Monday, June 13, 2016

Rocky (60 Years Ago, 1956)

Our last mention of Rocky Colavito was briefly in my previous post on Mickey Mantle. If Mantle was living up to his advance billing for the 1956 season, Colavito was not. Just six days after his two-run homer began a monster comeback in Cleveland's 15-8 victory at Yankee Stadium, Rocky Colavito was sent packing to San Diego in the Pacific Coast League.

Rocky (60 Years Ago, 1956)

 "Looks like a 22-year-old Joe DiMaggio and has some of the traits—speed, a fine arm, real love for the game, and ability to hit the long ball." That's what Sports Illustrated had to say about Rocky Colavito when looking ahead to the 1956 season. Colavito had hit 68 home runs and driven in 230 runs in his 1954 and 1955 seasons with Cleveland's Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis, earning a call-up to the major leagues in September 1955. 

Used sparingly in only five games (entering games twice as a pinch hitter, twice as a pinch runner, and once as a defensive replacement), Colavito had a day to remember and whet Cleveland's appetite as to what he might do in the years ahead in the Indians' next-to-last game of the '55 season, just after they had been eliminated from the pennant race. After Al Smith led off the game with a single, manager Al Lopez put Colavito in as a pinch runner and kept him in for the rest of the game. Colavito doubled in the third, doubled in the fifth, singled in the seventh, and singled again in the ninth. A 4-for-4 day.

Colavito began the 1956 season as Cleveland's fourth outfielder, starting in just 4 of the Indians' first 17 games in right field. The right-handed slugger hit his first major league home run in only his second major league start on April 25 off Kansas City left-hander Bobby Shantz and got a double in his fourth big-league start two days later . . . but those were his only 2 hits in 18 at bats. 

In mid-May, Colavito started 10 consecutive games in right field, but aside from a three-run home run off Kansas City's Arnie Portocarrero to break open a game the Indians were leading by 5-4, Cleveland's young slugger was still struggling at the plate. The homer, the second of his career, was one of only 4 hits in 32 at bats during his starts. His batting average at .120, Colavito started in a platoon role for the rest of the month. His next six starts were all against southpaws; Colavito regained his swagger with 8 hits in 18 at bats during his starts, including 2 more home runs. 

His average now up to .205 for his rookie season, Colavito earned his way back into the starting line-up. In his next six starts, four against right-handers, Colavito got 5 hits in 18 at bats, including that home run off Don Larsen. On June 14 in Boston, three games after he was last in the starting line-up, Colavito was sent up to pinch hit in the ninth inning of a game the Indians were losing 10-9 against left-handed reliever Leo Kiely. A home run could tie the game. Colavito grounded out to short.

It was premature to cue the Rocky theme. 

For the Cleveland Indians, who were 28-24 and about to open a three-game series at home against the Yankees, the front-runner they trailed in second place by 5 games, it was 52 games down and 102 to go. For Rocky Colavito, it was 37 games down (26 in the starting line-up), and back to the minor leagues in San Diego.

Clearly, Joe DiMaggio, Rocky Colavito was not, although it should be noted that SI did not say he was the second coming of the Yankee Clipper, only that he had some of the same traits. DiMaggio's rookie season 20 years earlier, in 1936, was exceptional. He went 3-for-6 in his first game and ended the season with 206 hits, 29 home runs, 125 RBIs, and a .323 average. By going 9-for-19 in his first four games, DiMaggio not only established he was really something, but … from his very first game, Joe DiMaggio never ended a day in the major leagues in which his lifetime batting average was less than .300.

Colavito was batting .215 when he was sent down, with 5 home runs and 17 runs batted in. His next 35 games were for the minor league Padres, and Colavito made a compelling case he belonged in the stadium off Lake Eire, not one off the Pacific Ocean. Batting a robust .368, Rocky knocked out 12 homers and drove in 32 runs for the Padres.

He convinced Cleveland management, and on July 24, Rocky Colavito was back in the major leagues to stay. He was in the starting line-up, batting fifth, and went 3-for-4 in his first game back, against the Senators, driving in three runs. And in the line-up he stayed for the rest of the season. Colavito started all but five of the Indians’ remaining 67 games, batting .301 with 16 home runs and 48 RBIs.

With a statistical line of 21 homers, 65 RBIs, and a .276 batting average, Rocky Colavito finished second to the White Sox’ Luis Aparicio for American League Rookie of the Year honors.

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