Colavito: Fan Favorite, Slugger … Pitcher?

The Indians’ comeback against the Tigers came up short Thursday, depriving Ryan Raburn of becoming the first position player in a year to get a win as a pitcher.

Raburn’s 1-2-3 ninth was the last time the Tigers faced Indians pitching before leaving town. Saturday, beloved Indians player Rocky Colavito was feted for his 80th birthday. Before Chris Davis did it last year, Colavito was the last American League player to get a win as a pitcher.

Rocco Domenico Colavito grew up in the Bronx, a fan of Joe DiMaggio and the Yankees. He dropped out of high school to further a baseball career, and was signed by the Indians in 1950. He demonstrated power at the plate. Colavito patrolled the outfield in some stadiums with great expanses of grass, like Cleveland Stadium, Tiger Stadium and Yankee Stadium, and was renowned for his throwing arm, throwing out a total of 123 baserunners in his career.

Occasionally, his arm was called on for the pitcher’s mound. The Indians and Tigers were playing a rare Wednesday doubleheader on Aug. 13, 1958. In the first game, a 6-2 Tigers win, Gary Bell lasted four innings, long enough to take the loss, but Ray Narleski and Don Mossi each came on in relief.

In the second game, Hoyt Wilhelm had given up two runs when he gave up singles to Frank Bolling and Red Wilson to start the seventh inning. Catcher Russ Nixon let one of Wilhelm’s knuckleballs get past him, and the runners advanced to second and third. Bullpens not being what they are today, manager Joe Gordon brought Colavito in to pitch.

The Rock got Coot Veal to fly out, scoring a run – charged to Wilhelm – and after walking Herb Moford, got Harvey Kuenn and Reno Bertoia to fly out. In the bottom of the inning, Colavito tripled off Moford to score Minnie Minoso and make the game 3-2. Colavito finished the game on the mound for the Indians. In his three innings of relief, he gave up no hits, walked three and balked once. The Tigers held on to the lead and won 3-2 for the twin bill sweep.

Of course, Tribe fans know the rest of the story. Colavito, a fan favorite, was dealt after the 1959 season for Kuenn. Frank Lane called the deal a significant upgrade, but Kuenn played just one more year in the majors. Colavito spent four years in Detroit and another year with the Kansas City Athletics. The Indians brought him back for the 1965 season, but in doing so gave up future Rookie of the Year Tommie Agee and durable pitcher and surgery namesake Tommie John.

Colavito was dealt to the White Sox – in a pennant push – in 1967, and after the season, was sold to the Dodgers. The Dodgers released him in July, and he latched on with his hometown team, the Yankees. He didn’t have a whole lot left in his bat, but he had one more pitching performance in him.

On Aug. 25, 1968, the Tigers had jumped on Yankees starter Steve Barber, getting out to a 5-0 lead in the first game of a doubleheader. Ralph Houk looked to his bullpen and brought in Colavito, who wasn’t in the lineup that day but had volunteered to pitch when he was signed by the Yankees. Colavito, pitching on 10 years’ rest, got Al Kaline to fly out and Willie Horton to ground out to end the inning.

Bill Robinson singled in the bottom of the fourth to score Joe Pepitone and put the Yankees on the board. Colavito continued to put up goose eggs pitching for the Yankees, and in the bottom of the sixth, Robinson and Bobby Cox hit back-to-back home runs, tying the game and sending Tigers starter Pat Dobson to the showers. Colavito was the first batter faced by new pitcher Daryl Patterson, and walked. Horace Clarke singled to advance Colavito to second, and Jake Gibbs singled to score Colavito and give the Yankees the lead.

In the top of the seventh, Colavito, who had given up just one hit, to Kaline, was lifted for Dooley Womack. The Yankees blanked the Tigers – who would go on to win the World Series behind some inspired pitching of their own – to win the game. Colavito had scored the winning run while in the lineup as pitcher, and got the win. The Yankees won the second game, with Colavito playing right field and hitting a home run off Mickey Lolich, for the doubleheader sweep.

All told, Colavito was 1-0 in two career pitching appearances — both against the Tigers — with one hit and a 0.00 ERA.

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