This annotated week in baseball history: July 23-Aug. 4, 1972

Iin late April, I did a column on a Rockies-Mets game I attended. One item I touched on was the all-time record for RBIs in a single game. The record, in case you haven’t gone back and re-read that entire column just now (and if not, shame on you), is shared by Jim Bottomley and Mark Whiten, who each drove in 12 runs. While those remain the single game record for RBIs, they are not the single day record.

That distinction belongs to one Nate Colbert. I have a small theory on what motivated Colbert to set the record, but we’ll save that for a bit later. Colbert was a hulking first baseman and occasional outfielder. He started his career in Houston but was left unprotected by the Astros in the 1969 expansion draft after just two years and 60 at-bats.

The Padres snapped him up in a move Houston would come to regret—the Astros’ search for the power Colbert would have provided eventually led them to trade Joe Morgan. Colbert, meanwhile, had some pretty good years for San Diego, often as the only power threat on some very dire Padres teams.

In 1972, for example, Colbert slugged 38 home runs, an impressive total for spacious Jack Murphy Stadium. The total is even more impressive given that the team’s other seven regular position players managed just 40 home runs combined. Colbert accounted for nearly 40 percent of the team’s home runs that season.

In the first game of an Aug. 1 twin bill against the Braves, Colbert was in the clean-up spot for the Padres. There is some debate about lineup construction, and where one’s best hitter should bat, but for this day at least, fourth was the perfect spot for Colbert. After a lead-off groundout, Dave Roberts and Larry Stahl drew walks off Braves starter (and future White Sox GM) Ron Schueler. Coming to the plate with runners on, Colbert hit a Schueler pitch over the wall for a three-run homer.

In the third, Colbert again came up with Roberts and Stahl on base, this time on first and second following a walk and single. Colbert hit a single of his own, expanding the Padres’ lead to to 4-0 and knocking Schueler out of the game.

Colbert led off the seventh inning and despite having no runners to drive in nonetheless flexed his muscle, hitting his second home run of the game, giving him two HRs and five RBIs in the game. In the ninth, Colbert had a chance to add to that total but struck out looking.

In the second game, with Colbert already having had what some batters would consider a pretty good week, he resumed his destruction of the Braves. In the first inning Colbert drew a walk off Braves starter Tom Kelley (not the future Twins manager) and came around to score when the Braves misplayed a Cito Gaston single into a triple.

In the third inning Colbert came up with a chance to do major damage—this time the bases were loaded. Living up to his position in the batting order, Colbert cleaned up, emptying the bases with one swing of the bat. This gave him three HRs and nine RBIs on the day, with six innings of the second game left to go.

Colbert grounded out to end the fourth inning but continued his torrid hitting in the seventh when he homered with Stahl on first base. For the day, that gave Colbert a “home run cycle” after he hit solo, two-run, three-run and grand slam home runs. It also gave him four HRs and 11 RBIs.

Incredibly, he was not yet done. Colbert came up in the ninth with Stahl again on first base. Again, Colbert punished the Braves—whose inability to throw an intentional walk his way is baffling—by slamming yet another home run. That gave him five HRs in one day, split between two games; only he and Stan Musial ever have accomplished that. As for the 13 RBIs, that set and remains a single day record.

All said, Colbert drove in 13 of the Friars’ 20 runs that day, and personally scored seven.

What could have prompted such an explosion of power, even in a season when Colbert was prone to such explosions? Without asking Colbert himself, we may never know, but perhaps I can help divine an explanation. In Ball Four, Jim Bouton recounts the story of a game in early September of 1969 when his Astros were facing off against Colbert’s Padres.

According to Bouton, many of Colbert’s ex-Astro teammates were giving him a hard time, taunting him about his appearance and the like. (Later in the book, Bouton quotes Doug Rader as telling Colbert he thought Colbert was “cute…not ugly, cute. Cute like an iguana.”) The players were told to cut it out by Curt Blefary, who told them that earlier in the season the Astros had been riding Colbert and he had hit two home runs to beat them.

Now either Blefary or Bouton got mixed up a bit; Colbert hadn’t hit two home runs in a game against the Astros that season, although the tie-breaking home run he hit in an April game may be the source of the story. In any case, Colbert proved he didn’t take gently to being mocked, slugging home runs in the second and fourth innings of that 1969 game to provide San Diego’s only offense in a 9-2 defeat.

It seems implausible that Braves players would have been so foolish as to mock Colbert throughout his rampaging over them. But in the absence of a better theory, perhaps one directly from the horse’s mouth, it might be that “Angry Nate” found himself motivated to hit all those homers and drive in all those runs.

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