Catching Up With Rocky Colavito

When it comes to popularity in the city of Cleveland, a local legend still towers above the rest in terms of lovability and respect.

“It’s hard to explain,” said former Indians outfielder Rocky Colavito.  “So many people remembering you, and they talk to their kids, and they remember too.  It’s definitely a wonderful feeling.”

Now at 80 years old, Colavito remembers fondly back on his time playing baseball and especially his time in Cleveland, as he still enjoys the game that gave him a prolific 14-year career.  He pays attention to the game of baseball—and especially his Indians—even though he is transplanted into Philadelphia Phillies country.

“There was a time when I was a little sour on the organization,” Colavito said of the Tribe, “but no longer. That whole regime has turned over.”

Colavito, also known simply as The Rock, holds a special place in Cleveland fans hearts as well as a unique and strange place in franchise history.  Local legends say that the 1960 trade that sent Colavito away from the Indians in exchange for Tigers’ outfielder Harvey Kuenn cursed the organization and is the reason that the Tribe still sits in a 65-year championship drought.

“That’s one of the all-time fallacies.  Terry did a good job,” a smiling Colavito said of author Terry Pluto’s 1994 book, The Curse of Rocky Colavito: A Loving Look at a 33-Year Slump.

Colavito was dealt to the Tigers on April 17 at the end of Spring Training as the Tribe was playing one last warm-up game in Memphis, Tennessee.

“I found out during a game at first base,” Colavito remembers.  “It was the last game during spring training.”

The way that Colavito found out about the infamous trade is a story in itself.

“(Manager) Joe Gordon came to first base and told me I was traded,” Colavito said.  “He said, ‘You’ve been traded to Detroit for Harvey Kuenn and I want to wish you all the luck in the world.’  I was in shock.  I thought ‘Oh really?  You’re trading me and you want to wish me all the luck in the world?’”

Colavito’s reaction to the trade is one with opposing stories.

“All I could think to say was, same to you,” Colavito said without hesitation.  “Three words… Same to you.”

“Same to you” was not the line that the public was given, however.

“The next day, I picked up the paper and they want to make me look bad. They said that I said to Joe Gordon, ‘Kuenn and who else?’ Colavito said.  “I never said that. I never did that. There is a lot of things I never said that they said I said.  They wanted to make me look bad to the Cleveland fans, but they never bought it. I would never say anything like that. Harvey was a damn good player. He was the league leader in batting at .353.  I would never say that even if it was a lesser player. They tried to make me look like hell.”

The trade of Colavito did cause an uproar amongst Cleveland fans, as the tall, handsome Colavito with a rocket for an arm had long been a fan favorite while Kuenn was seen as a move in a lateral direction at best.  Colavito was as powerful as any player in the American League leading the homerun pack of elite sluggers at a time that included future Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew and Al Kaline.  One special game during the season before he was traded stuck out among the rest, as The Rock put on an impressive power display in Baltimore on June 10, 1959.

Colavito wowed the Memorial Stadium crowd that afternoon by slugging four homeruns in a single game, tying the Major League record with seven other men at the time.  Colavito knows it was his shining star as a player, but he wishes that it hadn’t been.

“It wouldn’t have been (the biggest game) if I had been on a pennant winner and we had won a pennant or maybe a World Series,” Colavito said.  “But it is the single game that I remember the most.  I remember it vividly.  Hitting four home runs in one game…how many guys do it?”

The answer to Colavito’s question currently stands at 16, as the former Texas Ranger slugger Josh Hamilton last accomplished the feat in 2012.  In another game that stands above the rest, Colavito nearly matched his historic feat when he came back to Cleveland as a member of the Tigers in July of 1962.

“The second best game was when I was with Detroit,” Colavito remembers.  “I hit three in a row against Cleveland, in Cleveland.  Now, where else would you want to do it other than Cleveland?  Everybody knew me, and hell, some of them were pulling for me as hard as their own players.  I hit two off of Pedro Ramos and one off of reliever Frank Funk, then they brought in a side-armer, a sinkerballer (Bill Dailey).  When I came up for the fourth time, I thought to myself I’d be the only person in history to do it twice. The only one up to that point. I hit a pitch off of him into the upper deck, it was as good of a ball as I hit all day. And I stood there watching as it was hooking, hooking. It went foul by 15–20 feet. On the next pitch I hit I shot to the second baseman up the middle.  So I didn’t get it.”

Colavito’s thunderous power surprised nobody in the Stadium that day, as Colavito was an All-Star who had led the league in homeruns and finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting for three out of the previous four seasons.

“I wasn’t looking to hit homeruns,” Colavito said.  “I was looking to hit the ball as hard as I can and as far as I could.  And that’s what I did.”

He certainly did.  Colavito provided his power with his natural, God-given talent, which is why he is irritated with the performance-enhancing drug problem that baseball has seen over the past two decades.

“They’re cheaters,” Colavito said sternly of the alleged steroid users.  “They cheat.  When I played, I never even heard of steroids.  There was Cortizone, and that’s a steroid I think.  But the word steroid was never used.

“You figure, a power hitter in our time – and I can speak for myself – we hit balls during the season out to the fence and it would be caught right in front of the wall.  Today that would be 30 rows up.  What bothers me the most is that, and I say this in modesty, my best year homerun-wise was 45.  Now, a kid is going to come along and say Sammy Sosa hit 60 three times.  Mark McGwire hit 70.  Barry Bonds hit 73.  It makes us look like we are mediocrity and we were in the top five in the homerun chase.  I resent that.  I don’t want any kudos, but I don’t think we were mediocre.  I think a lot of our guys feel that way.”

Upon his retirement in 1968, Colavito co-ran a family business for several years and eventually went back and was a coach and announcer for the Indians during the 1970’s.

“We had a mushroom plant,” Colavito said of his family business.  “Everybody thought it was a mushroom farm.  A mushroom plant is in buildings, and I don’t want to say they’re made out of concrete, actually hours was made out of cinderblock.  My father-in-law was the proprietor, really. He owned the buildings and the property and we went in partnership for the purpose of growing mushrooms.  We both kicked in so much, but he owned it. He was the expert. He taught me everything I knew.  But it really wasn’t my bag.  Once he said me, ‘Rock, you take over.  I want to retire.’ I said, no.  You sell it and I’m going to try to get back in baseball.  And I did.”

Nowadays, Colavito spends his time at his Pennsylvania home and doing his other lifelong passion, hunting.

“I love to hunt,” Colavito said.  “I still hunt…I’m still able, so far, with the help of my son, Steve.  I cut grass at my camp-I have a deer camp-I maintain tree stands. I keep busy with that. You’ve got to cut the grass at least once a week. I usually go up there two or three times a week…whenever I really feel like it.”

During the 2013 season for his 80th birthday, Colavito took a break from his other passion to return to Cleveland for a special birthday ceremony held at Progressive Field.  The fans welcomed The Rock home with an outstanding ovation and Colavito still appreciates the fans who adored him for so long.

“I’ve always felt like this is my town,” Colavito said with a twinkle in his eye.  “I love Cleveland.  It’s my favorite town in the world.  And that’s the God’s honest truth.”

Photo: Baltimore Examiner and Washington Examiner

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