On the eve of Jackie Robinson Day, Pittsburgh baseball enthusiasts return to a question that's dogged them for decades: Who was the Pirates' first black American player?
Depending on who's asked, the seemingly simple question elicits two replies. The Pirates, the Hall of Fame and most Internet baseball sites claim that in 1954 second baseman Curt Roberts broke the Pirates' color line. But the correct and vastly more interesting answer is the talented but temperamental and ultimately tragic Carlos Bernier. The Puerto Rico-born Bernier, a minor league superstar for years before and after his 1953 Pirates debut, is one of baseball's most compelling if little known personalities.
Before recounting Bernier's saga, consider two clarifying points about his nationality and color. Many argue that Bernier should be classified as Puerto Rican. But, first, Puerto Ricans are American citizens. And, in the 1950s, baseball owners considered players as white or black -- Caribbeans, whether Puerto Rican, Cuban, Venezuelan or Dominican -- weren't categorized separately.
Second, African migration to Puerto Rico dates to 1509. Genealogists define Puerto Ricans as a mix of indigenous Indian, Spanish and black.
With his dark complexion, Bernier was unquestionably black. Early in his professional career, he played in the Manitoba-Dakota League, a Canadian negro league. By 1948, one year after Robinson appeared with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Bernier played in Class B Port Chester and was, along with Robinson, Larry Doby and Hank Thompson, one of organized baseball's four black players.
Preceding his call up to the majors, Bernier shined with the Pirates' top farm team, the Pacific Coast League's Hollywood Stars. His skills were so admired that Hollywood sports writers believed Bernier eventually would join Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider in debates about baseball's greatest center fielders.
Bernier was a fan favorite, too. Groucho Marx lobbied to keep him in Hollywood, arguing that sending him from the first-place Stars to the last-place Pirates would be a demotion.
In 1952, Bernier hit .301 and led the Pacific Coast League in stolen bases with 65. Wherever he played, Bernier's speed intimidated opponents. Nicknamed "Comet," he topped three different minor leagues three times in triples, four times in runs scored and six times in stolen bases.
Even more intimidating to foes was Bernier's aggressive playing style. Opponents feared his cleats-high sliding technique. One Hollywood scribe wrote that Bernier's "temper was as big as his chaw of tobacco." In fact, his competitiveness eventually became the overriding factor that limited him to a single Pirates season.
The Pirates eagerly anticipated Bernier's arrival. The team's 1953 yearbook announced him as "a streak of speed from Puerto Rico," who can "run like a rabbit" and "keeps opponents jittery."
Indeed, Bernier's 1953 season showed brilliant flashes but also an inconsistency that infuriated manager Fred Haney. Bernier led the Pirates in stolen bases and once hit three triples in a single game. But Bernier also hit a paltry .213 and struck out as often as he walked. Haney had managed Bernier in Hollywood and grew weary of trying to keep him focused.
Back to Hollywood Bernier went, even though the 1954 Pirates had the National League's most lead-footed outfielders. Bernier went willingly. Like Roberto Clemente after him, Bernier despised the racism he found prevalent throughout most of the major league and was happy to return to a more enlightened California.
Bernier earned as much money in minor-league Hollywood as he did in Pittsburgh, plus his Stars' road trips took him to garden spots like San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. The Pirates traveled to St. Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati, summer sweatboxes where Bernier and his teammates suffered in their flannel uniforms and stifling hotel rooms.
At any rate, through August of his first year back with the Stars, Bernier excelled -- until, during one of his frequent arguments over called balls and strikes, Bernier punched home plate umpire Chris Valenti in the face. The commissioner immediately suspended him, and, repentant though he was, Bernier never played another inning for any major league team. In the 1950s and early 1960s, no team would give a second chance to an aging black Latin player who, during his first trial, performed indifferently and had earned a troublemaker's reputation.
Bernier played on. He spent three more outstanding seasons with the Stars until 1957, when the original Pacific Coast League folded. Then he added eight more years, including three with the Triple AAA Hawaii Islanders and one in Mexico. During a total of 19 winters, Bernier stood out in the highly competitive Puerto Rican League that featured greats like Clemente, Mays and Hank Aaron.
After Bernier retired, financial insecurity, medical and emotional tribulations plagued him. In 1989, at age 62, Bernier hanged himself.
One thing Bernier could never shake was his abiding, justified resentment toward the Pirates for mismanaging his career. In Bernier's opinion -- and statistics support him -- he was a better outfielder than the ones the Pirates kept on. Indeed, as miserably as the Pirates performed from 1954 through 1957, he should have had a spot on the roster.
Despite Bernier's heartbreaking final years, his professional career included stints in Hollywood during cinema's Golden Age, lovely winters in tropical Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and many triumphant moments. His minor-league teams routinely won championships. In 2004, the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame elected Bernier as a charter member.
Why baseball won't acknowledge Bernier's status as the Pirates first black American player remains a mystery. In 1953, Bernier appeared in 105 games, two-thirds of the season. One at bat is enough to qualify as "first."
Perhaps Bernier's on-field conduct explains why he's ignored. The Brooklyn Dodgers groomed UCLA-educated Robinson to tolerate the slurs and indignities that would come his way. Bernier, who spoke limited English, refused to conform.
Despite Bernier's reputation as a hard guy, his family remembers him differently. In a Jet Magazine article written after his father's suicide, Bernier's son described him as "a gentle soul off the field ... compassionate, generous and loving."
Whatever the truth about his personality, Bernier deserves a prominent place in Pirates lore as a courageous pioneer who deserves more than footnote status.opinion_commentary
Joe Guzzardi is a retired public school teacher and a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. He lives in Bradford Woods (email@example.com).