“When you have the chance to get a player like this, you have to take him,” declared Detroit Tigers’ General Manager Jim Campbell. “There just aren’t that many of them around, especially at his age.” It was November 18, 1974, and he was referring to Nate Colbert. Campbell had just acquired the slugger in a trade with the San Diego Padres, and there were those in baseball who were calling it a steal on the part of Detroit. “He’s a Norm Cash-type player,” Campbell went on. “His credentials certainly match Norm’s. Our scouting reports indicate he just needed a change of scenery. There’s no question he can play.”
The Tigers were certainly going to need a first baseman heading into the 1975 season. The popular Cash, after 17 years in the Motor City, had been rather unceremoniously released the previous August. Colbert could poke the ball as well and as often as his predecessor, but he did not come without question marks.
During the offseason, the Tigers weren’t the only team interested in the 6’2”, 200-pound Colbert. Reportedly, Boston wanted him, as did Baltimore and Oakland. “If he can play for them, he certainly can play for us,” Campbell noted at the time. Detroit was able to work out a deal, giving up shortstop Eddie Brinkman, along with little-used outfielder Dick Sharon and minor league pitcher Bob Strampe. Brinkman was your typical “good-field no-hit” middle infielder. Though an All-Star with the Tigers in 1973, he was about to turn 33, and the club was ready to give 21-year-old prospect Tom Veryzer the everyday job at short.
Colbert, at 28, had had plenty of success with the Padres. A three-time All-Star, he’d hit more home runs than any other major league player (149) between 1969 and 1973. He had once hit 5 homers with 13 RBIs in a doubleheader. He also struck out a lot, however, averaging 145 whiffs in his six seasons on the West Coast. And while he never hit for a high average, he was coming off a bad 1974 season in which he hit only .207 with 14 home runs and 54 RBIs. Booed and benched, he wanted out of America’s Finest City.
But Campbell saw only the tremendous power. In addition to Cash, the Tigers had tried five players at first base in 1974, none of whom hit with much authority. Surely, Colbert would be an upgrade. He and Willie Horton might just be one of the best home run combinations in baseball. Part of Colbert’s problem in San Diego was that the Padres had switched him to the outfield in 1974, to make room for Willie McCovey at first. In Detroit, Colbert could return to his normal position.
He was excited about joining his new team. “They asked me where I’d like to go, and Detroit was one of the places. (Tiger Stadium) should be a great park to hit in.”
But Colbert got off to a slow start in 1975, hitting only .107 with two home runs in April.
“Everybody I talked to told me he wouldn’t hit much early,” Campbell lamented. “But I never expected it to be this bad.”
“I’ll be ok,” Colbert claimed. “I know I will.”
But Tiger manager Ralph Houk hardly gave a ringing endorsement. “He has got to hit for us. That’s all there is to it. And I’m going to leave him in there until he does. Sitting on the bench certainly won’t bring him out of his slump.”
The fact is, nothing in 1975 brought Colbert out of his slump. In 45 games with Detroit, he hit .147 with only four home runs and 18 RBIs. He also struck out 52 times. Colbert was frequently booed at Tiger Stadium, and there was talk that he had become something of a morale problem, not a good thing to have on such a young team as the Tigers. On June 15, Detroit finally sold Colbert to the Montreal Expos for $75,000, just hours ahead of the trading deadline.
For his part, Campbell called the Brinkman/Colbert deal the worst he ever made. “I’m very disappointed with the way things turned out. But if I had the whole thing to do over again, and I had the same information available to me, I’d certainly do the same thing. I didn’t have anybody – not one baseball person – tell me they didn’t think Colbert could still play. He was in the same type of slump last season with San Diego, but we rationalized that to ourselves because he was being platooned and playing in the outfield. And a lot of other people felt the same way.”
Campbell had tried dealing Colbert, but no teams were interested. In the end he was happy to at least get cash.
Colbert didn’t see the sale coming. “I’m very disappointed they gave up on me so quickly.”
Houk wasn’t surprised at the way things ended. “I just don’t see how he could have come out of his slump over here. The people were on him more and more. I went with him for a third of the season. But when a guy is striking out every third time up, he’s not moving the runners, he’s not doing anything. It seemed he either popped the ball straight up in the air, or he struck out.”
Things didn’t get any better for Colbert after he left Detroit. After an unsuccessful stint with Montreal in 1975, he spent most of the following summer with the Tucson Toros of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. His last action in the majors was with the Oakland A’s for two games at the tail end of 1976.
Was the Colbert/Brinkman trade really the worst Jim Campbell ever made? Certainly it didn’t pan out for the Tigers. But San Diego didn’t fare much better. Brinkman never played a game for the Padres, but was immediately shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals for players who never amounted to much. He hit a combined .207 for three teams in 1975, his final year in baseball. As for the two throw-ins that Detroit sent to the Padres, Dick Sharon hit .194 in his only season in San Diego, while Bob Strampe was sent to Triple-A, never to be heard from again.
There’s one final footnote to the story. What about Tom Veryzer, Brinkman’s young replacement? He was the starting shortstop for three unspectacular seasons with Detroit, before a kid by the name of Alan Trammell took over for good in 1978.