Carlos Bernier (TRADING CARD DB)

April 22, 1953: Carlos Bernier breaks color line in debut with Pittsburgh Pirates

This article was written by John Fredland

Carlos Bernier (TRADING CARD DB)

Carlos Bernier’s game-changing speed fueled the native Puerto Rican’s rise through the minor leagues after Jackie Robinson integrated major-league baseball in 1947. Reaching the majors in 1953 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bernier’s debut as a pinch-hitter in a 4-2 loss to the New York Giants at Forbes Field on April 22 made him – in the eyes of some observers and historians – the first Black player in Pirates history.

Carlos Bernier Rodriguez was born in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, in 1927. By 1948 he was in the Class B Colonial League, in Port Chester, New York. The Pittsburgh Courier, an influential Black newspaper, chronicled his progress in its “What They Are Doing” feature, along with Black major leaguers like Robinson and Larry Doby.1

Bernier’s path accelerated after the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars, affiliated with Pittsburgh, selected him in the minor-league draft in December 1951.2 After appearing in several spring-training games with the Pirates in 1952,3 Bernier, an outfielder, sparked manager Fred Haney’s Stars to the PCL pennant, tying the league record for steals and earning top newcomer honors.4 The Black press continued to cover Bernier in the same manner as Black players from the 48 states; Pittsburgh Courier columnist Wendell Smith listed him among “top prospects under contract to major league clubs” in May 1952.5

After the 1952 season, the Pirates purchased Bernier from the Stars,6 and Haney came on board as Pittsburgh’s manager.7 A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from spring training in Havana in March 1953 alerted readers: “Bernier, the Puerta Rica [sic] speedster … may literally steal [his] way into the regular lineup, both literally and figuratively.”8

Bernier made Pittsburgh’s Opening Day roster, as the Pirates attempted to improve on their 42-win season in 1952, which had left them 54½ games behind Robinson’s pennant-winning Brooklyn Dodgers.9 Pittsburgh’s White writers referred to Bernier as “dark-skinned,”10 while the Pittsburgh Courier included him in its survey of “a stellar group of Negro rookies” with Jim Gilliam of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cuban-born Rubén Gómez of the Giants.11

Bernier was on the bench when the games began on April 14, sitting out the Pirates’ season-opening two-game series in Brooklyn,12 a freewheeling 14-12 home-opening win over the Philadelphia Phillies,13 and a snowy home loss to the Dodgers,14 with three postponements mixed in.15

The Giants followed Brooklyn to Forbes Field. Bernier did not play in the first game of the series, on April 21, and was not in the lineup a day later for the Pirates’ sixth game of 1953. 16

As Bernier watched from the dugout, the Giants scored in the first against lefty Paul LaPalme. With Davey Williams injured, New York manager Leo Durocher had shifted regular third baseman Daryl Spencer to second and started backup infielder Bobby Hofman at third.17

The right-handed-batting Hofman, in Williams’s regular leadoff spot, doubled inside the left-field line. After Whitey Lockman’s groundout advanced Hofman to third, Bobby Thomson – holding down center with Willie Mays away on military service18 – singled to left, driving in Hofman for a 1-0 Giants’ lead.

Hofman struck again in the third. With one out, he drove an inside pitch over the wire fence in left and into the Giants’ bullpen, increasing New York’s advantage to 2-0.19

Giants starter Jim Hearn entered the game the winner of 11 straight decisions against the Pirates, dating to a one-hit shutout in August 1950,20 a month after New York had obtained the former college basketball player off waivers from the St. Louis Cardinals and rejuvenated his career. In the early innings, Pittsburgh stirred mildly – the leadoff Pirate reached base in each of the first three innings, and Cal Abrams made it to third with one out in the first – but did not score.

Hearn then took control against a Pittsburgh lineup bound for last-place finishes in most major batting categories among NL teams. He retired 12 in a row and 15 of 16 after Abrams’ single to start the third, with Paul Smith’s seventh-inning walk on a 3-and-2 pitch the only blemish. Spencer backed Hearn with sharp defense at second, going far to his left for LaPalme’s fifth-inning grounder and throwing, off-balance, to Lockman at first for the out.21

LaPalme kept the Giants within reach; after Hofman’s homer in the third, two fifth-inning singles – including Hofman’s third hit of the night – were New York’s only hits through the seventh. But LaPalme walked Hearn to begin the eighth, the Giants’ first free pass of the game.

