By Glen Sparks
Rocky Colavito, being Italian and a Bronx guy from a certain time, idolized Joe DiMaggio while growing up. He wanted to be just as good and just as smooth as No. 5, the famous Yankee Clipper.
Colavito learned the game while playing on the New York City sandlots. He could hit, and, boy, could he throw. The kid had a cannon for an arm, and he liked to show it off.
The Cleveland Indians signed Colavito as a 17-year-old following a tryout at Yankee Stadium. Colavito hit from an open stance, just like Joe D. Unfortunately, he didn’t get DiMaggio-like results in pro ball. The curveballs there broke a bit harder than they did on the sandlots. Cut the DiMaggio impression, a minor-league coach said.
Rocco Domenico Colavito, born Aug. 10, 1933, took the advice and went on to enjoy a fine major-league career (1955-68). He hit 374 home runs and drove in 1,159 runs over 14 seasons. The 6-foot-3-inch slugger with the mighty forearms topped 30 home runs seven times and 40 homers three times.
Batting from the right side, he hit.266 lifetime (.489 slugging percentage), with a .359 on-base percentage. The Rock made six All-Star teams and finished in the top five in the MVP voting three times.
The Indians called up Colavito early in the 1956 season. He promptly smacked 21 homers in 101 games and batted 276 (OPS+ 135), finishing runner-up to Chicago White Sox shortstop Luis Aparicio for A.L. Rookie of the Year.
His career really took off in 1958. He smashed 41 home runs and placed third in the MVP race. In 1959, he led the league with 42 homers. He was never better than on June 10, 1959, in Baltimore. Rocky ripped four home runs in four at-bats, walked once, drove in six and scored five times.
The Sporting News declared Colavito as the man most likely to break Babe Ruth’s record of hitting 60 home runs in one season. That he never did. But, from 1958-66, Colavito clubbed 323 round-trippers in nine seasons, averaging almost 36 per year. Unfortunately for the fans in Cleveland, Colavito hit 173 of them for other teams.
Frank Lane was the Cleveland general manager during Colavito’s time. People called him “Trader” Lane for a reason. He loved to think about trades, to talk about trades and, most of all, to make trades. When he was charge of the Cardinals, he even tried to trade Stan Musial.
Lane shipped Colavito to the Detroit Tigers for Harvey Kuenn on April 17, 1960. Fans lit up the switchboard at Municipal Stadium. They couldn’t believe it. Just about every Indians fan hated the deal. It didn’t seem right; it didn’t seem fair. One baseball executive put it this way: “The Indians traded a slow guy with power for a slow guy with no power.”
An outfielder like Colavito, Kuenn hit for a high average (He won the A.L. with a .353 batting average in 1958.) and ripped plenty of doubles (He led the league three times), but he didn’t hit many home runs (The dozen he slammed in 1956 would be a career high.). Kuenn only spent one season in Cleveland, batting .308 (118 OPS+) before being dealt to the San Francisco Giants.
Colavito, meanwhile, kept pounding home runs (139 in four seasons with Detroit’; 45, 140 RBI, in 1961). In 1964, the Tigers sent him to the Kansas City Athletics, There, he finished with a team-leading 34 dingers.
Finally, Rocky made it back to Cleveland in 1965. Over the next two years, he hit a total of 56 homers. Colavito didn’t slow down until 1967 when he only hit eight (with the Indians and the White Sox). The next year, he also hit eight (with the Los Angels Dodgers and the New York Mets) and called it quits.
Terry Pluto wrote a book in 1994 titled The Curse of Rocky Colavito. Pluto argues that the 1960 trade of Colavito to Detroit led to an extended playoff drought for the Indians. The team had been a power in the 1950s. They went to the World Series in 1954 (losing to the Giants) and finished in a solid second place in ’59, Colavito’s last year with the Tribe. Not until 1994 did Cleveland get that far again. The Indians finally made it back to the postseason the next season. Was it a curse? Well, Pluto, and maybe some others, think so.
Colavito never got much Hall of Fame traction. He stayed on the ballot for two years, getting 0.5 percent of the vote in 1974 and 0.3 percent in ’75. Even so, he remains a legend of sorts in Cleveland, a Rock, if you will.