Book Chronicles Life Of Cleveland Indians Legend Rocky Colavito

[Mark Sommer]
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Moviegoers in the State Theatre in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square were watching a Doris Day film on Easter Sunday in 1960.  Suddenly, the houselights went up. The manager stepped onstage.  Given that it was the height of the Cold War, surely he had dire news about the Russians attacking. Instead, he delivered a message that many found equally shocking: The Cleveland Indians traded arguably both their best and most popular player Rocky Colavito to the Detroit Tigers.

Mark Sommer began his new book “Rocky Colavito: Cleveland’s Iconic Slugger” (McFarland & Co.) with this bombshell. The trade soured many of the team’s fans forever.

Sommer, a long-time newspaper reporter now working for the Buffalo News, has written the first comprehensive biography of the Indians slugger in more than half a century.

[Mark Sommer]

Sommer, a native New Yorker who grew up in Southern California in the late 1950s and early 1960s, wasn’t an Indians fan but loved Colavito. 

“I liked the way he held his bat. I liked his great name: Rocky Colavito. There was something about the way he carried himself,  he had a kind of magnetic personality that drew me to him,” Sommer said.

Colavito’s major league career spanned from 1955 to 1968.  He played during the time when baseball was truly the “national pastime.”

“It was a golden age of baseball. Football hadn’t risen to anywhere near the level of popularity it is today, same with professional basketball. Baseball had sports to itself in a way, it was ‘the’ sport. Players in those days were household names,”  Sommer said.

It didn’t take long for Colavito to become a favorite player with Indians fans, especially among Cleveland’s sizeable Italian-American community.

“There was a lot of discrimination Italian immigrants felt when they came to the United States. They had dark skin, with curly hair and they were Catholic. Baseball was a great equalizer. Joe DiMaggio, whom Rocky patterned himself after, was the first Italian-American baseball star. Rocky in many ways was the next great icon for Italian-Americans, certainly in Northeast Ohio.  Rocky was loved by everyone, and Italian-Americans could take a lot of pride and see their own aspirations through Rocky,” Sommer said.

[Mark Sommer]

After five years in the minor leagues, where he hit 150 home runs, the 22-year-old Colavito was called up to the Indians in 1955. The previous season the Tribe appeared in the World Series and was swept by the New York Giants.  As the decade progressed and players from the World Series-winning 1948 team and the 1954 team begin to retire or be traded away, Colavito became the face of the franchise.  

“He became a star very quickly. In 1958 and 1959, he hit more home runs and knocked in more runners than either Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays, the two best players in the major league by most accounts. In 1959, he co-leads the American League in home runs.  He helps the team finish second in a pennant race, the first one in several years. Attendance surges to 834,000.  Colavito is being written about in Cleveland newspapers as one of the most popular players to wear a Cleveland Indians uniform,” Sommer said.

[Mark Sommer]

Then everything changed.

In 1957, the Indians hired Frank Lane as general manager. Prior to coming to Cleveland, Lane had been the general manager of both the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals where he became known for trading away players often to the dismay of fans. Dealing Colavito to the Tigers before the 1960 season set off a firestorm of protest in Cleveland, including fans burning Lane in effigy.

“Lane trades Rocky for the batting champion Harvey Kuenn. It was the first and only time to this day that a home run champion had been traded for a batting champion. Harvey was a very good ball player. He had the second highest career batting average at that time, second only to Ted Williams, at the time of the trade.  However, he was a zero on the charisma scale when compared to Colavito. Fans were completely depressed about this trade. The trade also brought about something else, a 34-year-period of futility that eventually became known as ‘the Curse of Rocky Colavito,’” Sommer said.

Colavito had success with the Tigers, where he played until he was dealt to the Kansas City Athletics at the end of the 1963 season. He spent 1964 with the A’s before being traded in 1965 back to the Indians, who were in desperate need of a box office boost.

“Gabe Paul (Lane’s successor as general manager) openly said ‘we needed to get Rocky back to save the franchise.’ Attendance after Rocky left plummeted dramatically over those five years. It was down to under 700,000.  Just like in 1957 and 1958, there was talk of the franchise having to move, and once again Rocky Colavito was there to save the day. Attendance went up to almost a million the first year Rocky was back.  He led the American League in RBIs. There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm about Cleveland. It looked like a storybook ending, but it wasn’t,”  Sommer said.

“In 1967, Rocky has really testy contract negotiations. He had hit 30 home runs in 1966, and his batting average dropped down to .238, which was his lowest career average. At the start of the season, the manager Joe Adcock, likely with Gabe Paul’s backing, said that Rocky would be a part-time player. He would platoon with another top player on the team, Leon Wagner, who was another fan favorite, which didn’t go over well with either ballplayer.  By mid-season, Rocky is traded away unceremoniously to the Chicago White Sox. The Indians get practically nothing for him. Rocky is a part-time player for the White Sox and ends his career the following year, first with the Dodgers and then the Yankees,” Sommer said.

[Mark Sommer]

Sommer interviewed around 20 of Colavito’s former teammates as well as meticulously researching the slugger’s career via sports publications and newspapers, but his most valuable source was Colavito himself.

“He was modest, generous with his time and very warm toward me. I had to earn his trust, which I believe I did. He is someone I think his fans would like very much. He does not think he is a big deal,” Sommer said.

For Sommer, Colavito represents more than just a baseball legend.

“I think he is part of Cleveland’s collective psyche in some ways. That trade, in some ways reflected the whole trajectory of Cleveland for a long time. Everything was on a high with Rocky Colavito. He embodied the best in baseball and then out of the blue, he is snatched away. Cleveland was an industrial powerhouse, but it was a victim of a lot forces outside its control. Cleveland went through a lot of difficult times. The 1990s saw a resurgence with a lot of development in Cleveland, though there is a long way to go. Cleveland has made a lot of progress, but it took a long time to get there. That trade of Rocky, ‘the curse’ as it is often called, is really a marker for what’s happened in Cleveland over many decades,” Sommer said.

Mark Sommer appears at the Baseball Heritage Museum in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood Saturday at 1 p.m.

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