Like most baseball fans of a certain age, Mark Sommer was an admirer of Rocky Colavito.
The Bronx-born slugger came to Cleveland in 1955 and quickly became a fan favorite, thanks to his offensive prowess and what were described as matinee idol good looks. In fact, Sommer even owned a copy of “Don’t Knock the Rock,” the book written by former Plain Dealer Sports Editor Gordon Cobbledick in 1966.
Sommer revisited the book years later, and found it less than comprehensive, no doubt written quickly to capitalize on Colavito’s return to Cleveland six years after his unceremonious departure. He also found that Colavito, despite being one of the most popular ballplayers of his day, had no biography written about him since. So he set out to do it himself.
The result is “Rocky Colavito: Cleveland’s Iconic Slugger,” published by McFarland, which came out last month. It’s a detailed but fairly easy read (Sommer, a longtime journalist, has worked at the Buffalo News for the past two decades) telling Colavito’s story beyond the broad strokes that everyone in Cleveland knows by heart: He was a popular slugging outfielder who was traded for Harvey Kuenn by a general manager that had a pathological desire to make trades. The move might not have precipitated the Tribe’s decades-long tailspin, but it became a symbol for everything that would go wrong in the next generation.
“He’s really part of Cleveland’s psyche beyond sports,” Sommer said.
Sommer contacted the Indians, who happily put him in touch with Colavito, who has made his home near Reading, Pa., since he married his wife Carmen in 1954 while he was a minor leaguer there. Colavito’s been beset by some health problems in his old age, including a heart attack that led to a quadruple bypass and diabetes-related circulation problems that led to part of his right leg being amputated, but Sommer said he was more than helpful in writing the book, both in his collection of photos and clippings and his own detailed memories of the past.
“He was willing to talk, and he’s got a great long-term memory,” Sommer said.
The book talks at length about his upbringing in New York City and goes into some detail about his minor league career (an entire chapter is devoted to his relationship with Herb Score, whom he met in Reading and roomed with throughout their career together) and his major league career.
It also incorporates interviews with fans, telling how he had his own fan club and how willing he was to sign autographs. “It’s their story too,” Sommer says. (The book opens with a fan talking about how a movie showing at the State Theater was interrupted by the manager announcing the Colavito-for-Kuenn trade. “Can you imagine that happening today,” Sommer asks.)
Most people know about both his stints in Cleveland, but in between, he bounced around in Detroit, Chicago (with the White Sox) and Kansas City. What seemed to be a career destined for Cooperstown (he was the second fastest player to 100 home runs (behind only Ralph Kiner) and the fifth-fastest to 300, injuries and misuse by managers – particularly Joe Adcock, who in 1967 relegated him to being a part-time player – curtailed his potential. He retired following the 1968 season with 374 home runs, at the time an impressive total but now a little less so.
“It’s really hard to assess how good he might have been,” Sommer said. “He thought he still had it, but we’ll never know.”
The book also delves into Colavito’s second act, which included some coaching and some broadcasting for the Indians, as well as some hard feelings. The Indians took a particularly hard line on salaries in the 1970s, and Colavito resigned once after not getting a raise and was fired when the team changed managers (he was on Frank Robinson’s coaching staff).
Relations started to thaw first with Terry Pluto’s book about the “curse” his trade put on the team and then when he was asked to throw out a ceremonial first pitch during the 1995 American League Championship Series (Colavito, known just as much for his arm, actually pitched in several games in his career). He was named one of the 100 greatest Indians and returned on a couple other occasions, most recently in 2013 when he was honored by the team for his 80th birthday.
And he’ll be back again, appearing at the State Theater in Playhouse Square as part of the festivities surrounding the All-Star Game, along with teammates including Luis Tiant, Sam McDowell and Vern Fuller. And no doubt hundreds of fans who still love him – as much as he loves them.
“There have been a lot of sports heroes that left Cleveland,” Sommer says. “He was one of them, but the difference is that he didn’t want to go. His heart really belonged to Cleveland.”
Photo: McFarland Books