On June 10, 1959, Rocky Colavito was in the middle of a slump, having gotten three hits in his previous 28 at-bats.
It was a long fall from the previous season, when the young slugger with the matinee-idol good looks had clubbed 41 home runs, good for second in the American League. And the Indians, who were fading from contention, were playing the Orioles at Memorial Stadium – not known for its hitter-friendly dimensions. And to top it off, a throwing error the night before by Colavito sparked a rally for the Orioles to win.
But the next day, Colavito had a game for the ages that day – which remains his proudest moment as a major leaguer.
Colavito, who despite his slump was still batting cleanup for the Indians, walked in his first plate appearance, scoring when teammate Minnie Minoso homered to stake the Tribe to a 3-0 lead. His second at bat came in the third, with one out and Vic Power on base. Colavito slammed a slider to left field to put the Indians up 6-3. His home run ended the day for Orioles starter Jerry Walker.
In the fifth inning, against Walker’s replacement Arnie Portocarrero, Colavito put another ball in the left field stands. And he did it again in the sixth as the last batter Portocarrero faced that day. Colavito got one more at bat in the top of the ninth. Prior to that, he was talking with his roommate, Herb Score, who told him to swing for the fences.
This time, the pitcher was Ernie Johnson, who was determined to work Colavito inside. He brushed him back with the first pitch, and then figured Colavito would look for a pitch low and away, so he threw another inside. “It was a strategy that backfired, to say the least,” Johnson said. And Colavito had become the third player ever to hit four home runs in consecutive at bats.
After the game, general manager Frank “Trader” Lane was asked if the Rock would get a bonus for his historic performance.
“He’ll get paid the first and 15th of the month, just like he and everybody else have in the past,” Lane said. “We don’t deduct from a guy’s pay when he goes 0-for-18, do we?”
Although Colavito was happy just to make contact the night he hit four home runs, the idea of a fifth one held some appeal. In his first at-bat the next game, he faced Milt Pappas – who’d remarked the day before that if Colavito was going to hit a home run off him, he’d have to earn it. Pappas, who would give up Roger Maris’ 59th home run in his historic 1961 season, fired a fastball about belt-high, “probably a better pitch to hit than any of the pitches I hit for home runs,” Colavito recalled decades later. He got under it and popped out to left field.
Three years later, Colavito was at Cleveland Stadium again – this time playing for the Tigers, who were the beneficiaries of Trader Lane’s compulsions. He hit three home runs, and came up for a fourth at-bat. He hammered a pitch from Bill Dailey down the left field line into the seats – and it hooked foul. Colavito then hit a hard liner to second base to end the inning, missing by about 15 feet the chance to be the only player to hit four home runs in a game twice.
Photo: Baltimore/Washington Examiner file photo