Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Carlos Bernier, More Than a Footnote Major League Baseball Doesn't Agree, but Carlos Bernier Was the Pirates' First Black Player, Argues Baseball Historian Joe Guzzardi

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Carlos Bernier, More Than a Footnote Major League Baseball Doesn't Agree, but Carlos Bernier Was the Pirates' First Black Player, Argues Baseball Historian Joe Guzzardi

Article excerpt

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. …

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