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Padres legend Colbert recalls Jackie moment

Padres legend Colbert recalls Jackie moment

Padres legend Colbert recalls Jackie moment
SAN DIEGO -- Before Nate Colbert became the Padres' career home run leader, before he made his Major League debut, heck, even before he signed his first contract, Colbert had a brush with Jackie Robinson as a 10-year-old on a day that forever changed him.

Colbert, who hit 163 of his 173 career home runs in six seasons with the Padres, grew up in St. Louis and often attended Cardinals games at the old Busch Stadium. One such game came in 1956, which happened to be Robinson's last season in the Major Leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"I was sitting in the outfield bleachers with my little brother, Jackie," Colbert said. "And Jackie [Robinson] was out in the outfield before the game shagging fly balls. I called him over and asked him if I could have his autograph. He told me to toss him my glove and he ran to the dugout to get a pen and then signed it for me."

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That's not all. When the game started, the 37-year-old Robinson, playing in a lineup that included Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella and Gil Hodges, took his spot at second base -- with Colbert's glove on his left hand.

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With Colbert clinging to Robinson's game-used glove in the center fielder bleachers, Jackie Robinson, the man responsible for breaking baseball's color barrier, actually used Colbert's glove during a game against Stan Musial and the Cardinals.

"On one play, Jackie dove for a ball and made a throw from his knees to get the out at first base," Colbert said. "He stood up, turned around toward the bleachers where we were and waved it [glove] in the air. Me and my friends couldn't believe it.

"That meant a lot to me."

Is it any wonder Colbert gravitated toward baseball?

Eight years after that meeting with Robinson, Colbert signed a professional contract with his hometown Cardinals. He was selected in the 1965 Rule 5 Draft by the Astros and made his Major League debut one year later. He spent most of the next three seasons in the Minor Leagues.

"When I was with the Astros, we had a lot of talent in the Minor Leagues, John Mayberry, Bob Watson ... a lot of guys at the positions I played," said Colbert, who early in his career played all over the field, but was primarily a first baseman.

"When the expansion draft [in 1968] came around, I knew right away I wanted to go to San Diego more than anything," Colbert said. "I had played in the other expansion cities [Kansas City and Seattle], but I hadn't played in Montreal. I had played in San Diego before and thought it was a wonderful city."

With the 18th pick, the Padres selected Colbert, a selection that proved to be more than fruitful over the next six seasons.

"He was our first superstar," said Padres Hall of Fame broadcaster Jerry Coleman, who started calling games for the team in 1972.

Colbert, who turned 66 on April 6, blossomed with the Padres. He was a three-time All-Star (1971-73) and was second in the National League in home runs (38) and third in extra-base hits (67) in 1972.

"We had needs. Probably the biggest need we had was the closer," Colbert said of those early Padres teams. "We might have lost 30 to 40 games when were leading going into the eighth inning. What we needed was a Trevor Hoffman."

They had Colbert's bat, which kept them in a lot of games. The highlight of Colbert's career occurred on Aug. 1, 1972, when he hit five home runs and drove in 13 runs in a doubleheader on the road against the Braves.

Not a bad day of work, especially when you consider he contemplated not playing.

"I had a bad back, but my manager, Don Zimmer, said that this [Atlanta Stadium] was the launching pad. I took 10 swings in batting practice and hit 10 out, seven fair and three foul. When I hit them, I hit them in bunches. I was in the middle of a hot streak at that time."

Colbert has been in Las Vegas off and on since 1996 but kept a home in San Diego until 2005. He still makes appearances in San Diego on occasion.

As for still being the club's career home run leader, Colbert said longevity plays a big role in that. Adrian Gonzalez hit 161 with the team but was traded after the 2010 season.

"I was sure Adrian was going to break it," he said.

Given the spacious dimensions of Petco Park and an era in which players more frequently move from team to team -- not to mention that the Padres' active home run leader is Chase Headley with 37 -- Colbert's record is safe for a while.

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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