Dave Roberts (roberda03)

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David Leonard Roberts

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Biographical Information[edit]

Dave Roberts was a professional baseball player for 22 years; of those who debuted in 1952, only Hank Aaron had a longer career. Roberts hit 429 home runs, scored 1,639 runs, drove in 1,593 runs and collected 2,660 hits during his career. Although a lefty batter, he was generally very successful against southpaws at all levels.

As a kid, Roberts was an avid baseball fan. He once saved money for a month to buy "Lucky to be a Yankee" by Joe DiMaggio. When he was 12 he saw DiMaggio hit a ball out of the park during spring training in Panama. Roberts played outfield for teams in the Canal Zone in Panama, mostly as an outfielder; he pitched briefly but hurt his arm while practicing pick-off attempts.

As a high school junior, Roberts began playing in the Panama Amateur League. Chet Brewer, a legend in Panamanian winter ball, saw Roberts in action, and offered him a chance to join his 1952 Porterville team in the Southwest International League. Roberts hit .314/.499/.497 and stole 20 bases. Had he been among the qualifiers, he would have finished second to Pete Hughes in OBP. He made the All-Star games that year but they were unsure where to put him as the teams were divided into American and Cuban entries, with no space for a Panamanian; he played a game for each team. Roberts considered returning home but Brewer convinced him to stay.

Returning to Panama to finish high school, Roberts played on a strong winter ball club that made the Caribbean Series. Legendary scout Joe Cambria offered him a contract, not realizing he was already a pro.

Before the '53 season, the San Diego Padres (the Pacific Coast League team that held Roberts' contract) sent him to Tampa, where Ben Chapman managed. While known for his racism, Chapman initially gave Roberts a chance, but by the end of spring training got rid of all the team's black players. Roberts again considered giving up life in the racist US, but was convinced to stay on and went to the Northern League, where he hit .269 with 15 homers, tied for 5th in the league. After the season ended, the Padres sold Roberts to the Baltimore Orioles. Remaining in the Northern in '54, Roberts scored 114 runs, drove in 114, cranked out 33 homers, stole 27 bases and hit .297 in a great overall year, making an All-Star team for the third season in a row. The run and steal totals were career highs - Roberts, who began as a speedster, would pilfer 10 in '55 and never reach double digits again. Roberts edged out Willie Kirkland in RBI and homers, but was second in each thanks to the presence of Northern League legend Frank Gravino (who had beat out Aaron in a home run race in '52).

Roberts was promoted to AA in 1955 with the San Antonio Missions of the Texas League. His career stalled, which he attributes in part due to the strong winds that hurt sluggers in San Antonio and in part due to the racism in the league. He was the only black player on the Missions some of his time there. In '56, he played opposite Brooks Robinson - Robinson was at third and Roberts at first. They put up very similar stats, with Roberts posting a significantly better OBP thanks to 99 bases on balls. Roberts got married in 1956 and eventually had four children.

In '57, TL members Shreveport Sports decided not to play against blacks, forcing a demotion for Roberts back to class A. With Knoxville, he hit .301 and slugged .464 in the South Atlantic League. He returned to San Antonio, then Baltimore sold him to the Austin Senators, a Milwaukee Braves farm club. A year later he spent his fourth year in the Texas League, again with Austin. He hit .294 with 20 HR.

Roberts finally made it to AAA in 1959 with the Louisville Colonels. Despite having played 8 minor league season and appearing for 8 clubs by year's end, Roberts was still just 26. The problem is that the Braves at this time had Aaron, Bill Bruton and Wes Covington in the outfield due to their more integrationist philosophy, plus Joe Adcock at first base. In '59, Roberts also took art classes; oil painting later became one of his major hobbies. The next year Roberts bounced around - the Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers, Austin and the Sacramento Solons.

Roberts continued to slide down the baseball ladder - by '61 he was in class A again for part of the year. He decided to retire and got a job at a company that made utility carts and casters. Then the expansion Houston Colt .45's offered Roberts a contract with their Oklahoma City 89ers club. Roberts tore up the American Association - the 29-year-old outfielder hit .322 with 15 homers, a league-high 38 doubles and 96 RBI (3rd in the circuit). He was promoted to the Colt .45s, finally making the majors. Retired on a liner to Bill Mazeroski in his first at-bat, he doubled in two runs against ElRoy Face for the game-winner the next day for his first hit.

