Carlos Bernier left legacy as Latin American pioneer
Seven decades ago, Bernier began the 1953 season as a flashy young rookie starting in center field for the Pittsburgh Pirates, flanked on each side by veterans Ralph Kiner and Frank Thomas. Despite getting off to a fast start for the Pirates, ultimately his inability to “steal first base” proved hard to overcome.
Even though he lasted only one big league season, he made an indelible mark in the sport during an 18-season professional diamond career.
Born in Puerto Rico in 1927, Bernier started playing baseball at 13, learning the game on the island’s sandlot fields. Puerto Rican-born players began appearing in the big leagues in 1942 with Hiram Bithorn, but only a little more than two dozen – most notably Luis Olmo – had played by the time Bernier appeared on the scene.
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Bernier also led his respective leagues in runs scored in 1949 (136), 1951 (124) and 1952 (105).
The press began referring to him, both for his fleetness as well as his renowned temper, as The Puerto Rican Rocket, the Bandit, the Hotheaded Latin, the Puerto Rican Pepperpot and the Comet.
Bernier, after batting .301 with his league-leading stolen base and runs scored totals, was named PCL Rookie of the Year in 1952 with the Hollywood Stars. Apropos of his surroundings, Gilmore Field became a stage with Bernier playing the lead role.
“If he hits only .275, he’ll be a terrific ballplayer for us.”
Said Johnny Lindell, who played with Bernier in Hollywood in 1952 and joined him with the Pirates: “All he needs is the chance. He might not be a .300 hitter in major league baseball but he won’t be the worst hitter, you can bet on that.”
Also eagerly anticipating Bernier’s big league debut was the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading Black newspapers in the country.
The editor’s note: “Carlos Bernier is a Puerto Rican.”
Despite such excitement towards Bernier and his dark complexion in the Black press, second baseman Curt Roberts, who made his debut with the Pirates in 1954, is considered by the team as its first Black player. But the debate regarding Bernier continues to this day.
He ended the year for the last-place Pirates hitting .213 (66-for-310) with 15 stolen bases in 29 attempts.
“I don’t know why,” said Bernier, with a shrug, in a 1964 interview. “Why don’t you ask Fred Haney? All I know is that I was hitting real good, about .385. The last night I played regularly I had four for five, including three successive triples. I never played regularly again. My hitting fell off to .213 and I was sent back to Hollywood.
“Branch Rickey (Pirates GM) came to Haney and told him to lift me from the lineup, he wanted to see another young player under fire.”
Bernier did in fact return to Hollywood and play the next four seasons there. But it was during this latter period that his reputation may have been burnished as not only fleet of foot but also as quick tempered. Some have argued it’s the reason he never played in the big leagues again.
Most notoriously, Bernier was suspended for the remainder of the PCL season after slapping umpire Chris Valenti on August 11, 1954.
“Baseball cannot and will not tolerate umpire assault,” PCL President Clarence Rowland said in a statement. “Bernier used filthy language and also bumped Valenti after being called out on strikes, then slapped him when ordered out of the game. So I am suspending Bernier for the rest of the 1954 season.”
Stars manager Bobby Bragan said after the game: “It’s too bad, for Bernier is the most colorful player in the league. There is no justification, though, for what he did. Carlos is highly emotional and quick tempered. All of us have talked to him several times this year – Branch Rickey included – and each time he assured us he could keep himself in hand. Then he blew his top anyhow.”
According to Bernier: “I have not been well. I was beaned in 1948 and have been nervous and aching in the head ever since. Last year at Pittsburgh I was under doctor’s care and took shots and pills. Not this year, though.”
With a checkered past, one of the most controversial figures in minor league baseball continued his career after Hollywood with successful stops in Salt Lake City (1958-59), Indianapolis (1960-61), Columbus (1960) and Hawaii (1961-64). His final season was spent with Reynoso of the Mexican League, with the 38-year-old batting .281 with 12 home runs in 295 at bats.
“The umpires think I’m a showboat but that’s not true,” Bernier said. “When I play, I play with my heart. That means I play for my ballclub, fight for my ballclub and do everything I can for my ballclub.”
In his prime, Bernier was one of the best players outside of the major leagues despite his temper sometimes getting the best of him. But fans always appreciated his style of play.
“Pitching might be the name of the game as the baseball experts are wont to explain, but color is the synonym for baseball popularity,” explained Dee Chipman of Salt Lake City’s Deseret News and Telegram in 1964. “And they don’t come any more colorful than Carlos Bernier … who’s been the scourge of the Pacific Coast League and high minor leagues elsewhere for the past decade.”
After Bernier died by suicide at the age of 62 on April 6, 1989, his son, Dr. N. Bernier-Collazo, attempted to explain his father’s behavior:
“My father’s only shortfall was that he did not handle the injustices of society with the same grace as a Jackie Robinson or a Roberto Clemente,” Bernier-Collazo said. “I have often wondered how different life would have been for him with all his talents if he had played now (2004) instead of then.
“Despite his extremely competitive demeanor on the field, he was a gentle soul off the field with the greatest qualities – kindness, compassionate, generous, responsible and loving. Many people don’t know what a wonderful person he was because they only witnessed his exploits and his aggressive style of play on the field.”
Bernier’s career statistics in the minors included a .298 batting average, 1,594 runs, 2,374 hits, 1,317 walks and 594 stolen bases.
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum