"The absolute, number one, best day in my career I hit four straight home runs in one game."
Sixty years later, the Summer of ’61 remains as one of the iconic periods in baseball history.
Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson were tearing up National League pitching and over in the AL, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris captivated the country as they chased The Babe in The Bronx.
When it came time for the All-Star Game, all of those guys were of course included. As were Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford, Stan Musial and Yogi Berra. It was an incredible haul of all-time legends.
Two of the starting outfielders for the American League All-Stars were Mantle and Maris, no surprise there.
The starting left fielder next to the M and M Boys was Indians legend Rocky Colavito – and he joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.
The Boys of 1961 weren’t just baseball stars; they were towering figures. They inspired kids across the country to make basket catches like Mays. They were heroes to entire nations like Clemente. All of a sudden, there were kids in New York City who had their own Oklahoma accent just like their hero Mickey.
Colavito may not have had the longevity or Hall of Fame career of those guys—not many did—but to think he was any less revered by fans at his peak is just inaccurate.
Two days before the start of the 1960 season, Colavito was shockingly traded to the Tigers for Harvey Kuenn. To say the blowback against Indians GM Frank Lane was hostile was an understatement. Fans were heartbroken and Colavito felt the same way.
“So, she had the idea to have a statue for me in a park in Little Italy. It’s gonna be this August for my 88th birthday and if I’m still kicking, I will be there. I’m overwhelmed by it, really tickled by it.”
It took him a year to get out of what he described as a funk, but in 1961 he was back to his old self. The powerful righty set his career high in homers (45) RBIs (140), walks (113) and batting average (.290) on the way to finishing eighth in MVP voting.
On defense, he might have been even better. The Rock threw out 16 runners on the bases with his rifle for an arm, registered the most putouts among AL left fielders and was the best defensive left fielder using advanced metrics like Total Zone Runs and Range Factor.
Colavito had his last great All-Star season at age 32 before injuries took their toll. He was out of baseball by the age of 34 after playing 39 games for the Yankees in 1968.
The man is an absolute living legend, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Rocco Domenico Colavito.
What an honor it is to have you as our guest this week, Mr. Colavito. Let’s start off in the 1930s when you were a kid in New York City. Who did you root for?
Without a doubt my favorite team was the New York Yankees. I didn’t live very far from Yankee Stadium. My favorite all-time player was Joe DiMaggio.
We always hear about the great baseball and stickball that was played in sandlots and streets of New York during that time. I imagine you had to grow up playing ball like that, right?
Oh yeah, for sure. We always played neighborhood baseball. I played around the city on a team called the Bronx Mohawks. We were like a semi-pro team and we would play any team in the city. We were fearless when it came to that. One team out of Bushwick was like a pro team and they wouldn’t play us. They thought we would knock them off and it would give them bad publicity.
How did you end up going from the streets of New York to the Cleveland Indians?
I was 16 years old when they first saw me. They had a scout named Hal Reason. He saw me play at a tryout camp at a PSAL field. It was a double field. It was a big rectangle and there were home plates at each end. Each field it was 460 feet down the left field line. There was no chance for a cheap home run. You had to hit it over the left fielder’s head and run your ass off for an inside the parker.
Hal Reason liked the way I threw and liked me as a player. He took me to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania where the Indians had a farm team called the Wilkes-Barre Indians. Mike McNally, who was a former roommate of Babe Ruth, liked me and signed me. I signed the contract on December 28, 1950.
What were your reflections on your great minor league career?
I was very proud of it. I’m not bragging; I hate bragging. But if you can back it up, it’s not bragging. But I don’t like to pat myself on the back. My first year I led the league with 23 home runs at Daytona Beach, which I was happy about. I drove in over 100. I just missed out on the league lead in RBIs though by less than ten. That was 1951 and I was just 17.
To be honest, I thought I was gonna get called up in ’54. By July of 1954, I had 28 home runs and 75 RBIs in AAA and nobody called me up. I was very disappointed in that. My second half was not as good. I ended up with 38 homers. I hit 28 the first half, but just 10 in the second. I didn’t do what I thought I was capable of in the second half.
(From left:) Roger Maris, Rocky Colavito, Norm Cash and Mickey Mantle
When you did finally get up in 1955, that was an incredible Indians team. I count five Hall of Famers on that team including Ralph Kiner, Larry Doby, Bob Feller, Hal Newhouser and Early Wynn. That’s not to mention other All Stars like Al Rosen, Herb Score and Vic Wertz. What was it like being a 21-year-old kid around all those legends?
