This article was written by Bob Carroll
This article was published in The National Pastime: Premiere Edition (1982)
Nate Colbert set a single-season RBI record in 1972; hardly anyone noticed. Even today – ten years after the fact – few fans and fewer record books are aware of the big right-handed slugger’s accomplishment. In fact, if it hadn’t been for his performance on August 1 of that year – the best single day ever enjoyed by a major league hitter – he might not be remembered at all.
Some of Colbert’s obscurity may be blamed on the season. Nineteen seventy-two was not the happiest of baseballyears. It began with Gil Hodges’ fatal heart attack at spring training and ended with Roberto Clemente’s tragic death in an airplane crash. In between, a player walkout shortened the season by 13 days.
Another strike against Colbert was his team. The ’72 San Diego Padres weren’t quite the worst club in the National League – the Phillies were .001 lower – but it was hard to get excited about anything that happened on a 58-95 team sporting a .227 team batting average. Unless you had a cousin on the roster, you probably wouldn’t even read the Padres’ box scores.
A third strike on Colbert was his habit of missing third strikes. He could hit home runs and keep his batting average higher than his weight, but he also fanned more often than Scarlett O’Hara during a Georgia July. On average, he struck out every fourth time he went to bat. Among ten-year men, only Dave Kingman has been easier prey.
All in all, Nate was the wrong player on the wrong team in the wrong year to be making his mark on history.
His record doesn’t reveal itself by a cursory glance at his batting stats for 1972: a .250 average, with 38 home runs and 111 RBIs. Forget the 127 strikeouts and it’s a good year. But great? Record-setting?
Take a look at San Diego’s team batting. During the whole season, the Padres managed a mere 488 runs. Why, it seemed like the 1927 Yankees had that many by Memorial Day!
Now, put the figures together. Colbert batted in 22.75 percent of his team’s runs! Think of it this way: each batter makes up 11.1% of his team’s lineup; Colbert did the work of two and then some. No major-league batter has ever done more for his team.
“How Nate ever knocked in 111 runs that otherwise dismal season has puzzled the experts ever since,” says Padre statistician Mil Chipp. “He usually batted behind Derrel Thomas, Dave Roberts, and Jerry Morales. And none of them were that adept at getting on base. Thomas’s on-base percentage in 1972 was 29%, Roberts’ was 28% and Morales’ 31%.” Colbert himself led the team with his modest 34% OBP.
It was no contest in RBIs. Chipp points out: “The only Padre players ‘close’ to Nate … were Leron Lee (47) and Clarence Gaston (44). They were light years away.”
There is a certain element of controversy involved in any RBI record: is it the man or the opportunity? Ever since the ribbie was dreamed up, some fans have opposed it as a measure of individual achievement. At the end of the 1880 National League season, according to Preston D. Orem’s Baseball (1845-1881) from the Newspaper Accounts, “the Chicago Tribune proudly presented the ‘Runs Batted In’ record of the Chicago players for the season, showing Anson and Kelly in the lead. Readers were unimpressed. Objections were that the men who led off, Dalrymple and Gore, did not have the same opportunities to knock in runs. The paper actually wound up almost apologizing for the computation.”
Ernie Lanigan, patron saint of ribbies, in his 1922 Baseball Cyclopedia, observed, “As far back as 1879 a Buffalo paper used to include the runs batted in in the summary of the box score of the home game. Henry Chadwick urged the adoption of this feature in the middle ’80s and by 1891 carried his point so that the National League scorers were instructed to report this data. They reported it grudgingly and finally were told they wouldn’t have to report it.”
Lanigan took up the ribbie torch in 1907 for the New York Press, working up the figures annually. At last, on the request of the Baseball Writers’ Association, the major leagues added RBIs to their 1920 averages.
Yet, even more than a hundred years after RBIs were introduced, many fans view the stat skeptically. If a man singles, goes the argument, he has performed an individual act. But, to get a ribbie on that same single, he must have a teammate in scoring position. Colbert’s 111 is an excellent total, but how many more might he have driven home in 1972 had he played for heavy-hitting Pittsburgh? For the record, Pirate first baseman Willie Stargell drove in 112.
Looking at the percentage of a team’s runs driven in somewhat circumvents the anti-RBI argument. In theory, at least, a player on a light hitting team with fewer opportunities to drive in runs can show his mettle by knocking in a high percentage. Conversely, a player with a group of bombers clustered around him in the batting order must drive in a much higher number to achieve the same percentage.
When Hack Wilson set the major league record with 190 ribbies in 1930 (soon to be revised upward, to 191 or 192), his team scored another 803. His percentage was 19.04. Lou Gehrig’s American League mark of 184 accounted for “only” 17.24 percent of the ’31 Yankees’ 1,067 runs. The accompanying chart shows all those players since 1900 who have knocked in 150 or more runs in a season, along with their teams’ runs and percentages. It comes as no surprise that all 150-plus boys played on teams that scored a ton. Sox. Colbert’s Padres scored an ounce, but his percentage was three points better than the highest of the big RBI guys.
As a matter of fact, only eight men in major league history – from 1876 on – have topped the 20 percent mark. More men have hit .400.