Directed to sacrifice, Hofman fell behind 0-and-2. The bunt sign was off on the third pitch, and Hofman crushed it over the scoreboard in left for a two-run homer, his fourth hit and second home run of the night, doubling his homer total for his previous 52 major-league games. The Giants’ lead was 4-0.

Hearn took a two-hit shutout into the bottom of the eighth. LaPalme’s spot was due first, and Haney called on Bernier for his major-league debut.22

Bernier set up in the right-handed batter’s box. Hearn’s high pitch struck him on the shoulder – one of only three hit batsmen for Hearn in 1953 – giving the Pirates a baserunner.

Abrams grounded to short. Alvin Dark threw to second, but Bernier beat the ball to the bag with “a great burst of speed” and “a grand slide,” the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph reported.23 The play was scored a hit.

Pete Castiglione followed with a tapper toward second; everyone was safe on Pittsburgh’s second infield hit in a row. The “quiet crowd staged a noisy scene,” according to the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph.24

Haney went to his bench again, sending up promising 23-year-old power hitter Frank Thomas for rookie center fielder Felipe Montemayor. Thomas swung and missed at a curve on the first pitch, then took a strike. Hearn’s next pitch was another curve, breaking six inches outside the strike zone; Thomas missed it for strike three.

Ralph Kiner’s lineout to center scored Bernier, cutting the Giants’ lead to 4-1. But Hearn closed out the inning when Haney’s third pinch-hitter of the frame, Johnny Lindell, hit into a force out.25

Bernier remained in the game in center in the ninth. The Giants drew back-to-back walks to begin the inning but did not score, primarily because Dark left second too early on a fly ball to right and was called out by umpire Bill Stewart.26 Stewart ejected Dark, then Durocher for arguing the call.

Attempting to close out another win against Pittsburgh, Hearn returned to the mound in the bottom of the ninth. But walks to Danny O’Connell and Dick Cole put the tying run at the plate with one out, with Bernier up again.

The Giants called on Hoyt Wilhelm, who had led the NL with 71 appearances – all in relief – and a 2.43 ERA as a rookie in 1952. Bernier grounded the 30-year-old knuckleballer’s pitch back to the mound; Wilhelm turned it into a force at second.

Abrams’ bloop single to center – giving him a three-hit game – scored O’Connell with Pittsburgh’s second run and moved Bernier to second, but Castiglione hit into a force for the final out.

Hearn’s 12th consecutive win over the Pirates and Hofman’s surprise power display received the biggest headlines afterward, but Bernier’s contributions also drew praise.

“Old time fans who saw Carlos Bernier in his dash to second in the exciting eighth inning were reminded of Max Carey and Kiki Cuyler, the old-time base thieves,” Charles J. Doyle asserted in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph.27

Bernier started his first major-league game the next day.28 Seven days later, on April 30, he robbed Chicago Cubs batters of three potential extra-base hits, tripled, and doubled home the tying run in the eighth inning as Pittsburgh rallied to beat the Cubs. “The lad from South of the Border [sic] disregards possible injury and gives the old college try to every play,” the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph observed.29 Two days after that, Bernier hit three triples, tying a major-league record.30

In late May, when the Dodgers were in Pittsburgh, Bernier represented the Pirates – alongside Jackie Robinson and fellow Black stars Joe Black and Roy Campanella – at Little League opening day ceremonies in the Hill District, the city’s oldest Black community.31

Bernier started regularly through July but appeared less often once his batting average fell below .220. He finished with a .213 average in 105 games. “He’s a first-year player, strange to the language, nervous in the big leagues,” Pirates general manager Branch Rickey said.32 “He simply needs orientation.”33

Bernier was in spring training with the Pirates in 1954 and 1955 but returned to Hollywood both times and never played in the majors again. Texas-born Curt Roberts joined Pittsburgh’s roster in 1954 and eventually gained mainstream recognition as the Pirates’ first Black player.34 Bernier died by suicide in Puerto Rico in 1989, his passing unreported in Pittsburgh newspapers and drawing little attention elsewhere.35 It was not until the twenty-first century that baseball historians began to recognize his pioneering role for Pittsburgh’s franchise – the first in a line of Black players central to the Pirates’ success in the 1960s and 1970s.36

 

Author’s Note

Roberts opened the 1954 season on the Pirates’ roster and made his major-league debut on Opening Day, starting at second base. Newspaper coverage was unequivocal about his distinction. “The Pirates have acquired their first Negro ballplayer,” the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph wrote.37 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette referred to Roberts as “the first Negro on a Pirate roster.”38 Even the Pittsburgh Courier, which had included Bernier among its lists of Black players, identified the Pirates, in an article by Bill Nunn Jr., as a team “using Negroes for the first time” in 1954.39

Roberts spent 1954 with the Pirates and played in a handful of games during the next two seasons. He died in an automobile accident in 1969. During the 1960s and 1970s, the question of who had integrated the Pirates appeared sporadically in local newspapers, usually prompted by a reader’s question to a columnist, with no consensus answer. Writers and readers cited Roberts,40 Sam Jethroe,41 and Felipe Montemayor42 as the first Black player on the Pirates; a 1975 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette trivia column claimed that Bernier was first.43

In May 1987, on the 40th anniversary of Robinson’s first game in Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a feature article on Roberts, asserting that he was the Pirates’ “first black ballplayer.”44 A sidebar, however, suggested Bernier was “[p]erhaps [the] Pirates first black player.”45 It presented former Pirates general manager Joe L. Brown’s view that Bernier was the first Black player for Pittsburgh, alongside claims from Nunn and Mal Goode, both veterans of the Pittsburgh Courier, that Roberts was the first.46

Subsequent work by SABR members Joe Guzzardi (a 2013 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) and Thomas Van Hyning (a presentation at SABR’s 2018 conference) took up the cause that Bernier, not Roberts, should be regarded as the Pirates’ first Black player.47 Nevertheless, Major League Baseball and the Baseball Hall of Fame continue to recognize Roberts as having integrated the Pirates.48

 

Acknowledgments

The author thanks Thomas Van Hyning, whose presentation at SABR48 in 2018 inspired him to learn more about Carlos Bernier’s life and career, for his insightful comments on an earlier version of this article. SABR member Gary Belleville’s review and comments were also helpful. The article was fact-checked by Stew Thornley and copyedited by Len Levin.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes below, the author relied on pertinent information from Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org, including the box scores. The author also reviewed game coverage in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Newsday, New York Daily News, New York Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Press, and Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph newspapers and Charles F. Faber’s Carlos Bernier biography, Gregory H. Wolf’s Jim Hearn biography, Rob Neyer’s Johnny Lindell biography, and C. Paul Rogers’s Davey Williams biography from SABR’s Baseball BioProject.

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PIT/PIT195304220.shtml

https://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1953/B04220PIT1953.htm

 

Notes

1 “What They Are Doing,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 17, 1948: 10.

2 “Bernier, Lorenzo, Bowden Drafted,” Tampa Morning Tribune, December 4, 1951: 17.

3 Newspaper coverage of an exhibition game between the Pirates and Cleveland Indians on March 20, 1952, observed, “[a] big Pittsburgh feature was the presence in the lineup of a brand new Puerto Rican outfielder – Senor [sic] Carlos Bernier, who can run like a deer but whose hitting skill is in doubt. … He had signed a Hollywood contract and if he shows as much class as he did last night he may be retained by the regular team after the season starts.” Charles J. Doyle, “Bucs Lose to Indians, Oppose Cubs Today,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, March 21, 1952: 24.

4 Dan Taylor, Lights, Camera, Fastball: How the Hollywood Stars Changed Baseball (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), 255-261.

5 Wendell Smith, “Wendell Smith’s Sports Beat,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 31, 1952: 14.

6 “Pirates Buy John Lindell, Carlos Bernier: Mangan’s Departure Cuts Roster to 37,” Pittsburgh Press, October 1, 1952: 34.

7 Billy Meyer, who had managed the Pirates since 1948, announced his resignation on September 27, 1952, the next-to-last day of the season. On December 11 Haney signed a contract to manage the Pirates in 1953. Lester J. Biederman, “Bill Meyer Resigns as Pirate Manager: Meyer’s Action Blamed on Health; He’ll Stay as ‘Trouble-Shooter,’” Pittsburgh Press, September 28, 1952: 39; Lester J. Biederman, “Yes, It’s Official: Haney to Suffer with Pirate Fans,” Pittsburgh Press, December 11, 1952: 46.

8 Al Abrams, “Sidelights on Sports,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 19, 1953: 16.

9 “The Pirates’ Roster for 1953,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 15, 1953: Souvenir Edition, 20.

