Top 100 Indians: #31 Rocky Colavito

Rocky Colavito - Jason Miller

The Top 100 Indians countdown doesn't Knock the Rock.

Rocco Domenico Colavito

Right Fielder, 1955-1959, 1965-1967

Height: 6'3" Weight: 190 lbs

Throws: Right Bats: Right

How Acquired (1): Amateur Free Agent, 1951

Left Via (1): Trade, April 17, 1960: Traded to the Detroit Tigers for Harvey Kuenn

How Acquired (2): Trade, January 20, 1965: Traded by the Kansas City Athletics with Cam Carreon from the Chicago White Sox for Tommie Agee, Tommy John and John Romano (all to White Sox)

Left Via (2): Free Agency, July 29, 1967: Traded to the Chicago White Sox for Jim King and Marv Staehle (PTBNL)

As someone who never saw Colavito play, it's hard to fully appreciate the effect Rocky Colavito had on the Cleveland fanbase, but the more I researched into him, the more I understood why the trade caused so much pain.

But I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself.

Rocky Colavito was born in New York City, or The Bronx to more specific. His mother died when he was young, so he was raised by father (Rocco Sr.) and four older siblings. He attended Theodore Roosevelt high school for a couple of years, but when it was apparent that he had the talent to play in the big leagues, he dropped out to play semi-pro baseball. MLB even at that time prohibited players from signing a big league contract before graduating from high school, but Colavito's appeal was accepted, with commissioner Happy Chandler making an exception. Growing up in the Bronx, Colavito was a big fan of Yankees, especially of Joe DiMaggio, but the Yankees didn't show that much interest in the young phenom, offering him a contract, but only if they liked what they saw in Spring Training. But the Indians did like him, and signed him for $3,000 plus $300 a month his first season. So the 17-year-old headed to D-League Daytona Beach to start his pro career.

Colavito was blessed with a great arm, which cemented his place in the outfield (though he did pitch a bit with Daytona Beach), and hit for power from just about the beginning of his pro career. He started out with an open stance a la Joe DiMaggio, but when he reached Reading in 1953 (Eastern League) his managed changed his stance, and the home runs started to come even faster. As a 19-year-old Colvaito hit 28 home runs for Reading, which led the league. That's even more impressive than you might think, because if anything the average EL player was older than today's EL player. Suffice to say that Colavito was one of the best prospects in baseball at the time. And Colavito wasn't the only phenom in the Reading, as 20-year-old Herb Score was also on that team. Score and Colavito were roomates that year, and would remain friends for life.

Normally that kind of dominant season would have earned Colavito a quick ticket to the big leagues, but keep in mind that the Indians were loaded at the big league level, with Larry Doby, Al Smith, and Dale Mitchell ensconced in the outfield, and so Colavito was instead promoted to Indianapolis for the 1954 season. While the big-league club won 111 games and the AL pennant, Colavito slugged 38 home runs and 30 doubles in the American Association (AAA). Next spring 21-year-old Colavito competed for a job with the big league club, but the Indians had acquired Ralph Kiner that winter, and so there wasn't room for him. So he went back to Indianapolis, hit another 30 home runs, and earned a late-season callup. He impressed in his brief time with the Indians, and so came into spring training in 1956 with a leg up to win the job in right field.

Colavito struggled in his first full big league season, so manager Al Rosen sent him to AAA for a couple of weeks to work on his swing, which had been tweaked. When he came back to Cleveland, Dale Mitchell was traded, giving Colavito the everyday job in right. And he didn't disappoint, as he hit .276/.372/.903 (135 OPS+) for a team that still had a lot of talent. The Indians that year went 86-66, buoyed mostly by a great pitching staff (Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Herb Score, Mike Garcia). But the position players were aging, and Colavito's breakout season didn't help quite enough, as the Indians finished in second place, 9 games behind the Yankee steamroller.

