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Aviators Recognize Top 5 Black Players in Franchise History
In honor of Black History Month, the ballclub gives a tip of the cap to five of its all-time greats
By Matt Jacob | Las Vegas Aviators | @MattRJacob
In celebration of Black History Month, teams across Minor League Baseball are taking a look back at five of the best Black players to suit up for their club.
While some of these standout performers went on to long and illustrious Major League careers, others simply had great Minor League careers. Or, in some cases, just one incredible season that went down as “a year for the ages.”
Here is a look at five of the best Black baseball players ever to don a Las Vegas Stars, 51s or Aviators uniform.
James Loney (Las Vegas 51s, 2006-07)
A first-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2002 amateur draft, James Loney had modest success during his first four professional seasons. Playing exclusively in the low minors, the Houston native batted .280 with 181 RBI in 431 games.
Loney then earned his first Triple-A promotion ahead of the 2006 season. Upon arriving at Cashman Field, the 22-year-old first baseman promptly showed why the Dodgers made him a first-round selection. Loney won the Pacific Coast League batting crown with a .380 average, collecting 136 hits — including 33 doubles — in 98 games. He finished the season with eight home runs, 67 RBI and 64 runs, and by the following April, he was on the Dodgers’ opening-day roster.
Loney returned to Las Vegas briefly in 2007, and finished his 51s career with a .341 batting average, nine homers, 99 RBI and 92 runs in 156 games. He went on to enjoy a productive 11-year Major League career with the Dodgers, Tampa Bay Rays, New York Mets and Boston Red Sox. In nearly 1,500 big-league games, Loney batted .284 with 108 homers, 267 doubles and 669 RBI.
Matt Kemp (Las Vegas 51s, 2006-07)
It didn’t take Matt Kemp very long to race through the Los Angeles’ Dodgers minor-league system. Just three years after L.A. drafted him in the sixth round, Kemp was patrolling the outfield at Dodger Stadium and showcasing the hitting prowess that would make him a frequent MVP candidate.
Las Vegas baseball fans got a first-hand glimpse of Kemp’s five-tool talents during parts of two seasons with the 51s. The Oklahoma native was promoted from Double-A Jacksonville during the 2006 season and hit .368 with three homers and 36 RBI in 44 games in Las Vegas. After finishing the 2006 campaign in L.A., a 22-year-old Kemp returned to the 51s to start the 2007 season and he hit .329 with four homers and 20 RBI in 39 games.
That was enough for the Dodgers to come calling again, and Kemp never looked back. In 15 big-league seasons — the first nine of which were spent with the Dodgers — Kemp made three All-Star teams, won two Silver Slugger awards and two Gold Gloves.
During a particularly prolific three-year run from 2009-2011, Kemp hit .290 with 93 home runs, 83 doubles, 17 triples, 316 RBI and 294 runs. The best of those seasons was in 2011, when Kemp posted a career-best .324 batting average and led the National League with 39 homers, 126 RBI and 115 runs. In a controversial vote, he fell just short of winning the NL MVP.
Kemp retired after the 2020 season, finishing his career with a .284 average, 287 homers and 1,031 RBI in 1,750 Major League games.
Shane Mack (Las Vegas Stars, 1986-89)
Shane Mack’s baseball career began with a bit of a gamble: After the Kansas City Royals drafted him in the fourth round of the 1981 draft, the Los Angeles native declined to sign, instead accepting a scholarship from UCLA. The decision paid off, because three years later, the San Diego Padres selected Mack with the 11th overall pick of the 1984 draft and promptly sent the outfielder to Double-A.
After two solid seasons with the Beaumont (Texas) Golden Gators, Mack was elevated to Triple-A Las Vegas during the 1986 season. He would spend parts of the next four seasons with the Stars, batting .326 across 137 games.