10 Al Abrams, “Sidelights on Sports,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 20, 1953: 20.

11 “Bumper Crop of Rookies Await Major League Openers: Seven New Stars up for a Try,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 11, 1953: 15.

12 Jack Hernon, “Brooklyn’s Homers Rip Pirates, 8-5: Campanella, Snider Chase Dickson in Season Opener,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: April 15, 1953: 1; Jack Hernon, “Dodgers ‘Walk Over’ Pirates to Win, 4-2: Lindell Homers, Issues 10 Passes,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 16, 1953: 20.

13 Jack Hernon, “Bucs Warm up Crowd but Chill Phils, 14-12: 2 Scoring Sprees Mark Home Debut,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 17, 1953: 24.

14 Jack Hernon, “Kiner, Castiglione Homer, Bucs Lose, 12-4: Dodgers Get Hot in Snow and Cold,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 20, 1953: 24.

15 Jack Hernon, “Pirates, Phils Postpone Tilt; to Play Today,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 18, 1953: 12; Charles J. Doyle, “Bucs-Phils Snowed Out, Dodgers Next: Dickson Mound Choice for Series Opener,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, April 19, 1953: 4, 1; “Pirates Halted by Snow and Cold,” Pittsburgh Press, April 20, 1953: 18.

16 Jack Hernon, “Bucs Silence Giants Guns, 5 to 4: Friend Wins First Game on 7-Hitter,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 22, 1953: 22.

17 Williams, who had been plagued by back problems ever since an injury in a minor-league game in 1950, had injured his back trying to make a play on defense during the first game of the series in Pittsburgh. Hernon, “Bucs Silence Giants Guns, 5 to 4.” After missing one game, Williams returned to action as a pinch-hitter on April 23 and resumed his starting duties a day later.

18 Steven Treder, Forty Years a Giant: The Life of Horace Stoneham (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2021), 169.

19 In 1947 the Pirates had partitioned Forbes Field’s vast left field with a wire fence, running from the foul line to a light tower in left-center. The fence shortened the home-run distance in left field by 30 feet. When right-handed slugger Hank Greenberg joined Pittsburgh that year, the hitter-friendly modification became known as Greenberg Gardens. Greenberg Gardens was dismantled after the 1953 season, restoring Forbes Field to its original dimensions. Les Biederman, “Forbes Field Remodeling and Face-Lifting Cost $500,000: You Just Won’t Recognize the Place When Work Is Done,” Pittsburgh Press, March 30, 1947: 30; Joe Bradis, “Greensburg Gardens Discarded by Pirates,” Terre Haute (Indiana) Tribune-Star, February 28, 1954: 49.

20 Charles J. Doyle, “Hearn Muffles Pirates on Only One Hit: Dillinger, First up, Gets Only Safety,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, August 6, 1950: 3,1.

21 The Pirates protested that the throw had pulled Lockman’s foot off the base, but first-base umpire Bill Engeln stood by his call. Jack Hernon, “Sub Infielder’s 2 Homers Sink Pirates, 4-2: Hofman’s Four Hits Spark Giant Victory,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 23, 1953: 18.

22 Bernier was the 26th player to see action for the Pirates so far in 1953 – and 16th position player.

23 Charles J. Doyle, “Fred Haney’s Strategy Backfires: Partisans Razz Manager as Bucs Bow, 4-2,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, April 23, 1953: 19.

24 Doyle, “Fred Haney’s Strategy Backfires.”

25 An outfielder for the New York Yankees for much of the 1940s, Lindell became a knuckleball pitcher while with the Hollywood Stars in 1951. He returned to the majors with the Pirates in 1953 at age 36, three years after his most recent big-league appearance. With the Pirates, he pitched in 27 games, played first in two games, and pinch-hit 30 times. He was sold to the Philadelphia Phillies on August 31, 1953.

26 At the time of this game, baseball’s rules did not prohibit baserunners from taking a “running start” behind the base when tagging up on a fly ball. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Dark took “a running start back of second, trying for third after the catch,” but when the Pirates appealed at second, “[Dark] evidently had crossed the bag before Abrams caught the ball [in right].” In November 1953, seven months after this game, baseball adopted a rule requiring players to tag up on the bag, rather than taking a running start. Coverage of the rule change noted, “[b]oth Bobby Thomson and Alvin Dark of the Giants applied the technique last year of going back from the third base bag to gain momentum for the race to the plate, hitting the bag and moving on at the instant the ball was caught.” Hernon, “Sub Infielder’s 2 Homers Sink Pirates, 4-2”: 18; “Sacrifice Fly Rule Restored by Baseball; Other Changes Adopted, Spitter Nixed,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 4, 1953: 30.

