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The Ultimate Slugger: How Rocky Colavito Made His Mark as a Home Run Machine

The former outfielder stands alone as Indy’s single-season home run leader
Sixty-one years later, Rocky Colavito looks back on the date he made history. (Photo from Cleveland Indians)
June 6, 2020

There’s a feat in baseball that is so rare only 18 have achieved it since the late 1800s. First it was Bobby Lowe of the Boston Beaneaters on May 30, 1894. Then there was Ed Delahanty. Lou Gehrig. Chuck Klein. Pat Seerey. Gil Hodges. Joe Adcock. And then, on a

There’s a feat in baseball that is so rare only 18 have achieved it since the late 1800s. First it was Bobby Lowe of the Boston Beaneaters on May 30, 1894. Then there was Ed Delahanty. Lou Gehrig. Chuck Klein. Pat Seerey. Gil Hodges. Joe Adcock. And then, on a Wednesday night in June 1959, there was Rocky Colavito.

Four home runs in a game, no more, no less. There have been players to hit five – four major leaguers, to be exact – but there’s another time and place for their stories.

Colavito’s career began in similar fashion to his game on June 10, 1959. Slow and steady but methodical, he walked in the top of the first inning. No one knew what would come next, but it was nothing short of greatness.

A similar sense of unknown followed when Colavito dropped out following his sophomore year at Teddy Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, N.Y., where he grew up.

“I had always wanted to be a major league player, so it wasn’t a difficult decision for me,” Colavito said. “I actually was a fair student – I wasn’t outstanding, and I wasn’t the worst. I think a lot of it was because I always wanted to play ball, my mind was always on baseball.”

Just a mile and a half away from where one chapter for Colavito ended, another began. Two short blocks east and a long stretch down Lorillard Place turned 3rd Avenue from then-Teddy Roosevelt High School sits Crotona Park, home to a semipro baseball league.

Colavito’s team, the Bronx Mohawks, played on what is now known as Roberto Clemente Ballfield that sits along the northeast edge where it meets Crotona Park Greenway. It’s where Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg began his career and where the La Caribe Baseball League has called home since shortly after Colavito’s time, developing stars like Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez for the big leagues.

It’s where Cleveland scout Hal Reason discovered a young Rocco Domenico Colavito and invited him to a tryout at Yankee Stadium, where Cleveland Farm Club Director Mike McNally was waiting.

“[McNally] saw the way I threw a baseball and I kind of showed him some power, I guess,” Colavito said of his tryout performance. “He kind of took a shine to me over the other guys.”

Colavito did more than show him some power. In an article from the Society for American Baseball Research, McNally – who died in 1965 – said of Colavito’s ability to throw from the outfield: “I don’t think I have ever seen a stronger arm.”

That was all it took, and Colavito was signed by Cleveland as an amateur free agent prior to the 1951 season. He was placed with the D-League Daytona Beach Islanders as a 17-year-old and rose through the ranks of the organization with ease. He hit .275 in his first professional season, .228 in 1952 split between two Cleveland B-League affiliates, and .271 in Single-A Reading of the Eastern League in 1953.

What he would become known for started to take shape in that 1953 season. He led the Eastern League with a career-best 28 home runs and 121 RBI. He had been hitting home runs at every level, but that was only the beginning.

The top of the third inning on June 10, 1959 marked a new beginning for Colavito. With one out and one runner on, he stood at the plate and watched to see whether his first home run of the evening would stay inside the left field foul pole. It did. But that was only the first.

Colavito made his greatest case for being a major leaguer during the 1954 season, when the vast majority of the pennant-winning Reading team from the year before graduated to the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. On this team was Colavito’s friend and roommate on the road, Herb Score, who would later have a major impact on that four-home run game.

A 95-win season for the Tribe, in which it won a league pennant and reached the American Association Championship Series before losing to Louisville, Colavito led the charge right from the beginning.

He hit three home runs in a doubleheader vs. Louisville on May 4, two in the opener and one in the nightcap. On May 23, he notched a three-homer game while going 4-for-5 with seven RBI at Minneapolis. His June was highlighted when he hit a pair of home runs in the second leg of a doubleheader vs. Toledo.

All in all, Colavito finished the season with a league-leading 38 home runs, a single-season Indianapolis franchise record that still stands. He led the Tribe with 116 RBI, 293 total bases, 94 runs scored and 75 walks.

“I had 28 home runs and 75 runs batted in at the halfway mark,” Colavito said. “And then, like a lot of young kids, I hit a cold spot where I wasn’t doing that well. The second half [or a little less] I only hit 10 home runs. But we won the pennant. The bottom line, the most important thing in baseball is to win and we accomplished that.”

Following spring training in 1955, Colavito followed the big league club to Cleveland. Come Opening Day, however, a logjam of future Hall of Fame outfielders – including Ralph Kiner and Larry Doby – led to Colavito’s return to Indianapolis for the season.

It also led to Colavito requesting a trade from the Indians organization, feeling betrayed after the season he had in 1954. As fate would have it, however, the trade wouldn’t occur for another five years.

So, he picked up in Indianapolis where he had left off. On May 1 in a doubleheader vs. Omaha, he hit three home runs and drove in seven RBI. He notched two more two-homer games on July 23 vs. Minneapolis and Sept. 4 at Toledo.

The season cumulated in a .268 average, team-leading 30 home runs and 104 RBI, and he tied with William Harrell for a team-best 30 doubles. On Sept. 10, his major league career began where it would later end: Fenway Park. He entered the game as a pinch runner and scored a run.