The first hitter to achieve the improbable 20 was, not surprisingly, Babe Ruth. What is indeed surprising is that the Babe did it before he became a Yankee. In 1919, his last season in Boston, he drove in 114 runs – a 20.13 clip – for the fifth-place Red Sox. Although he topped that RBI total eleven times in a Yankee uniform, he never again drove in so high a proportion. (Note: some sources credit Ruth with only 112 RBIs in 1919, a 19.8 percent).
It took 16 years before another player reached 20 percent. Then, the Braves’ Wally Berger chased home teammates at 22.61 (130 out of 575). Despite Berger’s efforts, the Braves won only 38 games and came in dead last on a stretcher. But Wally’s mark stood as the record until Colbert’s big year.
Swish Nicholson drove the Cubs up to fifth place in 1943 with his 20.25 percent (128 out of 632). The Cubbies were back in fifth place in 1959 when Hall-of-Famer Ernie Banks made the “20 Club” with 21.25 (143 out of 673). That performance earned Banks his second consecutive MVP award. Interestingly, he’s the only 20-percenter to be so honored by the BBWAA.
Jim Gentile became the fifth member of the society in 1961. His 20.41 percent (141 out of 691) was a big factor in lifting the Orioles into third place, but it went virtually unnoticed in the excitement over Roger Maris’s asterisk-pursuit. Maris was also crowned the RBI “leader” on the basis of one more ribbie than Gentile, but his percentage was only 17.17 (142 out of 827).
Big Frank Howard belongs in the 20-percenter Hall of Fame – he topped the magic mark twice. In 1968 with Washington, he knocked in 106 runs (out of 524) for a 20.23 percent. Two years later, he reached 20.13 (on 126 out of 626). Unfortunately, Washington finished last both years, but without Frank’s bat they would have finished in Guam.
Another two years went by before Colbert set the record. Since then only one player has been able to break the 20 barrier, Bill Buckner with 20.27 percent for the Cubs in last year’s strike-shortened season. Buckner’s accomplishment is interesting in that it came on only 75 RBIs.
Most of the 20-percenters played on second-division teams not only in their big years, but for the majority of their careers; most of them might also be characterized as underrated. The relationship is not coincidental.
The key to Nate Colbert’s record occurred on August 1, 1972 in Atlanta, where the Padres met the Braves in a twi-night doubleheader. Colbert was among the league leaders in home runs and RBIs, but a slump had plunged his batting average toward .200. He’d also been forced to miss a couple of games the previous week when he’d injured a knee in a collision at home plate.
On the plane from Houston, Padre manager Don Zimmer asked Nate if he’d prefer to sit out another day or two. The big slugger insisted it didn’t matter how he felt. He wanted to play in the Braves’ cozy park, and he was determined “someone was going to pay” for his recent slump. Before all the Atlanta fans had even found their seats for the opener, Nate put San Diego in front in the first inning with a three-run homer off Ron Schueler. In the third frame he contributed to a four-run Padre out burst by singling home a teammate. Another single and a bases-empty homer off Mike McQueen in the seventh gave him four-for-five and five ribbies in the 9-0 Padre win.
The second game was even better. Tom Kelley opened for the Braves and he was as wild as a Penthouse party. He walked Colbert in the first inning and Nate came around to score. Pat Jarvis replaced Kelley in the second inning just in time to face Colbert with the bases loaded. Nate promptly cleared them with his third homer of the evening.
A two-run blast off Jim Hardin in the seventh made the score 9-1. But the shell-shocked Braves fought back to make it 9-7 going into the final inning. Colbert was due up fourth. Cecil Upshaw retired the first two Padres, but Larry Stahl got a ground single to right. And up came Colbert.
The side-arming Upshaw had always given him trouble, so Nate decided to just try to meet the ball for a hit. Upshaw threw a high fastball for the first pitch. Colbert met it. Home run.
“I was shocked when I hit it,” Colbert recalled. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw it go over the fence. It was unreal! When I rounded second base, Umpire Bruce Froemming said to me: ‘I don’t believe this.’ I told him: ‘I don’t either.’ “
The next day, it took the New York Times three paragraphs just to explain the records Colbert had broken or tied:
The 13 runs batted in erased the major league record of 11 for a double-header, which had been shared by three American League batters, Earl Averill of the Cleveland Indians (1930), Jim Tabor of the Boston Red Sox (1939) and Boog Powell of the Baltimore Orioles (1966). The National League record of 10 was established in 1947 by Enos Slaughter of the St. Louis Cardinals.
The 6-foot-l½ inch 200-pound Colbert also broke the National League record of 12 runs batted in in two consecutive games by Jim Bottomley of St. Louis in 1924. The major league mark is 15, established in 1925 by Tony Lazerri of the New York Yankees.
The five home runs in a double-header by Colbert equaled the major league mark set by Stan Musial of the Cardinals in 1954 and also broke Musial’s record of 22 total bases in a twin bill.
Yet when 1972 ended and Colbert had racked up a record even more impressive than any of these, not a newspaper in the land gave it so much as an agate line.
Call it Catch-22.75.