In the first few years of Padres history, the team struggled to win games. Like all expansion clubs before them, the Padres were filled with players at the end of their careers, or with young players who hadn’t panned out with other clubs. One of the first true Padres stars came from another former expansion club, the Houston Astros/Colt 45’s and that player was Nate Colbert. Nate was originally an undrafted free-agent by his hometown St. Louis Cardinals, but was selected in the rule 5 draft on November 29th, 1965 by the Houston Astros. Nate was called up a couple of times by the Astros, but the only thing he seemed to do was excel at striking out. When the MLB expansion draft came about in 1969, the Padres liked Nate enough to draft him in the 18th round and Nate took advantage of his playing time. He hit 24 home runs with a .255 average playing 1/2 his games in pitcher friendly San Diego Stadium. Over the next 4 years, Nate would develop into one of the games most feared power hitter hitting 38 home runs in 1970 and 1972. A congenital back problem cut short his career at the age of 30, but Nate left his stamp in Padres history and to this day is their all-time home run leader. Not bad for a former rule 5 draft pick and expansion draft choice. Nate is now enjoying retirement in Las Vegas, but he still keeps up with baseball. We had the honor of speaking to the Padres all-time home run king by phone. We hope all Padres fans enjoy hearing from our first superstar – Nate Colbert.
Padres360: Okay. And this is Padres 360 and we are talking today with former Padre Nate Colbert. And Nate, I’d really like to thank you for taking the opportunity to talk to us and talk to the fans out there.
Nate: Well, it’s my pleasure. I enjoyed my time at San Diego. I grew up in San Diego, so it was really a wonderful time for me.
Padres360: Well, what is your very first memory of baseball?
Nate: Well, as a kid I always, I just loved baseball. My father played. My family played. You know, my father played in the Negro Leagues.
Padres360: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Nate: Yeah. And so, I just grew up with baseball. I remember one of my fondest memories was playing catch with my dad.
Padres360: That’s the classic memory I think that every kid has, was playing catch with his dad in their backyard or the front yard and everything.
Padres360: So, did you play Little League Baseball? How did you get into your career, eventual career of playing ball?
Nate: Well, in St. Louis the leagues there at the time were not affiliated with Little League Baseball. But they had a guy named George Khoury and he started up Khoury League. And I played that. I played there all the way up to high school. And so, I loved it. And I was a little bigger than a lot of the kids, so baseball, it became easy to me. So, I just played it day and night, often as I could.
Padres360: Well, who is your favorite player when you were growing up? Who did you really look up to and admire?
Nate: Stan Musial.
Padres360: It had to be. [Chuckles]
Nate: Stan Musial. And I know one of your questions was what was it like being at the stadium. I remember when he hit all five of his home runs. And I was just eight, but I was a Stan Musial fan. And after I hit my five, Stan came to San Diego and congratulated me and presented me with the plaque at the ball club, which was just completely awesome.
Padres360: Well, what are your memories, since you’re mentioning that, what are your memories of that day? Because I remember the story, there was a book that’s written called ‘Strange But True Baseball Stories’ and they actually mention that whole story about Musial and you being there at the ballpark and then you eventually hitting the five home runs as well. Take me back, you as a kid, going to that doubleheader and seeing all of that happen.
Nate: Well, back then they’d always play doubleheaders on Sunday. And I remember the first inning, he hit a line drive into the stands that was a little short. And then [he hit one on top of the borough. And then he hit one out in right, center. Then he hit an opposite field home run. And then he hit number five. He hit it out on Grand Avenue.
Nate: And I thought that was awesome and I was there. I was also there when Ernie Banks his fifth career grand slam in one year, because I was always at the ballpark.
Padres360: You regularly attended Cardinal games then?
Nate: Every game, just about.
Padres360: Oh, man. So, your love affair with baseball started real early.
Nate: Yeah, it was. They always had a real nice thing, that after the bottom of the fifth, they used to open the gates and you could come in free. So, I’d be hovering around there.
Padres360: [Chuckles] That’s the way to go.
Padres360: Did you ever meet Stan when you were a kid, or any of the Cardinal players?
Nate: Oh, that’s okay. Yes, I did. I waited outside one night and I followed Stan to his car. And everybody had left and he… it was time to go and he says, “Can I do this some other time?” and I said, “Well, you know, I’ve been trying to get your autograph for [a number of days]. And he says, “I apologize.” He said, “Don’t ever do what I just did.” And I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “Well, you’re a ball fan.” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “You going to play in the big leagues?” I said, “Yes sir, I am.” He said, “Well, let me tell you this. Whenever you give somebody your autograph, you be nice to them because you won’t remember it, but they will.” And that has stuck with me all the way through.
Padres360: Well, that’s a really good trait, because today it doesn’t seem like a lot of players hold to that anymore.
Nate: Well, with the way things are and people pushing, sometimes you just want to sign and get out. But I treat every one of them just like Stan treated me that night. I got time for them.
Padres360: Well, that is really, really good. Let’s go back to when you were first drafted by the Padres in expansion draft. And I know you were an undrafted free agent with St. Louis. And then you moved on to Houston via the Rule 5.
Padres360: So then, ’69 comes around and the Padres take you in the expansion draft. Let’s go over a little bit of the first few years. What was it like playing with an expansion club and what are some of your really good memories of the time?
