Double the fun: Now pitching for the Yankees, Rocky Colavito

Here is a guest post from Joe Guzzardi, who writes Double the fun every Saturday, examining one famous doubleheader each week. Today, Joe discusses on one of my favorite occurrences in baseball: When a well-known hitter takes a turn pitching.

________________

When he grew up in the Bronx, my Italian immigrant father rooted for the New York Yankees. His particular favorites over the years were Tony Lazarri, Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra.

But Dad always quietly rooted for another Bronx boy, even though Rocco Domenico Colavito played most of his career for the rival Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers.

When he was 16 Colavito, who had played semi-pro ball since he was 9, dropped out of school to pursue baseball exclusively. Even though Colavito lived in Yankee Stadium’s shadow, the Bronx Bombers showed little interest in signing him.

Eventually, Colavito inked with the Cleveland Indians. Because of his prodigious power, good looks and willingness to sign autographs for hours, Colavito became an immediate fan favorite.

Little wonder fans loved Colavito. In June 1959, the Sporting News touted Colavito as the “American League player most likely to emulate and possibly surpass Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in one season.”

That bold prediction followed Colavito’s June 10th four home run, six RBI performance against the Baltimore Orioles at Memorial Stadium that propelled the Indians to an 11-6 win. Properly described as cavernous, the old ball park measured nearly 450’ from left center to right center field.

Power numbers notwithstanding, the Indians abruptly and infamously traded Colavito to the Detroit Tigers just before the 1960 season for Harvey Kuenn.

In 1959, Colavito led the American League in home runs with 42; Kuenn was the batting champion, .353. Read one gleeful Detroit post-trade headline: 42 Home Runs for 135 Singles!

By the time Colavito arrived in Detroit, the city had a well developed love affair with Al Kaline. So although Colavito averaged 35 homers during his four Tigers’ years, fans never embraced him.

But a bigger reason Colavito never developed the Detroit fan base he enjoyed in Cleveland was a manufactured feud instigated by popular Detroit Free Press sports writer Joe Falls.

Falls considered Colavito a “self-ordained deity.” Accordingly Falls, often the Tigers’ official scorer, never missed a chance to berate Colavito. As a sidebar to his columns, Falls created the RNBI (run not batted in) to publicly keep track of runners Colavito stranded. Falls’ open scorn understandably infuriated Colavito.

For the 1964 season, Colavito landed in Kansas City. Then to the delight of Indians’ rooters, he returned to Cleveland for 1965 and 1966. Colavito’s 108 RBIs in 1966 lead the American League.

By 1967, Colavito was a part-time player, his best years behind him. After short stays with the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers, in midseason 1968 Colavito latched on with his boyhood favorite Yankees for his final baseball fling.

On August 25, 1968 the Yankees played a doubleheader against the Tigers in what would be one of Colavito’s final career appearances.

The Yankees, led by manager Ralph Houk, were slowly rebuilding from their 1966 last place finish. By the end of 1968, the team finished fifth but no thanks to Mickey Mantle who hit .235 and retired.

On a steamy Sunday afternoon in front of 32,000 both first game starters, the Tigers’ Pat Dobson and the Yankees’ Steve Barber got shelled. Dobson gave up five runs in the bottom of the sixth while Barber had allowed five after 3-1/3.

Houk called his bullpen. To the fans’ surprise, out strode Colavito. Like everyone in baseball, Houk knew that Colavito had a rifle arm. The Major was eager to give his veteran a shot at pitching.

Colavito exceeded expectations. By allowing only a double to Kaline and two walks during his 2-2/3 stint before giving way to Dooley Womack and Lindy McDaniel, Colavito (1-0) earned the credit for the 6-5 Yankee win.

In the nightcap, Colavito took his customary position in right field. The Yankees prevailed 5-4, and Colativo contributed a third-inning home run.

After 6-1/2 hours, Colavito turned in one of the most unusual days in modern baseball history: winning pitcher in the first game and home run hitting outfielder in the second.