On Sept. 24, Colavito entered the second game of a doubleheader at Detroit as a first-inning pinch runner and remained as the right fielder for nine defensive innings. He entered the day 0-for-2 in his budding career, with two strikeouts to his name.

He hit a double to left field in the third inning for his first major league hit. Another double and two singles later, no one could deny he was a big leaguer. He added to his 4-for-4 performance by throwing out Earl Torgeson at third base on a fly ball to right field. His 14-year major league career had begun.

On April 25, 1956, he hit his first of 374 major league home runs. Over the next 3.5 seasons, he would never hit more than two in a game. So, when he hit his second on June 10, 1959 – off a slider down and a bit away from fellow Bronx native Arnie Portocarerro – it was nothing out of the ordinary.

“That’s the way things go in baseball,” Colavito said. “When you’re going good, you can hit almost anything, and when you’re not, they could throw right down Broadway and you don’t hit it.”

His fifth four-hit game in a Cleveland uniform solidified him as a historic slugger. His first, that two-double game at Detroit, broke him through to the fans in Cleveland and he soon became a favorite not only on the field but off it.

“Cleveland became my favorite place in baseball to play,” Colavito said. “The people took to me wonderfully. They were so good to me, and I in turn tried to do the same to them.”

On his way out of the clubhouse postgame, he would walk from the first base side of the field to the third base side to get to his car. Kids would line up and wait for autographs.

Colavito remembers being one of those children, waiting for major league ballplayers and looking up to them for example. At a young age, he promised himself that if he ever made it, he would sign for every kid in line.

When he was able on the nights where the team had no bus or plane to catch, he would do just that. His wife knew not to have dinner ready until at least two hours after the game, and it took him only an hour to get out of the clubhouse.

“I used to grab one kid and I used to say, ‘You line up and don’t cheat. Make one line and I’ll sign everybody here.’” Colavito said. “I didn’t even have to say it after a while. When I came out of the clubhouse, one kid would always say ‘Line up, he’ll do everybody,’ and I did. I kept my promise.”

In 1956, he hit .276 with 21 home runs and 65 RBI with Cleveland. He had hit just .215 through June 14 to get him sent to San Diego in the Pacific Coast League for a month. When he returned and remained in Cleveland from July 24 through the end of the season, he hit .301 with 16 home runs. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting and never returned to the minor leagues.

In 1957, he hit .252 with 25 home runs and 84 RBI. He notched two multi-homer games that year, the first of his major league career on June 7 vs. Washington.

Two years and three days later with his third home run at Baltimore, he broke his own single-game best on a pitch almost identical to the low and away slider he had seen before. As he ran out to right field following the shot, the fans stood and applauded, realizing they were on the verge of witnessing history.

In 1958, Colavito was on the verge of adding his name to another list in history. He finished the season third in American League MVP voting behind Jackie Jensen and Bob Turley after slashing .303/.405/.620, with his slugging percentage leading the major leagues. His 41 home runs trailed only Micky Mantle’s 42 for most in the AL, and his 113 RBI were a close second as well.

Through the sixth inning on June 10, 1959, Colavito had hit 17 of the 42 home runs that would tie with fellow former Indianapolis Indian Harmon Killebrew for the American League lead. Colavito hit .257 that year with 111 RBI in 154 games and was named to his first of six career All-Star games.

In the ninth inning he made history. The closest thing Baltimore had to a closer, Ernie Johnson, had entered the game in the eighth to finish it out. “I’ll show you how to get this guy out,” Colavito later learned Johnson had boasted.

Score, on the other hand, knew what Colavito was capable of even more than the slugger himself. As he sat on the dugout steps, Score turned to Colavito said, “Alright roomie, go up there and hit number four.”

“Are you kidding?” Colavito recalls saying back. “I’ll be happy if I get a single.”

Colavito had gone 4-for-32 in his last eight games and was already 3-for-3 that night. When you’re on you can hit anything, and when you’re off they could throw it right down the middle. Colavito’s numbers prior to that game suggested he was off.

Score swore at him and said, “Just go do it.” Colavito wasn’t about to argue.

Johnson went up and in for the first pitch, backing Colavito off the plate. Instead of looking down and away, like where his last two home run pitches had been, Colavito shrugged off any premonitions about what pitch would be thrown.

“I just looked for the ball,” Colavito said. “He threw me a high fastball that was on the inner part of the plate, and I hit that one as hard as any of them.”

The ball landed in the left field bleachers, and Colavito’s name joined the seven before him to accomplish the feat.

Colavito was a .272 hitter through the end of the 1959 season with Cleveland. Prior to the 1960 season, he was sent to Detroit in exchange for the reigning AL batting champion Harvey Kuenn in a blockbuster trade that devastated Indians fans and delighted those of the Tigers.

The slugger spent four years in Detroit. He led all major leaguers with 163 games played in 1961 and hit a career-high 45 home runs. He led the AL with 309 total bases in 1962 and 692 plate appearances in ’63.

He spent one season with the Kansas City Athletics before returning to Cleveland in 1965, where he led the AL with 108 RBI and finished the season fifth in MVP voting.

The lifetime .266 hitter bounced from Cleveland to the Chicago White Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers and finally ended his career less than two miles from where he grew up in the Crotona Park semipro league, with the New York Yankees.

He hit the final home run of his career in his hometown vs. Cleveland on Sept. 24, 1968. Four days later on the grass of the AL East rival where he made his debut 13 years prior, Colavito appeared in the final game of his career.

Now, the legend – not the curse – of Rocky Colavito lives in the record books and will forever be part of baseball history in Indianapolis. He was inducted into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame in 2006 for his career in the place he grew to love.