Nate: Well, they didn’t have ESPN. So, when they had the expansion draft I had no way of checking to see if I had been drafted. So, I stayed up and I kept calling the newspaper. I was in Oklahoma City. And they said, “Well, we’ve got nothing yet.” And I was like, “Oh, come on.” So, the next morning, Eddie Leishman from the Padres called me to welcome me to the San Diego Padres. And I just let out a yell because I wanted to go to the San Diego Padres. And so, the first spring training was really a unique experience, because I was with 30 or more players, most of whom I did not know. We were trying to form a Major League team. We showered in a city gym, in a recreation center. And our ball field was a high school baseball field.
Padres360: Oh, okay.
Nate: And so, we survived but then went to San Diego Stadium, which was a beautiful stadium. Big, but beautiful. And just playing there, I kept saying, “It’s the big leagues. It’s the big leagues.” You know, I know we don’t have a lot fans or a lot of money, but this is Major League Baseball. This is my goal.
Padres360: And you really put up some good numbers playing, especially in very much a pitcher’s park at that time, because it was a pretty good poke to hit it out of the original San Diego Stadium.
Nate: It was, it was. Whitey Wietelmann one of our coaches drew an imaginary line on his scorebook on what the dimensions were in most of the other ballparks. And then he took where I hit every ball and he said every year routinely, I would hit 15 to 20 balls that would be off the walls, on the warning track in deep center. That would have been home runs in another ballpark. So, the first year, I hit 38 home runs, he’d say I either hit the wall or the warning track 23 additional times.
Nate: So he said, that would have been 61 home runs if you hit the ball the same way in a regular park. But you know, I kept saying, “Major League. You play the game with Aaron, Mays, McCovey, Stargell, Clemente. It was awesome. It was just awesome.
Padres360: I can’t even imagine, the era to have had the opportunity to have played with those guys. And I love the fact of hearing how appreciative you are of being part of that time.
Nate: Well, when I made the 1971 All Star team in Detroit, I just heard it on TV recently that 21, I think of those players are in the hall of fame now. So, I got to play with that. I was like, “Wow.” That was really amazing. I never had a bad day in baseball. It was, I woke up, I wanted to go to the ballpark. I liked playing every day. I didn’t need an off day. I played with a bad back, broken toe, fractured wrist, and concussion. I played. I just played, because I figured I’m going to hurt anyway, so I might as well play.
Padres360: Well, looking back over your time with the Padres, who were some of your favorite guys on the team? Either people you hung out with or just guys that you really admired and respected.
Nate: Well, my roommate was Cito Gaston. He was my best friend and he still is today. Of course Ollie Brown. And then when McCovey came, that was incredible, to play with Willie McCovey. I was like, “Now, this is too much.” [Chuckles]
Padres360: Oh, stretch, yeah.
Nate: Yeah, we had a lot of players that I was close to. Dick Selma, Gary Ross, Clay Kirby, Enzo Hernández, these guys. It was just great. Chris Cannizzaro. I love Chris Cannizzaro. We still are tight today.
Padres360: Oh, I was going to say one person I know that really spoke highly of you is Randy Jones.
Nate: When did you talk to him last.
Padres360: Well, Randy appears a lot here in San Diego. If anything, he’s really I would say the ambassador for the Padres.
Padres360: And we spent some time with him at spring training along with Dave Freisleben. And both he and his wife spoke very highly of you and your wife, talked about the fact that you helped him learn how to become a major leaguer.
Nate: Oh, that’s… You know, he would visit my house all the time. I’d be at his. I’m godparent of both of his daughters. And he’s godfather to my oldest son. So, that’s kept us very close.
Padres360: Well, he’s a good man.
Nate: He is.
Padres360: He’s a really good guy. And the Padres are really blessed to have him in the organization and still being involved and doing stuff. So, one last question and I’d like to, like I said, once again, I really, I want to thank you Nate. This is truly a treat for me. I was a little guy watching you hit bombs at the San Diego Stadium. What advice would you give to current Minor League players coming up through the system?
Nate: Well, my advice is just to listen, learn, watch, receive instruction but realize that probably 70% or more of what you become is going to be because of your own hard work. They can only show you the road, but you have to travel it. And players want to take a quick way. They want to hit home runs. And you need to learn the game, learn how to hit to all fields, and learn how to hit with two strikes, and what’s the situation? And just learn the game. Observe, watch. I used to hang around Mays and McCovey and Aaron and I’d watch them. And I’d see what they did. And it helped me a lot. What were they thinking? Joe Morgan was a good teacher for me. He’s a few years older than me.
Padres360: And you played with him in Houston. Yeah, he was in the system.
Nate: Yeah. He was… it was Houston and he was a student of the game and he simplified it. And things like that really helped me in the game. I don’t think the younger players are fans of the game. I think you need to be a fan and find somebody that you could pattern your style. Derek Jeter is a great example. He plays. He doesn’t cause any trouble. He understands the game and he loves to play.
Padres360: Well, Nate I want to thank you so much for your time. Is there anything you’d like to say or shout out to Padre fans out there that will eventually read this.
Nate: Well, I just… Growing up basically in San Diego, I would say a long time, I’m in Las Vegas now, but I love my hometown, San Diego. And I love those fans. They were always good to me. I had hoped that with the transition to the new ownership that they would have some things for me to do within the organization. But they have not reached out in that regard. But you know, I’m a little older now. The things that I want to do has somewhat changed. But my love for San Diego has not changed. So, the fans can know that I’m always, always, always pulling for good things to happen to San Diego.
Padres360: Do you keep up with the club then?
Nate: Not as much as I used to. I do follow them as we get the games out here on TV out here. We get them a lot. So, we get to see them. I didn’t know who they are.
Padres360: Thank you for your time Nate.
Nate: My pleasure.