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Curt Roberts: The Man Responsible for Breaking the Pirates’ Color Barrier

Brett Barnett

Charles Harris, Getty Images

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier by becoming the first black player to suit up on a big league field. It was a massive milestone for race relations, the country at large, and certainly baseball.

Robinson paved the way for so many others whom we’ve come to know, love, respect, and admire. Robinson was the one who opened the door for the product on the field to become so much better. It can’t be overstated how large Robinson looms in baseball lore.

Of course, even once he got to the Dodgers, Robinson had a steep hill to climb, not only on the field, but off it, as well. Even as we push forward 73 years later, there’s still a major and legitimate question of race relations and issues in the United States. But perhaps the stories of Robinson, and the lesser known Curt Roberts, the first black Pittsburgh Pirates’ player, can signify the unity in humanity, and how we’d all be better off to listen to others’ stories, and to better understand one another.

Because when we are on each other’s side, humankind’s “ceiling” is only a recommendation; our potential and possibilities are endless.

Roberts was born August 16, 1929, just over three weeks before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which catapulted the nation into the Great Depression. He was born in Pineland, Texas, but was raised mostly in Oakland, California.

A McClymonds High School attendee in West Oakland, Roberts was the predecessor of several significant sports figures in history, including Bill Russell and Frank Robinson, as noted by The Mercury News.

Roberts began his professional career with the well-known Negro League club, the Kansas City Monarchs, whose alumni include Robinson, Buck O’Neil, and Satchel Paige, the latter of whom was one of his teammates.

Roberts spent time in Kansas City between 1947 and 1950 before signing with the Boston Braves in 1951. He was sent to report to the Denver Bears, the Braves’ minor league affiliate housed in the Western League. Then, before the 1952 season, the Bears became a Pirates’ affiliate, illuminating the path for Roberts’ eventual ascension into the major leagues.

According to a 1987 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Ed Bouchette wrote that prior to the 1954 season, local black communities in Pittsburgh began to put pressure on the Pirates to integrate the team’s roster. At the time, the man who originally catalyzed integration into Major League Baseball, Branch Rickey, was the Pirates’ general manager.

The community’s call to integrate was heeded by Rickey, and on April 13, 1954, Roberts made his debut at Forbes Field, in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Baseball Reference indicates that Roberts went 1-for-3 in that game with a triple. The Pirates would win, 4-2.

Bouchette also mentioned in the Gazette article that Rickey gave a speech to Roberts similar to what he gave to Robinson seven years prior. He told Roberts that he would need an even temper in order to succeed because he’s bound to face racial abuse from the crowds. Rickey would also say later that he thought Roberts was a good candidate to break the Pirates’ barrier because of his skills and calm demeanor.

Roberts played in parts of three seasons with the Pirates, with the most playing time coming in his first season. He was a career .223/.299/.301 hitter in the major leagues. He was touted for his defense while it was acknowledged that his bat would struggle. But Roberts finished each season with a fielding percentage below league average.

After baseball, Roberts was a security guard at the University of California, Berkeley. He was also married and had six children. But tragedy was to befall Roberts. In Oakland, while changing a flat tire on the side of the highway, Roberts was hit and killed by a drunk driver. He was 40.

Not only did he break the barrier for the Pirates, Roberts served as a mentor to a young, up-and-coming outfielder by the name of Roberto Clemente. He helped Clemente navigate a game of baseball that was predominantly white, something Clemente wasn’t used to even after his time in the Dodgers’ minor league system, where many of the players were black or Hispanic.

Certainly Roberts’ value came from so much more than just his playing ability; it came from what he accomplished by virtue of rising to the major leagues and breaking the color barrier for the Pirates’ organization. Much more important than his statistical value was his human value, and as with all of the other players who assisted in changing the landscape of baseball, should be recognized for that achievement.

To leave, I wanted to list the black players who broke the barrier for each organization by year prior to the 1961 expansion. These are names that should be remembered:

  1. Brooklyn Dodgers (April 15, 1947): Jackie Robinson
  2. Cleveland Indians (July 5, 1947): Larry Doby
  3. St. Louis Browns (July 17, 1947): Hank Thompson
  4. New York Giants (July 8, 1949): Hank Thompson and Monte Irvin
  5. Boston Braves (April 18, 1950): Sam Jethroe
  6. Chicago White Sox (May 1, 1951): Minnie Miñoso
  7. Philadelphia Athletics (September 13, 1953): Bob Trice
  8. Chicago Cubs (September 17, 1953): Ernie Banks
  9. Pittsburgh Pirates (April 13, 1954): Curt Roberts
  10. St. Louis Cardinals (April 13, 1954): Tom Alston
  11. Cincinnati Reds (April 17, 1954): Nino Escalera and Chuck Harmon
  12. Washington Senators (September 6, 1954): Carlos Paula
  13. New York Yankees (April 14, 1955): Elston Howard
  14. Philadelphia Phillies (April 22, 1957): John Kennedy
  15. Detroit Tigers (June 6, 1958): Ozzie Virgil, Sr.
  16. Boston Red Sox (July 21, 1959): Pumpsie Green