Curt Roberts is merely a footnote in baseball history. Maybe not even that. A lightweight second baseman by any measure, the 5-foot-8, 165-pound native of Pineland, Texas, hit .223 in 171 Major League games. He homered once in 575 at-bats. No reason to be remembered at all. Yet every reason to be remembered with honor. On a brisk April 13, 1954 afternoon, in the first Opening Day hosted in Forbes Field by a Pittsburgh team that traditionally began seasons on the road, Roberts became the Pirates' first African-American player.
Before the top of the first, Roberts emerged from the dugout and sprinted out to second base. In the bottom of the first, he batted second. Just as had Jackie Robinson, thus retracing the historic steps more faithfully than anyone else who had come in-between. However, that's not the reason for exalting Roberts. Not even for the fact his steps were arranged by Branch Rickey, the inspiration behind Robinson who had singled out Roberts for the identical set of qualities: Tolerant attitude, competitive demeanor, admirable baseball skills.
Nor for Roberts having set the stage for greatness in his own footsteps; he's the one who was replaced at second by Bill Mazeroski. Roberts, as a matter of fact, wore the same No. 9 uniform retired decades later in honor of Maz.But the reason we lionize Roberts is this: He failed. Roberts humanized the ongoing integration of baseball by thrashing the perception that African-Americans had to be superstars to find a place in a big league world of white bench players. He was a flop. Yet the tide of integration continued to roll across the Major League landscape, with healthier expectations. Roberts was the Majors' ninth color-line-breaking player. Four predecessors went on to Hall of Fame careers -- Robinson (Dodgers), Larry Doby (Indians), Monte Irvin (Giants) and Ernie Banks (Cubs). The other four who came prior to Roberts also became distinguished big leaguers. Hank Thompson (Browns) put up a .289/20/91 card in his third season. Sam Jethroe (Braves) led the Majors in stolen bases each of his first two seasons. Minnie Minoso (White Sox) batted .298 through a 17-year career. Bob Trice (A's) pitched eight complete games as a rookie. Roberts? He hit .232 in 1954, his only full season, then had a combined total of only 79 more at-bats the next two, his last in the Majors. Pioneering underachievement certainly was not part of Rickey's grand design when The Mahatma, who became the Bucs' GM upon his 1950 departure from the Dodgers, signed Roberts out of the Class A Western League in the 1953-54 offseason. Roberts had been a Western League All-Star, the natural progression following four years of stardom for the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs -- the same fabled club which had propelled Robinson toward his legacy, and had been the crucible of so many other legendary Major League careers. Prior to following Robinson's path, Roberts had paved his own for others to follow. Kansas City had signed him out of McClymonds High School in his adopted hometown of Oakland -- which would subsequently graduate the likes of Frank Robinson, Curt Flood and Vada Pinson. When Roberts broke camp with the Pirates in 1954, he faced daunting odds as a rookie. Not many players, then or now, get jumped from A-ball to the bigs. The doormat Pirates had nothing to lose with the gambit, having lost 104 games the season before and a total of 402 the previous four seasons. Roberts' debut could not have been grander. In his first at-bat, he pushed a triple to right field off namesake Robin Roberts, starting the Pirates to a 4-2 victory over the Phillies' future Hall of Fame right-hander. In a nice bit of trivia, only one of Roberts' eight predecessors across the color line had also collected a hit in his first game. Jethroe had gone 2-for-4 on April 18, 1950, against the Giants. From there, it went quickly downhill for Roberts, who by 1955 survived on the big league roster only two weeks into April. But don't confuse his production with his contribution, which remained immense. In his brief '55 tenure in Pittsburgh, the fluent-Spanish-speaking Roberts played a major role in easing the Major League transition of a Puerto Rican kid the Pirates had plucked from the Dodgers in the previous December's Rule 5 Draft -- Roberto Clemente. And then, he was gone, playing the last of his 171 big league games on June 8, 1956, remaining a productive Minor Leaguer into the early '60s. Typical of his contradictory career, Roberts came up with a four-homer game -- a total he topped in only four of his 13 professional seasons -- while playing for Triple-A Columbus later in the 1956 season. Roberts' life, as his Major League career, was all too brief. After his playing days ended, he worked campus security for the University of California at Berkeley. He was changing a flat tire on an Oakland freeway when he was fatally struck by another car on November 14, 1969 -- a couple of months past his 40th birthday. Then, he was really gone. But never to be forgotten. A few years ago, a newly renovated youth league diamond in Pineland was christened Curt Roberts Field.