Roberts returned to Oklahoma City in '63 - and '64 - and '65, with only one more taste of the majors, despite his fine 97 OPS+ for an expansion club in '62. In 1965 That year Roberts was named Minor League Player of the Year by the BBWAA, was MVP of the Pacific Coast League (Oklahoma City had switched leagues in '63 when the AA collapsed) and hit .318 with 102 runs, 114 RBI and a league-best 38 long balls; Roberts lost the RBI race by two to Andy Kosco. Roberts also had a mini-rivalry with Duke Snider, who was then managing the Spokane Indians. When Snider criticized the injured Roberts for stopping at second instead of aiming for a triple, Roberts helped the 89ers crush the Indians the next meeting with several big games.

In 1966 Roberts was picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Rule V Draft to back up Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente and Donn Clendenon. As there was little need for such a player and the bench also had Jerry Lynch and Manny Mota, Roberts again spent most of the year in the minors, now with his 15th team in Columbus of the International League. Roberts hit .272 and launched 26 home runs, tied for second in the league behind Mike Epstein's 29. They were the last of 244 homers he had hit in the minor leagues.

After the 1966 season, the Pirates sold Roberts' contract back to Baltimore. Not wanting to spend another season at AAA, Roberts was approached by Topps executive Sy Berger about playing in Japan. Roberts joined the Sankei Atoms in 1967; Lou Jackson helped him adjust to life in Nippon Pro Baseball.

Roberts hit .270/.350/.519 his first year in Japan, with 28 home runs. The Atoms were a weak club and the gaijin Roberts and Jackson provided much of the punch. In '68, Roberts made his first All-Star team in Japan, hitting .296/.385/.594. That year he became the first American to hit 40 home runs in NPB. He was only 9 hoemrs behind Sadaharu Oh for the league lead and made the Central League's Best Nine that season. A year later Roberts again made Best Nine and the All-Star squad when he hit .318/.418/.623 with 37 HR and 95 RBI. The only other American to make the All-Star team that year was Don Blasingame. Roberts threatened Oh for the Triple Crown but a separated shoulder from a collision set him back. He finished 27 points of average and 7 homers behind Oh and 20 RBI behind Shigeo Nagashima. In '69, Roberts also took classes at Sophia University in Japan. In addition to his power, Roberts was known in Japan for his hustle.

Roberts also developed a bone spur in 1969 but a Dr. O'Donohue and a Dr. Yahashi "gave him his career back." In 1970 Roberts slipped badly to .238/.319/.426 but he bounced back in '71 and '72. No longer Best Nine material, he again made All-Star teams by hitting .268/.347/.535 with 33 HR and .277/.385/.509 with 22 HR. in '71, Roberts broke Daryl Spencer's record for home runs by a gaijin (145).

In 1973 the team (now the Yakult Swallows) decided to sign Joe Pepitone. As rules at that time allowed just two gaijin per club, the Swallows let the 40-year old Roberts go in favor of the Pepitone-Art Lopez combo. Pepitone would last just 35 AB in Japan, one of the biggest busts in NPB history. Yakult said they'd be willing to offer Roberts a contract, but didn't want to offend him as he wouldn't accept. Roberts says he would have accepted and made this very clear. Instead he wound up with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, batting .252/.290/.557 in 36 games but another bone spur helped end his lengthy career.

After retiring, Roberts worked as a scout for a year, then worked in the insurance industry. In the late '70s, a recession ruined that business. He got a job working with emotionally troubled kids; he had originally seen this as a short-term job, but wound up working there for 12 and a half years and won the adoration of the kids. He eventually had to retire due to health problems - he severely hurt his back breaking up a fight at one point.

In retirement, Roberts taught some golf and baseball, sometimes playing in celebrity golf tournaments and also working in the yard in his California home.

Primary Sources: "A Baseball Odyssey" by Dave Roberts and Tony Salin, "Baseball's Forgotten Heroes" by Tony Salin, japanbaseballdaily.com by Gary Garland

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