In addition to being part of Las Vegas’ only two Pacific Coast League championship teams in 1986 and 1988, Mack earned his first two big-league promotions, playing a combined 201 games for the Padres in 1987 and 1988.
Prior to the start of the 1990 season, Mack was traded to the Minnesota Twins, where he enjoyed his greatest Major League success. In five seasons in Minnesota, he hit .309 with 67 homers, 119 doubles, 24 triples, 315 RBI, 351 runs and 71 stolen bases. At age 27, Mack was an integral part of the Twins’ 1991 World Series-winning team, batting .318 with 18 homers, 27 doubles and 74 RBI.
Mack ended his nine-year Major League career with a .299 batting average — and he finished it with the team that initially drafted him: the Royals.
Bip Roberts (Las Vegas Stars, 1987-88; 1995)
Like Mack, Leon “Bip” Roberts bypassed pro ball when he was initially drafted in 1981 by the Pittsburgh Pirates. But after the second baseman spent one season at Chabot College in Heyward, California, the Pirates came after Roberts again, selecting the Berkeley native in the first round of the 1982 draft.
This time, Roberts signed. However, he never played a game for the Pirates, as the San Diego Padres plucked him in the 1985 Rule 5 Draft. In so doing, the Padres had to keep Roberts on the big-league roster for the entire 1985 season or offer him back to Pittsburgh. They did just that, and Roberts hit .253 in 101 games with San Diego.
No longer under Rule 5 constraints, the Padres shipped diminutive infielder to Triple-A Las Vegas before the 1987 season. Needless to say, the 5-foot-7 Roberts rose to the challenge, as he batted .329, scored 139 runs and stole 56 bases in 198 games with the Stars in 1987-88.
Roberts was a huge contributor to the Stars’ 1988 Pacific Coast League championship club. He hit .353, posted a .406 on-base percentage, delivered 36 extra-base hits (including eight triples) and stole 29 bases in 36 attempts.
The Padres finally recalled Roberts in September 1988, and “The Bipster” spent the next decade as a big leaguer with six different teams (Padres, Royals, Reds, Indians, Tigers and his hometown A’s). In all, he played 12 Major League seasons and hit .294 with 30 home runs, 203 doubles, 31 triples, 663 runs, 352 RBI and 264 stolen bases.
Roberts, who played three games for Las Vegas in 1995 on an injury rehab stint, also made the 1992 National League All-Star team and finished among the top 10 NL hitters in 1990, 1992 and 1994.
Eddie Williams (Las Vegas Stars, 1990, 1994, 1998)
If ever there was a poster child for the phrase “baseball journeyman,” it was Eddie Williams.
Drafted by the New York Mets with the fourth-overall pick in 1983, Williams played for 11 different Major League organizations from 1983-1999. He then went on to play four seasons of independent ball and one season in the Mexican League.
A prodigious power hitter from San Diego, Williams did three tours of duty with his hometown Padres in 1990, 1994-95 and 1998. And each time the first baseman/third baseman returned to the San Diego organization, he found his way to Las Vegas, where he frequently tormented Pacific Coast League pitchers.
Never was this truer than on April 22, 1998, when Williams had a game for the ages north of the border: Facing the Calgary Cannons, Williams exploded for a Las Vegas franchise-record four home runs and 10 RBI in a wild 20-15 victory.
Every time he donned a Stars uniform, Williams delivered at the plate. He hit .316 with 17 homers and 75 RBI in 93 games in 1990; .352 with 20 homers and 54 RBI in 59 games in 1994; and .336 with 20 homers and 77 RBI in 90 games in 1998.
Altogether, Williams’ career statistics rank among the best in Las Vegas history: .332 batting average, 57 homers, 65 doubles, 176 runs and 206 RBI.
Williams spent parts of 10 seasons (395 games) with six big-league clubs, but he did the bulk of his damage for San Diego. In 177 games with the Padres, Williams hit .279 with 26 of his 39 career home runs and 96 of his 150 career RBI.