Black History Month salute to three of Colorado’s Western League stars

From 1950 to 1954, the eight-team Single-A Western League featured three teams along
the Front Range: Bears Stadium for the Denver Bears, Memorial Park for the Colorado Springs
Sky Sox, and Runyon Field for the Pueblo Dodgers. During this five-year stretch, the Bears were
affiliated with the Boston Braves (1950-1951) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1952-1954), while the Sky
Sox were with the Chicago White Sox, and of course the Pueblo Dodgers were with the Brooklyn
Dodgers. But the 1953 season was the only season where all three Front Range teams finished
1-2-3 in the league regular season standings (Colorado Springs 95-69, Denver 94-60, Pueblo
78-77).

But late in the 1953 season, there was a convergence in the league, where Denver and
Colorado Springs had Western League All-Stars who played in the Negro Leagues, while Pueblo
had an up-and-coming rookie who would later spend 14 years in the Majors. Instead of focusing
on one player, let’s take a look at all three of those Western League All-Stars: one who was called
up to the majors by Branch Rickey, and died tragically young; one who had a brief tenure in
MLB, but created a historical family legacy in baseball, and one who had became one of
baseball’s speedsters in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Curt Roberts’ career could have been easily lost in time, considering his career only lasted
five years in the majors, parts of three seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But the 5’8” second
baseman definitely had some name baseball royalty early in his career. Roberts went to high
school at McClymonds High School in West Oakland, CA, the same high school would later
produce alums which included Frank Robinson, Bill Russell, Vada Pinson, and Curt Flood. His
Negro League tenure with the Kansas City Monarchs (1947-1950) included legends Satchel
Paige, Buck O’Neil, Elston Howard, and Hilton Smith.

Roberts played five seasons with the Denver Bears, three during the Single-A Western
League era from 1951-1953, then come back several years later when the Bears became the New
York Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate in the American Association in 1957-1958. Roberts amassed a
.285 batting average with 20 HR, 161 RBI, and 42 stolen bases, in this three Western League
seasons, including getting All-Star honors in 1953 at second base (.292, 12/70, 17 SB), and
helped the Bears to the 1952 Western League Championship.
That 1953 season would help Branch Rickey make the decision to have Roberts become
the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first African-American to play in the Majors on April 13th, 1954, nearly
seven years to the day of Rickey’s historic decision signing of Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn
Dodgers. Roberts played in 134 games with the Pirates in 1954, batting .232, with a homer and
six runs batted in. However, Roberts’ MLB career would only last 37 more games before playing
the balance of his career in the minors. Roberts returned to Denver for the Triple-A Yankees in
1957 and 1958, batting a combined .301 in 285 games, with 21 HR, 141 RBI, and 30 SB, and
was also a member of the Bears’ 1957 American Association Championship. Roberts’ life was
tragically cut short at age 40 on November 14th, 1969, when he was hit by a vehicle while
changing a flat tire on a freeway in Oakland.

While Roberts took Western League All-Star honors in second base in 1953, catching
honors went to Colorado Springs Sky Sox catcher Sam Hairston. Sam spent seven seasons in the
Negro Leagues with the Birmingham Black Barons and Indianapolis Clowns, including finishing
in 1950, batting .424 with 17 homers and 71 RBI (.517 slugging percentage). Hairston signed
with the Chicago White Sox on July 31st, 1950 and joined the Sky Sox, along with first baseman
Bob Boyd, where Hairston .286 with a homer and 28 RBI in 38 games.

