Don't knock the Rock!
Two important dates are quickly approaching – Easter Sunday and Opening Day!
Both of these days will always be remembered in Tribe history. On Easter Sunday, April 17, 1960 – the day before Opening Day – Frank “Trader” Lane made the most hated trade in Cleveland Indians franchise history. Rocky Colavito, the 1959 A.L. home-run champ (42) was traded for Harvey Kuenn, the ’59 batting champion (.353).
To further infuriate Tribe fans Lane justified the deal by saying “I traded hamburger for steak”. It turned out to be the worst trade in franchise history. In just two seasons, Lane had virtually dismantled the talent laden 40-man roster he inherited. He was fired in 1961.
During the final exhibition game in 1960, Colavito, who homered in his first at bat, was notified by manager Joe Gordon that he had been traded to Detroit. Also during the ’60 season, in a strange twist, Lane traded managers by sending Gordon to Detroit for Tigers skipper Jimmy Dykes.
Being of Irish-Italian heritage I still remember how revered Rocky was. He was my childhood idol and I still remember crying when my father told me he was traded. In my Italian grand-parents home there were three distinguished pictures on the wall – The Pope, Frank Sinatra and Rocky Colavito. Trading Rocky Colavito was treason, but dealing him on Easter Sunday was sacrilegious in many Northeast Ohio households.
The Curse of Rocky Colavito was born.
Cleveland sportswriter, Terry Pluto, wrote a great book about the infamous trade and the botched transactions by Frank Lane that led the Indians into thirty-five years of futility. This book is a must read for Tribe fans of all ages.
From 1954 through 1959 the Indians had a winning percentage of .579. For the next five seasons the team would not even play .500 baseball. It wasn’t until 1965, when the Indians re-acquired Rocky, that the team would be in contention again and finish the season 87-75.
A Star is Born
Rocco Domenico Colavito, Jr. was born August 10, 1933 in New York. He grew up in the Bronx and was a Yankees and Joe Dimaggio fan. At the age of 16 Colavito dropped out of school to get a job – professional baseball.
The Yankees, Dodgers and Indians were the teams that showed the most interest. The Indians were the only team that offered Colavito a signing bonus and a performance based contract. He received a $1,250 signing bonus, another $750 if he was kept for 30 days and another $1,000 if he was still under contract after 60 days. His monthly salary playing in the D-League was $300. He gave most of his bonus to his father and brother.
Colavito displayed great power from the time he signed. A right handed hitter and thrower he was powerfully built at 6’3” and 190 pounds. He averaged 28 homers and over 100 RBI in his five year minor league career. During his 14-year Major League career Colavito averaged 33 home runs and 102 runs batted in. At least once during his career he led the American League in home runs, doubles, extra base hits, runs batted in and slugging percentage.
In addition to his offensive prowess Rocky possessed a cannon for a right arm. He amassed 123 assists and a .980 fielding percentage in his career. He led the American League in assists from 1961 through 1963. In 1965, playing every game, he became the first outfielder in American League history to finish the season with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage.
In 1955, Colavito finished second to Luis Aparicio for the Rookie of the Year Award. He was a six time All-Star and finished his career with 374 home runs, 1,159 RBI and a ,266 batting average. He was the fifth player in MLB history to have eleven consecutive 20-plus home run seasons (1956-66), exceeding 40 home runs three times and 100 runs batted in six times during that stretch. When he retired, his 374 homers in the American League ranked behind only Jimmie Foxx (524) and Harmon Killebrew (then at 397) among the league’s right-handed hitters.
The best offensive performance of Colavito’s career was June 10, 1959. Rocky never used the word slump but was clearly scuffling coming into this game versus the Orioles in Baltimore. He came into the game with three hits in his last 28 at bats. Before the game Colavito entered the third base dugout at Memorial Stadium and saw Harry Jones, a beat reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
"Hey, Rocky, when are you going to come out of this slump?" Jones asked.
"What slump?" was Colavito's reply.
Jones: "C'mon, you know what I mean."
Colavito: "I don't know what you mean."
Jones: "Geez, you're 3-for-28. Don't you call that a slump? When are you coming out of this thing?"
Colavito: "You never know, Harry. Tonight might be the night. You never know."
The Sporting News had written an article in its June 10th edition touting Colavito as the American League slugger most likely to break Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a season. Eddie Matthews of the Milwaukee Braves was the choice to break the record in the National League.
"Don't be silly," Colavito laughed it off when the suggestion was made to him. "That was a fine compliment The Sporting News paid me," observed Colavito. "I hope my slump is not letting the paper down."
The Rock slugged four consecutive home runs and had six RBI with a walk and five runs scored that night. At the time, he was only the third player in MLB history to hit four home runs in one game. There have only been three players to match that feat since.
"Honest, I was just trying to meet the ball," said Colavito. "No, I wasn't going for a fourth. I thought I had a pretty good night already, hitting three."
In 1965, Gabe Paul brought Rocky back to his adoring fans in Cleveland through a three-way trade. The price was steep. It cost the Indians a couple young prospects – Tommy John and Tommy Agee. Adding Rocky to a roster that already included Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Sonny Siebert, Leon Wagner, Max Alvis and Vic Davalillo made the Indians an American League contender. Rocky did his part with a .287, 26 homer and 108 RBI season and played all 162 games.
In 1976, Rocky was voted the most memorable personality in Cleveland Indians’ history. In 1981 he was elected to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame. In 2006 Rocky was elected into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame. He remains eligible for consideration by the Veterans Committee for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
As a player, Rocky was always willing to spend hours signing autographs for his fans. His personal life is marked by an impeccable reputation, high morals and strong values. He has always been a devoted family man. He once went into the stands at Yankee Stadium to defend his wife, father and brother from an abusive fan. He and his wife, Carmen, have been married for over 50 years, live in Berks Pennsylvania and are committed to their children and grandchildren.
Rocky’s entire life has been a model for other professional athletes to emulate. Professional baseball could use more class people like Rocky Colavito. I am proud to say he is still my hero. At age 79, it would still be very difficult to find anyone that could legitimately “Knock The Rock”!