When I got there, I was a player. I felt like I finally earned my way there. Being called up with those guys; let’s face it, those were the biggest names. They were all such great players. I was honored by that.
My roommate was Herb Score. He was my best friend in baseball. We were more like brothers. I roomed with him for seven straight years, on the road and at home. Herbie got called up in 1955 and went 16-10 and stayed. I got sent bac down though and that was disappointing.
In 1956 you had a great year and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Luis Aparicio. Can you talk about that season?
In ’56 I went to Spring Training with the Indians. I opened the season in Cleveland, but they sent me back down. They didn’t send me back to Indianapolis though, which I was mad as hell about. If I was being sent back, I wanted to go back to Indianapolis because I had played there the past two years and hit 30 and 38 home runs.
Where did they send you if you had already dominated AAA?
Well, Hank Greenberg was a fantastic friend and a very trusting General Manager. If he told you something, he did it. He told me he was sending me to San Diego in the Pacific Coast League. I said, “I’m not going. I’m going home. Trade me to somebody else that needs an outfielder.” I was sitting in the press area and Bill Veeck came over. Hank and Bill Veeck were tight. He tried to talk me into going out there. I told him too that I wasn’t going. My wife was pregnant, and I told him I was going home to think about what I am gonna do.
Hank made me a promise that he would bring me back in three weeks. I knew Hank was good on his word, so I went. At the end of three weeks, I was hitting .425 with 12 home runs and 32 RBIs. He didn’t call me back up.
I called him and said, “Hank. This is Rocky Colavito.” He says, “Rocky, how are you doing?” I said, “Not too good. You promised me in three weeks you would bring me back. I don’t know what more you want from me, I’m hitting .425.”
He said, “I know. I got a deal cooking and am ready to consummate it. Just give me another week.” He was always good to his word, so I said, “OK, I’ll give it another week, but if you don’t call me up, you can say adios to me.”
I am guessing he called you up?
My locker was right next door to the manager Bob Elliott’s office. Every time the phone rang, my antenna went up. I thought it was Hank calling me to come back, but it never was. After a while, I said, “Screw the phone” and stopped paying attention because of the frustration.
We were in between games of a doubleheader. The first game I walked once and went 0-for-3 with a lined shot that if I got in the air would have went out. Bob Elliott called me in and said, “Rocky, you’re being called up by the Indians. Do me a favor and play the second game though?” I did and went 0-for-3 again with another lined shot like the first one. My last day I went 0-for-6.
Then the next day you were in the Major Leagues?
Yes. When the game was over, I took my ass to the hotel, grabbed my bag and went right to the airport. I took a redeye and got to Cleveland about seven in the morning. I landed and went to the hotel, had breakfast and walked to the ballpark. It was about 9:00 AM. I remember it clear as day. There was a fence to go in by Hank’s office. It was Gate A. I remember everything about it. Hank was right in front of me. He said, “What are you doing here!” I said, “Didn’t you call me up?” He said, “Yea, but I didn’t think you’d be here so soon. Now I have to call a press conference!” He called a press conference to announce that he made a trade and that I was put on the roster.
That’s great. It shouldn’t have taken them so long! You played against Ted Williams for a few years. I always love hearing people talk about what it was like to play against Ted. What was he like?
We became very friendly. We went to dinner together sometimes. I thought he was the greatest hitter I ever saw. I never saw him look bad. Ever. You know how some guys can get out in front or get jammed? I never saw Ted Williams do any of those things. He was in command at all times at the plate. He was something else.
I remember one time Gary Bell was pitching. I don’t know if Ted ever admitted it, but he would look for pitches. Against Gary, he was looking for a fastball. Gary threw him a real good 3-2 curve right down the middle. Teddy took it for strike three, flipped his bat away and trotted out to the outfield. The fans got on him. The next time, Teddy hit one that nobody could reach because it was in the right field upper deck. You did not see that many balls hit into the upper deck in Cleveland. I never forgot it and I don’t think Gary ever forgot it either.
You’re known for having one of the strongest and most accurate arms in baseball history. How did you develop that legendary throwing arm?
I appreciate the word accurate there. A lot of people didn’t want to give me credit for my accuracy and that wasn’t so. I could throw the ball right where I wanted to throw it. Anyway, when I was a kid, we had this playground. There were two fences about 40 feet apart. My brothers, Domenick and Vito, wouldn’t let me go home until I could throw a ball over the fence. I was just a little kid. They wouldn’t let me leave until I did it. I really think that strengthened my arm. God has to bless you with that ability, but then you can do things like that to strengthen it.
