. He would then walk the bases loaded, before turning the game over to Scott Ruskin. The first batter he would face is Mark Whitten. Ruskin walks Whitten, forcing in the go-ahead run. Even though Whitten would be hit-less in the game, that RBI would soon be very significant. Not to the outcome of the game, but to writer of the major league record books.
While Whitten went 0-4 in the first game, he would demolish the Reds in the second. Cincinnati starter, Larry Luebbers, would be Whitten’s first victim, and it would come in the first inning. With bases loaded and two out, Whitten hits a grand slam to give the Cardinals a 4-0 lead. As with Nate Colbert in 1972, that would be enough runs to win the game, but Whitten was only getting started.
In the third inning, Luebbers would do what no other Reds pitcher could do in game two, retire the Cardinals slugger. He would get Whitten to pop out to third base.
Mark Whitten would face Cincinnati reliever, Mark Anderson in both the sixth and seventh innings. Both times, Todd Zeile and Gerald Perry would be on base. And both times, Whitten would hit a home run. That would give Whitten three homers on the day, and 11 RBIs. With any luck, he would have one more chance to tie, or perhaps even break the single day record for RBIs.
That chance came in the ninth inning. With Gerald Perry on base, Whitten hit a Rob Dibble pitch deep into the dark Cincinnati sky. It cleared the outfield wall by inches, but by doing so, it game Whitten 13 RBIs on the day, tying the major league record, set by St. Louisan, Nate Colbert, back in 1972. The four home runs in a single game also tied a major league record, held by many players.
No Thanks to Gilkey
There is one more St. Louis aspect to this game, and it requires a second look at the seventh inning of Game Two to find it. It turns out that some exceptional hustle on the part of Bernard Gilkey, also a native of St. Louis, cost Mark Whitten the single day RBI record.
With two outs in the seventh, Bernard Gilkey starts the Cardinals rally with a single. Todd Zeile follows that with a single, but Zeile pulls the ball into left field so Gilkey could not advance to third base. It is the Gerald Perry infield single that alters baseball history. The play was very close at first base, and the Reds were not paying attention to Gilkey who they thought had only advanced to third on the play. When he rounded third base, he never stopped running, and scored when the Reds hesitated. Gilkey’s hustle was the right play, but it also cost Whitten a 14th RBI when moments later, he hit a second home run of Mark Anderson.
Nate Colbert and Stan Musial’s record of five home runs in a double header still stand today. Colbert and Mark Whitten’s 13 runs batted in for a double header also stands as a major league record. Whitten’s 12 RBIs in a single game also ties him for the major league record, shared with yet another Cardinal: Jim Bottomley on September 16, 1924.