After starting the 1951 season at Triple-A Sacramento, playing in 68 games the Solons,
Hairston got his only major league call-up with the Chicago White Sox (Minnie Miñoso, born in
Cuba, also played in 1951 for the White Sox). While Hairston was up for several weeks, he
would only go 2-for-5 in his four games that he played in his MLB career. (In 2020, MLB would
later qualify five of Hairston’s Negro League seasons as “major leagues” towards his career
totals.) Hairston then joined the Sky Sox for the balance of the 1951 season for 15 games.
Over the next two seasons in 1952 and 1953, Hairston would become the mainstay behind
the plate for the Sky Sox, and a fan favorite for Colorado Springs fans, despite the occasional
racial slurs from certain Western League opponents. Hairston help the Sky Sox to a regular
season Western League title in 1953. While Hairston got a call-up to Triple-A Charleston, WV
in 1954, the Sky Sox plummeted from 95-59 in 1953 to 48-104 in 1954. The White Sox send
Hairston back to Colorado Springs for 1955, and Hairston bats .350 with 6 HR and 91 RBI,
leading the Sky Sox back to a regular season title and Western League MVP honors. After
Hairston collected his 500th hit in a Sky Sox uniform in July 1955, the team and the city honored
him with a “Sam Hairston Night”, including receiving a station wagon for his wife and three
sons. (In six seasons with the Sky Sox, Hairston batted .323, with 719 hits, 35 homers and 410
RBI. Ironically, 719 happens to be the area code now for the Colorado Springs area.) Sam
Hairston passed away on October 31st, 1997 at age 77, and was posthumously honored into the
Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.

Hairston’s legacy continued as a coach in the White Sox organization, and subsequently see
his son Jerry play 14 seasons in the majors with the White Sox (1973-1977, 1981-1989) and the
Pittsburgh Pirates (1977), while son John played three games for the Chicago Cubs in 1969. The
Hairston legacy continued with Sam’s grandson Jerry, Jr., playing 16 seasons in the majors with
Baltimore (1998-2004), Chicago Cubs (2005-2006), Texas (2006-2007), Cincinnati (2008-2009),
N.Y. Yankees (2009), San Diego (2010), Washington (2011), Milwaukee (2011), and L.A. Dodgers
(2012-2013); and grandson Scott, playing 11 seasons in the majors with Arizona (2004-2007),
San Diego (2007-2010), Oakland (2009), N.Y. Mets (2011-2012), Chicago Cubs (2013), and
Washington (2013-2014).

As the 1953 Western League season winded down, the Brooklyn Dodgers called up a young
20-year-old infielder from the Miami Sun Sox from the Class-B Florida International League
named Maury Wills, who making his first venture out west. After a 18-game stint with Pueblo
(.286, 0/8, 8 SB) in 1953, Wills would become a fan favorite in Pueblo, for the Pueblo Dodgers.
In 1954, Wills posted a solid season with Pueblo, batting .279, with 6 HR, 53 RBI, and 28
SB, which earned him a promotion to Double-A Fort Worth. However, after a disappointing .203
season, Wills returned to Pueblo to earn Western League All-Star honors in 1956, batting .302,
with 10 HR, 54 RBI, and 34 SB. After a couple of seasons at Triple-A, Wills would make his
debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1959. Wills would become the first African-American
who played in Pueblo (and Fort Worth) to appear in the majors.

Maury Wills’ MLB career would run 14 seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers (1959-1966
and 1969-1972), Pittsburgh (1967-1968) and Montreal (1969), batting .282, with 2,134 hits, 20
HR, 458 RBI and 586 SB. The five-time All-Star won 1962 Most Valuable Player honors with
the Dodgers, batting .299, 6 HR, 48 RBI, 10 triples and 104 stolen bases, the most stolen bases
at that point since 1891. His son, Elliott “Bump” Wills played six seasons in the majors with the
Texas Rangers (1977-1981) and Chicago Cubs (1982). Maury Wills passed away on September
19th, 2022, just weeks short of his 90th birthday.

As we look at Black History month, the 1953 Western League season, for a brief moment,
had three different Western League All-Stars: a Denver Bears legend who played in both Single-
A and Triple-A in the Mile High City, a Colorado Springs Sky Sox legend whose family legacy
continues to this day, and a Pueblo Dodgers legend later known for his base running prowess.
Each had their own firsts, which created a special legacy along the Front Range.

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Dan Evans
11 days ago

I enjoyed this, Chris! Having known two of the subjects quite well, you did a good job capturing their achievements! Nice going.

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