27 Doyle, “Fred Haney’s Strategy Backfires.”

28 He went hitless in four at-bats in Pittsburgh’s 6-5 win over the Giants. Jack Hernon, “Thomas Hits Grand Slam as Pirates Win, 6-5: Hetki Halts Giants But Pollet Gets Win,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 24, 1953: 22.

29 Charles J. Doyle, “Thomas Saves Day for Pirates: Oakland Youth’s Two-Run Homer Defeats Cubs,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, May 1, 1953: 24.

30 Lester J. Biederman, “Yippie! Pirates Win 4th Straight: Bucs Wallop Reds, 12-4; Bernier Stars,” Pittsburgh Press, May 3, 1953: 65.

31 Thomas Van Hyning, “Carlos Bernier: A Pioneering Pirate,” La Vida Baseball. September 5, 2018, https://www.lavidabaseball.com/pirates-carlos-bernier/.

32 George Kiseda, “Rickey Moves Back His Timetable for Pirates,” The Sporting News, July 29, 1953: 7.

33 Kiseda, “Rickey Moves Back His Timetable for Pirates.”

34 Ed Bouchette, “Roberts: Bucs’ Forgotten Pioneer,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 15, 1987: 21.

35 Ferd Borsch, “Carlos Left Us Rich with Memories,” Honolulu Advertiser, May 10, 1989: C-1; Brian Burnes, “Dark Side of the Baseball Diamond: Suicide Researcher Examines Sport,” Kansas City Star, May 1, 1989: 1C.

36 Joe Guzzardi, “Carlos Bernier, More Than a Footnote,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 14, 2013: F-1.

37 Paul Palanzo, “Pirates Sign Curt Roberts, First Negro,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, October 8, 1953: 20.

38 Jack Hernon, “Roamin’ Around,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 21, 1954: 21.

39 The article listed Roberts with two other Pirates: Sam Jethroe, who had integrated the Boston Braves and received NL Rookie of the Year honors in 1950 but played in only two games for the Pirates in April 1953 before being sent to the Triple-A International League, and Cuban-born pitcher Lino Donoso, who did not debut with the Pirates until June 1955. Bill Nunn Jr., “Record Group of Negroes in Majors Opening Day: Only Four Teams Fail to List a Negro on Roster,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 17, 1954: 15.

40 Al Abrams, “Sidelights on Sports,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 28, 1966: 34.

41 Al Abrams, “Sidelights on Sports,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 3, 1966: 27. Jethroe’s debut with the Pirates was on April 14, 1954, the second game of the season and the day after Roberts’ first game.

42 Al Abrams, “Sidelights on Sports,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 2, 1976: 18. Born in Mexico, Montemayor debuted with the Pirates on April 14, 1953, eight days before Bernier, and played in 28 games that season. Besides this newspaper mention, no other sources suggest that Montemayor integrated the Pirates.

43 Joe Browne, “Our Towne,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 12, 1975: 21.

44 Bouchette, “Roberts: Bucs’ Forgotten Pioneer.”

45 Ed Bouchette, “No Black and White Answers to Question,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 15, 1987: 23.

46 Bouchette, “No Black and White Answers to Question.” The article noted that Nunn believed that Bernier was “fair skinned,” while Roberts, “was considered black and he lived black.”

47 Guzzardi, “Carlos Bernier, More Than a Footnote”; Thomas Van Hyning, “Carlos Bernier: A Pittsburgh Pioneer 65 Years Ago,” SABR 48, June 21, 2018, /convention/2018/presentations.

48 Guzzardi, “Carlos Bernier, More Than a Footnote.” For example, an October 2021 article on MLB.com identifies Roberts as the Pirates’ “first African American major league player.” Jim Lachima, “Pirates Host Curt Roberts Diversity Event, MLB.com, October 21, 2021, https://www.mlb.com/news/pirates-host-curt-roberts-diversity-event-october-2021.

Additional Stats

New York Giants 4
Pittsburgh Pirates 2


Forbes Field
Pittsburgh, PA

 

Box Score + PBP:

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