“He was everything a ballplayer should be. Best of all, he had a nickname. Baseball fans love nicknames, especially when they fit.” –Terry Pluto, The Curse of Rocky Colavito: A Loving Look at a Thirty-Year Slump
When you think about the most popular players in recent Cleveland Indians memory, you might think about the mighty power of Jim Thome, Travis Hafner or Albert Belle. If not, maybe you think of the defensive mastery of Omar Vizquel, Kenny Lofton and Roberto Alomar. How about the game-changing abilities of CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee or Grady Sizemore? Or maybe, you simply remember players who had that “it” factor like Jason Kipnis, Victor Martinez and Carlos Baerga.
When you think about the most popular Cleveland Indian of all-time, however, take all of those aspects, bunch it up tight, and crunch it into one ‘Rock’ of a ballplayer.
Rocky Colavito turns 82-years old in August and remains one of the most popular sports figures in Cleveland history. The Rock, as he was known simply to the fans, possessed the mighty power, defensive dominance and game-changing “it” factor that all of the aforementioned players possessed.
The difference was that Colavito possessed them all—and the ladies loved him too.
Colavito was so popular amongst Indians fans that there was a public outrage when General Manager Frank “Trader” Lane sent him to the Detroit Tigers on April 17, 1960 in exchange for the reigning American League batting champion. Harvey Kuenn—the man he was traded for— was a seven time All-Star and had batted a league best .353 the season before the Tribe traded for him, yet the deal was still met with nearly 100% negative feedback. The headline of the Cleveland Plain Dealer the next morning read, Tribe gets Kuenn in Colavito Trade; Fans Enraged.
Colavito had spent the previous four-plus summers capturing the city of Cleveland’s heart, only to have Lane rip it out with undoubtedly the most controversial trade in franchise history. Harry Jones of The Plain Dealer called the deal a “baseball bombshell” while furious fans let their own opinions known in the newspaper as well.
“Frank Lane just threw away the pennant.”
“The trade stinks.”
“Very bad for Cleveland.”
“The most stupid thing I ever heard.”
“Tie (Lane) to a boxcar and run him out of Cleveland.”
“I’ll never go to the ballpark again.”
“Lane should sit in the ballpark by himself.”
These were just a few among the many that The Plain Dealer posted that morning.
Kuenn would never be loved by the Cleveland faithful, spending only one All-Star summer on the lakefront before being shipped to San Francisco that December. Colavito, on the other hand, was nothing but a memory in Cleveland as the then-powerful Indians fell into a three and a half decade slump. The trade was seen by many as a curse on the franchise, as the unpopular decision seemed to open the floodgates of poor choices made by the Cleveland front office.
It was Colavito’s awesome baseball skills that had made him so popular with the men in Northeastern Ohio, but it was his dashing good looks that made him so popular with the females. “One thing can be certainly said,” Indians fan George E. Shipley was quoted in The Plain Dealer as saying, “the feminine fans of Cleveland have had their hearts broken.”
No matter the reason for loving the man, Colavito was the toast of the town and the most popular Cleveland Indian since the beloved shortstop Lou Boudreau. He had thunderous power, a cannon for an arm and he was the best player on the team that had come up just short of the Chicago White Sox in a heated 1959 pennant race. The Rock was an All-Star, a rock star, and a superstar and he had plenty more years of homerun smashing ahead of him.
Colavito had already slugged 129 homers and driven in 373 runs in just about four seasons with the Tribe. He was an All-Star in 1959 and finished in the top four in the MVP voting twice. In 1956, his first real chance in the Major Leagues, Colavito batted .276 with 21 homeruns and 65 RBI in just 101 games. He finished second to the White Sox’s future Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio in the Rookie of the Year voting largely because Colavito did not become a regular that season until mid-May.
He showed a deliberate approach at the dish, tapping his bat on the plate before rocking toward the pitcher and eventually into his powerful stance. His swing was a thing of beauty, rivaled only by his amazing throwing arm. Legend has it that Colavito once showed off his arm by standing at home plate, hurling balls over the centerfield wall. According to the legend, Colavito’s personal record was an amazing 436 feet.
The Rock’s batting average dropped to .252 in 1957, but his power numbers grew to 25 homeruns and 85 RBI. As his popularity grew over the next two seasons, so did Colavito’s overall production. He slugged over 40 homeruns the next two seasons including a league leading 42 in ’59. Included in those 42 was a record tying day that Colavito had on June 10.
The Rock nearly single handedly led the Indians to an 11-8 victory at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium that day when he slammed a franchise record four homeruns off of the Orioles pitching staff. Colavito took starter Jerry Walker deep to left field in the third inning for a two run bomb and then took Arnie Portocarrero yard in the fifth and sixth. He capped off his big day when Ernie Johnson allowed his fourth big fly in the ninth, giving Colavito six RBI on the day.
Colavito became just the eighth player to hit four homeruns in a single ballgame, tying the Major League record. Since Colavito’s performance, eight more players have tied the record, with none passing the mark. Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers was the most recent to accomplish the feat in 2012, but no Indians player has done it since The Rock.
The four homer game and the rest of his ’59 All-Star season cemented Colavito’s legacy in Cleveland—right before Lane traded the popular sensation to the Tigers in the offseason. Colavito spent the next four seasons in Detroit, posting his best year in 1961. That season, Colavito batted .290 with career highs in homeruns (45) and RBI (140).
After 1963, Detroit traded the slugger to the Kansas City Athletics, who flipped the slugger back to the Tribe a season later. As a part of a three-way trade that also involved the Chicago White Sox, the Indians reacquired the veteran Colavito and Cam Carreon in exchange for Tommie Agee, Tommy John and John Romano. Romano was a two time All-Star with Cleveland while John and Agee were just starting long, successful careers that included multiple All-Star games. Colavito’s trade back to Cleveland is now viewed as nearly as big of a mistake that trading him away in the first place was.
Colavito did play well for the mediocre Indians of the mid-60’s, as he posted back-to-back All-Star campaigns in ’65 and ’66. Midway through the 1967 season, the Tribe again traded their aging superstar, this time to the White Sox, where The Rock’s career took a sharp decline. Colavito struggled through his half season with the Pale Hose, then split the following year between the Los Angeles Dodgers and his hometown and longtime favorite team, the New York Yankees. It was in the Bronx that The Rock ended his outstanding career in front of his friends and family.
Colavito was put on the ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974 and 1975, but received less than 1% of the votes each year. For his career, he appeared in nine All-Star games in six different seasons, as the Midsummer Classic used to be played twice a year.
In 2006, Colavito was enshrined in the newly re-established Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame and in 2001 he was named as one of the 100 greatest Indians of all-time. In the mind of the fans, however, The Rock very well may rank at the top of that list.
Photo: MLB Photo File