You played the final 39 games of your career with the Yankees. You actually pitched 2.2 innings in relief one game and even got a win. How did that come about?
When I first joined the Yankees, Ralph Houk was the manager. He was a man’s man, just a great guy. I told him, “Ralph, I know your pitching is a little thin. In the event you need someone, I can mop up for you. Note the words ‘mop up.’ I’ll be glad to help you out.” I had confidence in my ability to pitch. Ralph looked at me and said, “I’ll remember that.”
One day, I was coming to the ballpark for a Sunday doubleheader in Detroit. It was late in the season. Ralph called me in his office and said, “Did you mean what you said the day when you joined us that you’d be able to pitch?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” He said, “You’re my number one man today.” I got elevated from mop up to top man out of the bullpen.
The Yankees went to the bullpen early that game and like Houk said, you were his top guy. Can you take us through what happened?
I asked him if he wanted me to stay on the bench or go to the bullpen. He told me to stay on the bench and if he needed me, he’d send me down. Steve Barber was the pitcher, and he was my roommate. Barber got in early trouble and Ralph sent me to the bullpen to warmup. I went down there, no questions asked.
I trotted out to the Yankee bullpen and warmed up, but Barber got out of the debacle he was in, so I sat down. The next inning, he got in trouble again and they got me back up. This time, they called me in. The people went bananas.
I got their pitcher Pat Dobson for the last out of the inning with no runs. Then I led off the bottom of the inning against Dobson. I held them again and we had a rally in the sixth. We were down a few runs and Bill Robinson and Bobby Cox hit home runs. I walked and then scored the go-ahead run, and we kept the lead. I got the win and scored the winning run.
Then game two, my first at bat I hit a home run off Mickey Lolich. That was one of the last home runs I ever hit and we swept them in a doubleheader. It was a fun thing, something that is not easy to forget. It’s one of the highlights of my career.
I believe it. Lolich was a great pitcher too! There were so many great pitchers in that era. Who would you consider the toughest you ever faced?
I am excluding my roommate Herb Score because he hurt his arm and didn’t stay as dominant as he would have been. But for me it was Whitey Ford. He had one hell of a curve ball. A hell of a changeup. A very sneaky fastball. It was an easy motion and the ball jumped on you. And he had a hell of a mudball. When Ellie Howard got the ball, he would rub it into the dirt, and it would get a dark spot. He did it real quick. Whitey was great. You never knew if he was winning 5-0 or losing 5-0. His attitude never changed.
Can’t argue with that pick. What about the best player you ever saw?
In my opinion, that would be Willie Mays. Right along side of him was Mickey Mantle. Willie Mays had the enthusiasm and could just do it all. He never got credit for how good he could throw. Of course, he could hit, run and field and had power to all fields. He was absolutely a great player.
I read that they will be honoring you with a statue in Little Italy in Cleveland this summer. How did that come about?
A woman by the name of Ida Pocci thought I should be honored with a statue at the ballpark. What they were told was that only Hall of Famers have statues at the stadium. So, she had the idea to have a statue for me in a park in Little Italy. It’s gonna be this August for my 88th birthday and if I’m still kicking, I will be there. I’m overwhelmed by it, really tickled by it.
You have always been such a hero to the people in Cleveland. What do you think of your fans and the way they look up to you?
You know, a fellow by the name of Mark Sommer wrote a book about me a couple years ago. It was called Rocky Colavito, Cleveland’s Iconic Slugger. It’s still available and been very well received. I did a book signing in Cleveland. Now it was a long time ago that I played in Cleveland. And I mean a long time ago. But you know what? Over 800 people came to that book signing. If you don’t appreciate that and are not overwhelmed by that, which I was, then something is wrong with you.
You had so many incredible accomplishments. Do you have one that you consider your best?
The absolute, number one, best day in my career I hit four straight home runs in one game. I almost did it a second time too playing for Detroit in Cleveland. I hit three in a row and the fourth one I hit into the upper deck that went foul by about 15 feet. I stood right at home plate and watched it. I knew I hit it out, but it was foul. I was very disappointed. Then I hit a sharp ground ball up the middle, but they had a shift on me and got me out. I really wanted that one though. No player ever did it twice.
This has been absolutely incredible, Mr. Colavito. Such an honor to talk to a baseball legend like yourself. Before we leave, do you have one last thought?
I loved everything about playing baseball. I played with and against the best to ever play. It was a challenge, but I loved my teammates and fans. The people were always terrific to me and I always tried to reciprocate that.