As Colavito developed into a star, the core from the 1954 club started to be broken up. Bob Feller and Al Rosen retired after the 1956 season, Early Wynn would be traded after 1957, Larry Doby was traded after the 1955 season, and Bob Lemon wouldn't be same after 1956. So Colavito quickly became the star of that club on the hitting side, with Herb Score the new ace in the rotation.

But 1957 would change everything. Score was hit by a line drive in May, and missed the rest of the season. The Indians finished 76-77, their worst record in over a decade. That cost Hank Greenberg his job, and Frank Lane was named as his replacement. Lane was already known as Trader Lane because of his aptitude for wheeling and dealing, and that continue with a vengeance in Cleveland.

Rocky had his greatest pro season in 1958, hitting .303/.405/.620 (180 OPS+) but somehow finishing third in MVP voting behind Boston's Jackie Jensen (148 OPS+) and New York's Bob Turley (119 ERA+). Well, I do kinda know why those two finished ahead of Colavito in MVP voting (Jensen led the league in RBI and Turley in wins), but looking back on things, the voting was really screwed up that season. The player who should have won the award (Mickey Mantle) finished fifth, and Colavito, who should have been second, finished third. But the Indians finished only a game better than their previous season (77-76), and were 20.5 games in back of the Yankees.

Joe Gordon was now the manager, and in 1959, the Indians had in retrospect their last hurrah of the post-war era. Thanks to Colavito, Minnie Minoso, and newcomer Tito Francona, the Indians almost slugged their way to a pennant. Colavito wasn't as good this year, but still hit 42 home runs, which led the league, and that included the first (and only) four homer game in Indians history. On June 10, 1959, Colavito hit home runs in four consecutive at bats in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, breaking out of what had been quite a home run slump for him (only 3 HR since May 19). That performance probably got him into the All-Star Game that season, which was his first of six appearances in the Midsummer Classic. The Indians finished 89-65, 5 games behind the White Sox, and with several young pitchers on their way (including Sam McDowell, Mudcat Grant, and Jim Perry), 1959 looked to be the beginning of another successful run.

But Trader Lane couldn't leave well enough alone. That winter he traded Minnie Minoso to the White Sox, with one of the players coming being Norm Cash. That deal would have worked out well, except in April of 1960 he traded Cash to Detroit for Steve Demeter, who would only play in four more major-league games. Cash of course would have an outstanding career for the Tigers. And then, on April 17, 1960, he traded Rocky Colavito to Detroit for Harvey Kuenn, a deal that send shockwaves through Cleveland. Colavito was only 25 at the time, had just hit 42 home runs, but more than that, he was a fan favorite, the 1950s/60s equiavlent of Bernie Kosar. "Don't Knock the Rock" was a saying everyone had at the time, and it was because everyone agreed that Colavito was their favorite player. And in those, pre-free agent days, it was assumed that your star player would play most of his career for you. When Bill Veeck tried to trade Lou Boudreau in 1947, news leaked out of the deal and fan backlash prompted Veeck to keep him. But in 1960, the fans didn't learn of the deal until it was complete.

Harvey Keunn had won the batting title the year before, and that type of hitter appealed to both Lane and Gordon, who justified the trade by referencing the fact that the Washington Senators had finished in last place despite finishing second in the league in home runs (the main problem was that they had black holes at catcher, shortstop, and second base, but I digress..). Colavito was shocked himself that he was traded, and still holds a grudge against Lane, as you can hear in this interview (around the 9:00 mark):


Four years later, when Colavito was with the Kansas City Athletics, the Indians reacquired him in a three-team deal that in many ways turned out to be a bad trade for the Indians. GM Gabe Paul had been trying for years to bring Colavito back to Cleveland, and ended up giving up Tommy Agee, Tommy John, and John Romano in the deal. But the deal reinvigorated the fanbase (attendance had been at the bottom of the league since the early 60s), and for a time people came back to the park.