Now a healthy 77, Colavito remains one of the Indians’ favorites. In 1976, Colavito was voted the most memorable Indian player. He was elected to the Indians’ All Century team in 2001 and to the Indians’ Hall of Fame in 2006.

Best of all, devoted Colavito fans have established a website to promote his Cooperstown candidacy.

________________

Joe Guzzardi belongs to the Society for American Baseball Research, as well as the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Email him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com

0 thoughts on “Double the fun: Now pitching for the Yankees, Rocky Colavito”

  1. I remember that doubleheader vividly! I grew up in New York as a Yankee fan, then discovered Colavito and the Indians. By the time Rocky joined the Yankees, I was living in Michigan, but I got to see and hear that famous doubleheader via the Tigers’ TV/radio network. What a thrill! And there were some very shocked headlines the next day in the Detroit papers, such as, “Rocky (The Pitcher) Beats Tigers!” Thanks for the memories!

  2. Joe:
    Let me echo Phyl in saying thanks for stirring a fond memory. As a pre-teen, I also watched on TV from my NJ home. Hard to believe we’re approaching the 42nd anniversary. Something you didn’t get into is Houk’s motivation for bringing a position player out of his bullpen. A quick look at the Yankees’ 1968 schedule shows why: his pitching staff was fried. As of Aug 25th, it had been 19 days since the Yanks’ previous off day, and their next one (Sept 5th) was more than a week and a half in the future. On Friday, Detroit and NY had played a double-header, the nightcap of which went 19 innings and resulted in a 3-all tie. Moreover, Houk was looking ahead to hosting the Angels in consecutive double-headers on Monday and Tuesday (8/26 and 8/27). In all, in the five days beginning Friday Aug 23rd, the Yankees played nine games, spanning 91 innings. They used seven different starters who pitched a total of 59 2/3 innings (led by Stan Bahnsen: 2 starts, 16 innings). Six relievers pitched 31 and 1/3 innings, led by McDaniel and Steve Hamilton with 9 innings each). The 6 relievers included not only Colavito, but also reserve infielder Gene Michael, who pitched in relief in the Monday nightcap. Michael, who has since held a myriad of job titles in the Yankee organization, didn’t script quite the storybook tale from the mound that Colavito did. He gave up 5 runs in 3 innings, although he did not suffer the loss, which instead went to starter Al Downing.

  3. @Brendan: Doing the research I noted that the Yankees played three consecutive doubleheaders (including the one with the Tigers. I looked but could not find out why. I assume it had to be to make up for earlier rainouts since no one would ever schedule three consecutive DHs.

  4. At least one of the Aug DHs vs CAL was a make-up, but not for rain. CAL had been scheduled to open the 1968 season at NY April 9th, but all games that day were postponed due to Martin Luther King’s funeral.

  5. The 8/25 DH vs. DET was caused due to the nightcap of the 8/23 DH ending in a 3-3 tie (19 innings, ended by curfew), back when such games didn’t get suspended until a later date (as they would nowadays).

    In addition to getting the W in the first game, Rocky Colavito also scored the game-winning run! Pat Dobson had just given up back-to-back HRs and was pulled for Daryl Patterson with the game tied at 5-all. Patterson walked Colavito, Horace Clarke singled Rocky to second and Jake Gibbs drove him in with another single.

  6. I was at that game that Colavito pitched. It was amazing. The Yankees were losing 5-4 when he came in. I think he came in at the top of the 5th inning. In the bottom of the 5th, Bill Robinson hit a double, which drove in 2 runs and that’s how Colavito got the win. Final score was 6-5

  7. I recall Rocky coming in later on in the game with the Yankees behind by a run.
    Seems they scored a couple in the bottom of the 7th or 8th and saved by McDaniel. Regardless I still see him jogging in from CF as I was there for the twinighter. Gosh those have been long gone and missed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *