Few players captured the imagination of a town the way Rocky Colavito did Cleveland. The 6’3″, boyishly handsome strongman from the Bronx had a charisma that made him the most memorable personality in Indians history; he was voted so in 1976. He reached 300 home runs faster than all but four players; he was 31 when he hit number 300.
Colavito came up with best buddy Herb Score in 1955 but stayed just five games. Called back to Cleveland in July 1956, he began a string of 11 straight seasons of more than 20 homers, averaging 32 a year. His numbers really soared when manager Joe Gordon convinced him to cut down his swing. Colavito made himself a complete player, a run-producing slugger, and a right fielder with an arm comparable to that of Roberto Clemente. Colavito was prone to slumps, and the Cleveland fans would jump all over him. That’s when one sportswriter first started saying, “Don’t knock the Rock.”
In 1958 Colavito batted .303 with 41 homers and 113 RBI. In 1959 he became the first Indian to have two 40-HR seasons; his 42 tied him with Harmon Killebrew for the AL lead. That June 10, he hit four HR in consecutive at-bats in a game at Baltimore. Cleveland fans were stunned when GM Frank Lane sent him to Detroit for batting champion Harvey Kuenn the following April; Lane had actually had a clause in Colavito’s 1959 contract that would have rewarded the slugger for hitting fewer than 40 homers. After a year of adjustment in Detroit in 1960 (he had only 87 RBI), Colavito had his greatest season, hitting .290 with 45 HR and 140 RBI.
Some still consider the Colavito-Kuenn trade highly responsible for the ensuing decades of baseball mediocrity in Cleveland. The error was corrected in 1965 when Colavito was re-acquired from Kansas City in a three-team deal by new Indians GM Gabe Paul. Colavito set an ML record by playing 162 errorless games in the outfield that year. He also led the league in walks (93) and RBI (108). In 1967 he accused Paul of forcing manager Joe Adcock to platoon him with Leon Wagner. He fell short of demanding a trade, but was sent to the White Sox. Though he played less than half his ML career with the Indians, when he left he was fifth on their all-time HR list (190).
Colavito had originally been signed as a pitcher-outfielder; he pitched one game for Cleveland in 1958, and beat the Tigers in relief for the Yankees in 1968, to record a career ERA of 0.00. The win with the Yankees, in which he hit a crucial home run, was the last win by a non-pitcher until Rockies catcher Brent Mayne won in relief on August 22, 2000.