By Jason Shetler
As we all know, Roberto Clemente is one of the biggest icons in the history of Pittsburgh sports. His contributions both on and off the field made him endearing. While Major League Baseball continues to inexplicably refuse to retire the #21 in his honor, Clemente blazed a trail for other Latin American players to reach the big leagues. Prior to Clemente, another player made a significant impact in his own right with the Pirates. That player was Curt Roberts.
At the age of 17, Roberts began his professional baseball career playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. He was a member of the Monarchs from 1947-1950. A couple of his teammates were Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil.
In 1951, the Boston Braves signed Roberts to a minor league contract. He was sent to the Denver Bears of the Western League. A year later, the Bears became an affiliate of the Pirates, as part of a working agreement with the Braves. In the process, Roberts joined the Pirates organization for a salary of $10,000.
Despite playing shortstop in the Negro Leagues, Roberts became an excellent fielder at second base with the Bears, and established himself as one of the best defensive infielders in the minors. Prior to the 1954 season, the local black community in Pittsburgh urged the Pirates to integrate their roster, just like the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants had done.
On April 13th, 1954, Roberts made history by becoming the first African-American to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates. In his very first at-bat with the Pirates at Forbes Field against the Philadelphia Phillies, he hit a triple off Hall of Famer Robin Roberts. Branch Rickey, who was the Pirates general manager at the time, said he selected Roberts to join the team first, because of his calm demeanor towards receiving racial slurs from certain spectators. Before making his debut for the Pirates in 1955, Clemente became good friends with Roberts. In the process, Roberts taught Clemente had to handle himself against discrimination. Although he played just three seasons in Pittsburgh, Curt Roberts will forever be a vital figure in Pirates history.