These Men Changed Baseball: Curt Roberts
Returning to our long-paused series, it is time to turn to Curt Roberts, integrator of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Roberts fits into a trend that is hidden in the players already discussed. Certain teams jumped into integration: first the Dodgers, then the Indians, then the Giants and Braves. Everyone else trailed this group. Though the Browns were actually the third team to integrate, they quickly pulled back, and their team suffered accordingly. These four, though, did more than just integrate for themselves. The Dodgers, for example, signed Sam Jethroe originally, before trading him to the Braves where he would integrate that team. Similarly, the Braves jumped on a young amateur second baseman named Curt Roberts, later trading him to the Pirates. Roberts, then, and the Pirates as an organization, followed in the footsteps of those teams that had already blazed the trail.
Roberts was born on August 16, 1929 in Pineland, Texas. Like most African-American baseball players from that part of the world, his career started with the Kansas City Monarchs. He came up in 1947 and played with the team through the 1950 season. After that year, he was signed by the Braves and assigned to Denver of the Western League. He was traded to the Pirates in 1952 and broke in with the big club in 1954. On April 13, 1954, the Pirates broke in their new second basemen against the still lily-white Phillies. In his first at-bat, Roberts tripled off future Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts. For the game he went 1-for-3. It was the highlight of his major league career.
From that game on, Roberts appears to be a fairly standard poor hitting middle infielder. In his rookie year, he hit .232 with 1 home run and a 62 OPS+. In the next two seasons, he played in 37 total games, being replaced in 1956 by a new rookie second baseman named Bill Mazeroski. After the year, the Pirates traded him to the New York Yankees’ farm team, the Kansas City A’s. The A’s sent him to the minors, then traded him to the big league club after the 1957 season. He could not break in with the Yankees either, and he disappeared to the Pacific Coast League for the rest of his career. He died at age 40, getting hit by a car.
Why does Roberts matter? Three reasons: First, he came first. Surely other people could have integrated the Pirates, but they did not. Roberts did, and he deserves to be remembered for that point alone. Second, Roberts, like Bob Trice with the A’s, helped proved that marginal major leaguers come in all shapes and colors. The superstars were important in showing that blacks could play with whites; marginal players were important in showing that blacks were not supermen. In the end integration only works when two groups of humans come together. Roberts inability to hit, when paired with the spectacular talent of fellow second baseman Jackie Robinson, gave African-Americans the full range of humanity. Third, Roberts was a fluent Spanish speaker. This, in and of itself, seems unremarkable. But in 1955, the Pirates were breaking in a rookie right fielder from Puerto Rico named Roberto Clemente. Roberts was considered instrumental in his transition to the major leagues.
Put all of that last paragraph together and you have a player deserving of remembrance. Sadly, Roberts, like the other non-Hall of Famers of the integrators has been forgotten. Hopefully, people can notice this series and remember the important trail-blazing done by Curt Roberts.