Any player/Any era: Nate Colbert

What he did: Colbert hit 173 home runs in a 10-year career and was often the best player on historically bad teams. In perhaps his best season in 1972, Colbert had 38 home runs and 111 RBI for a San Diego Padres club that was a National League worst 58-95. Those Padres hit .227 as a team, had a .283 on-base percentage and scored 488 runs. I wrote here in a post last Friday that Colbert had a hand in 32.78 percent of San Diego’s runs in 1972.

Baseball was and is a team sport, and in order to thrive, players generally need help. Babe Ruth had Lou Gehrig and others, Willie Mays had Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda, and in recent years, Barry Bonds did a lot of his best work with Matt Williams or Jeff Kent batting near him. It’s one reason lone wolves like Colbert and Wally Berger intrigue me. If Colbert had the talent to put up good numbers with almost no help, just imagine what he might have accomplished with a solid supporting cast.

Era he might have thrived in: I played around with the stat converter for Colbert’s career numbers on and found his totals would have spiked on the Philadelphia Athletics, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees powerhouses of the 1920s and ’30s. For our purposes, let’s suspend disbelief about how the color of Colbert’s skin as an African American would have kept him from the majors. On the 1929 A’s, Colbert might have soared to spectacular heights.

Why: That Philadelphia club won 104 games, beat the Chicago Cubs in five games in the World Series, and was chronicled in an August 1996 cover story in Sports Illustrated as “The Team That Time Forgot.” The story suggested that those A’s, not the 1927 Yankees were the greatest team of all-time. I’m not sure if I believe that, but I think Colbert may have done his greatest work in Philadelphia.

Other teams in history scored more runs than the 901 that the 1929 A’s had, such as the 1931 Yankees who scored 1,067, but Colbert would have been in the same batting lineup with the A’s as Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx and Al Simmons. And unlike Boston and New York, which had unfriendly confines for a right-handed hitter like Colbert, the A’s home, Shibe Park, boasted a 312-foot left field short porch from 1926 until 1930.

The stat converter has Colbert from 1972 leading the 1929 A’s with 47 home runs and also racking up 160 RBI and a .296 batting average. My guess is that Colbert would have finished with better than 50 home runs and a .300 batting average if he’d learned to take advantage of that short porch. There’s no telling what his presence in the lineup could have done for Foxx and Simmons who each hit better than .350 with 30-plus home runs, surrounded by a couple of outfielders remembered today only by baseball history buffs.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides the one he played in.

4 Replies to “Any player/Any era: Nate Colbert”

  1. Messing with the stat converter, Colbert’s numbers for 1972 went to 52 home runs, 185 RBI and a .314 batting average on the 1936 Red Sox, but I wanted to write about that 312-foot left field short porch at Shibe Park and have a chance to link to the Sports Illustrated piece, which has long deserved some mention here.

  2. Great piece!
    The thing people don’t recall is that even during those great seasons in which he was threatening Ruth and winning the triple crown, for some reason, Connie Mack still batted Jimmie Foxx fifth in his lineup.
    He may have been hitting sixth or seventh for all we know due to his “low average” and “high” strike out rate.

    1. I actually think Foxx would be an awesome fifth hitter, a power hitter with a .325 lifetime average, great speed (125 triples, 87 stolen bases) and a .428 career on-base percentage.

      A 3-4-5 of Cochrane, Simmons and Foxx sounds pretty menacing. Colbert would be great sixth, or fifth if Foxx was moved to second to take advantage of his high OBP.

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