But after a fine 1965 season, Colavito started to slow down, and in June 1967, after manager Joe Adcock started to platoon him, he was dealt to the Chicago White Sox. Colavito struggled in his half-season on the South Side, so after the season he was sold to the LA Dodgers. He finished his career for his hometown Yankees in 1968, serving as a pinch-hitter.

Long after his career ended, that 1960 trade became known as the event that marked the beginning of decades of futility. Terry Pluto's book about that dark era of is titled The Curse of Rocky Colavito because the deal coincided with the decline of the franchise and because Colavito was so revered by the Cleveland fans.

Colavito returned to Cleveland last summer, throwing out the first pitch on his 80th birthday. After he one-hopped his first attempt, he wanted another shot, and this time got it there on the fly:

He currently lives in Bernville, Pennsylvania, and still considers the Indians his team.

Sources

Wancho, Joseph. Rocky Colavito, SABR Baseball Biography Project

Baseball-Reference.com

Indians Career Statistics

Year Age Tm G PA H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ Awards
1955 21 CLE 5 9 4 2 0 0 0 2 .444 .444 .667 1.111 192
1956 22 CLE 101 380 89 11 4 21 49 46 .276 .372 .531 .903 135 RoY-2
1957 23 CLE 134 544 116 26 0 25 71 80 .252 .348 .471 .819 122
1958 24 CLE 143 578 148 26 3 41 84 89 .303 .405 .620 1.024 180 MVP-3
1959 25 CLE 154 664 151 24 0 42 71 86 .257 .337 .512 .849 133 AS,MVP-4
1965 31 CLE 162 695 170 25 2 26 93 63 .287 .383 .468 .851 140 AS,MVP-5
1966 32 CLE 151 614 127 13 0 30 76 81 .238 .336 .432 .767 119 AS
1967 33 TOT 123 436 88 13 1 8 49 41 .231 .317 .333 .651 95
1967 33 CLE 63 216 46 9 0 5 24 31 .241 .329 .366 .695 104
CLE (8 yrs) 913 3700 851 136 9 190 468 478 .267 .361 .495 .856 137
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/8/2013.

Selected Awards/Leaders

  • AL All-Star: 1959 (2), 1965, 1966
  • AL MVP: 3rd, 1958; 4th, 1959; 5th, 1965
  • AL WAR: 5th, 1958-6.0; 9th, 1959-5.3
  • AL WAR Position Players: 4th, 1958-5.8; 7th, 1959-5.3
  • AL oWAR: 2nd, 1958-5.9; 6th, 1959-6.0; 8th, 1965-4.4
  • AL Average: 7th, 1965-.287; 8th, 1958-.303
  • AL On Base Percentage: 2nd, 1965-.383; 4th, 1958-.405
  • AL Slugging: 1st, 1958-.620; 4th, 1959-.512; 9th, 1957-.471; 10th, 1965-.468
  • AL OPS: 3rd, 1958-1.024; 5th, 1965-.851; 8th, 1959-.849
  • AL Runs Scored: 5th, 1965-92; 10th, 1959-90
  • AL Hits: 3rd, 1965-170
  • AL Total Bases: 1st, 1959-301; 3rd, 1958-303; 10th, 1965-277
  • AL 2B: 8th, 1965-25; 9th, 1958-26
  • AL Home Runs: 1st, 1959-42; 2nd, 1958-41; 5th, 1965-26; 6th, 1957-25; 6th, 1966-30
  • AL RBI: 1st, 1965-108; 2nd, 1958-113; 2nd, 1959-111; 10th, 1957-84
  • AL Bases on Balls: 1st, 1965-93; 5th, 1958-84; 7th, 1966-76
  • AL Strikeouts: 4th, 1958-89; 8th, 1957-80; 9th, 1959-86
  • AL Singles: 9th, 1965-117
  • AL OPS+: 2nd, 1958-180; 5th, 1965-140; 8th, 1959-133
  • AL RC: 1st, 1965-110; 2nd, 1958-122; 7th, 1959-101
  • AL Extra Base Hits: 1st, 1958-70; 1st, 1959-66; 7th, 1957-51; 7th, 1965-53
  • AL Sacrifice Flies: 5th, 1957-7; 6th, 1965-7
  • AL Intentional Bases on Balls: 3rd, 1959-8; 5th, 1965-11; 6th, 1958-6
  • AL Double Plays Grounded Into: 1st, 1966-25; 9th, 1959-13
  • AL Caught Stealing: 10th, 1957-6
  • AL Win Probability Added: 4th, 1965-4.7; 5th, 1958-5.1; 7th, 1959-3.4
  • AL Putouts as RF: 1st, 1957-266; 1st, 1959-311; 2nd, 1966-264; 3rd, 1965-256; 4th, 1958-234
  • AL Assists as RF: 2nd, 1957-12; 2nd, 1958-14; 2nd, 1959-7; 2nd, 1966-9; 4th, 1965-9
  • AL Errors as RF: 1st, 1957-11; 4th, 1956-6; 4th, 1958-5; 4th, 1959-5; 4th, 1966-5; 5th, 1967-3
  • AL Double Plays Turned as RF: 1st, 1958-6; 2nd, 1957-2; 2nd, 1967-3; 4th, 1965-1; 5th, 1959-1
  • AL Fielding Percentage as RF: 1st, 1965-1.000; 2nd, 1958-.980; 2nd, 1959-.985; 2nd, 1966-.982; 5th, 1957-.962
  • AL Range Factor/Game as RF: 1st, 1957-2.14; 2nd, 1959-2.06; 3rd, 1958-1.92; 4th, 1966-1.87; 5th, 1956-1.87; 5th, 1965-1.64

Cleveland Indians Career Leader

  • 27th WAR Position Players (22.9)
  • 30th oWAR (21.6)
  • 42nd On Base Percentage (.361)
  • t-13th Slugging (.495)
  • 16th OPS (.856)
  • t-40th Games Played (913)
  • 43rd At Bats (3185)
  • 39th Plate Appearances (3700)
  • 37th Runs Scored (464)
  • 47th Hits (851)
  • 29th Total Bases (1575)
  • 10th Home Runs (190)
  • 17th Runs Batted In (574)
  • 19th Bases On Balls (468)
  • 24th Strikeouts (478)
  • t-11th OPS+ (137)
  • 25th Runs Created (576)
  • 24th Extra Base Hits (335)
  • 22nd Sacrifice Flies (25)
  • 19th Intentional Bases On Balls (29)
  • 18th Double Plays Grounded Into (90)
  • 8th Win Probability Added (14.7)

Cleveland Indians Season Leader

  • t-44th oWAR (5.9, 1958)
  • 11th Slugging (.620, 1958)
  • 19th OPS (1.024, 1958)
  • t-38th Plate Appearances (695, 1965)
  • t-37th Total Bases (303, 1958)
  • t-40th Total Bases (301, 1959)
  • t-8th Home Runs (42, 1959)
  • 11th Home Runs (41, 1958)
  • t-49th Home Runs (30, 1966)
  • t-8th Runs Batted In (113, 1958)
  • 45th Runs Batted In (111, 1959)
  • t-37th Bases On Balls (93, 1965)
  • t-12th OPS+ (180, 1958)
  • t-46th Runs Created (122, 1958)
  • t-38th Extra Base Hits (70, 1958)
  • t-17th Intentional Bases On Balls (11, 1965)
  • t-49th Intentional Bases On Balls (8, 1959)
  • t-6th Double Plays Grounded Into (25, 1966)
  • t-10th Win Probability Added (5.1, 1958)
  • t-17th Win Probability Added (4.7, 1965)
  • t-45th Win Probability Added (3.4, 1959)

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