Monday, August 12, 2013

Rocky turns 80; I turn retrospective

At some point in 1959 Look magazine published a full-page color photo of my hero, Rocky Colavito.
Colavito was posing in his Cleveland Indians uniform in Municipal Stadium, leaning on his bat.

“INDIAN IDOL” read the overlayed headline.

“When Rocky Colavito comes to bat in Cleveland the crowd roars its acclaim, a fitting salute to this great young slugger,” said the caption.

“In that roar is a unique overtone: delighted bobby-soxer squeals that are an equally fitting tribute to Rocky’s dark good looks and appealing, youthful magnetism.”

Well, I didn’t care much about the bobby-soxer thing, but I tore the picture out of the magazine. He was, after all, the greatest baseball player in my world. I was 8.

At about the same time the Look magazine photo was published, my father, God love him, ran into Colavito at one of the downtown Cleveland restaurants and secured an autograph on an envelope-sized white piece of paper.

“To Dick, Best Wishes. Rocky Colavito.”

My dad handed me the note that evening.

I was ecstatic.

My mother, God love her, fashioned a cardboard frame and married the autograph to the Look photo, covering them with a clear plastic film. The “framed” tribute took up residence in my bedroom and later my wife, who understands the importance of childhood treasures, had my mother’s arts and crafts project professionally framed. Since then, my Rocky tribute has moved from house to house, spending time recently in a basement storage room.

I searched for it after learning this month that Colavito had turned 80.

That’s right – 80.

OK, I now officially feel old.

It doesn’t bother me that lots of famous people from their heydays in the ’50s and ’60s are well into their elderly years. But Rocky Colavito turning 80? How can that be?

I wore Rocky’s number (6) on my pee wee baseball jersey, played for a team called the “Rocky Colavitos” and more or less devoted my life to securing his signature on my baseball glove.

I think a lot of folks my age who grew up rooting for one of the most frustrating sports franchises in history wonder the same thing. Rocky’s 80? How can that be?

Well, we haven’t had a lot to cheer about over the years. The Indians have never won a World Series in my lifetime and have gotten close only a couple of times.

Rocky was a bright spot. Coming off the 1959 season, during which Colavito hit four consecutive home runs in a single game and hit a league-leading 42 homers, the slugger thought he was worth more than $28,000 a year.

No kidding. Mickey Mantle was making $70,000. Darn Yankees.

Indians general manager Frank Lane finally and reluctantly agreed to a raise Colavito’s salary to $35,000. But the contentious salary negotiations doomed the relationship. “Trader” Lane sent Colavito to the Detroit Tigers for singles hitter Harvey Kuenn during spring training 1960.

Sports writer Terry Pluto in a book many years later deemed the trade began “The Curse of Rocky Colavito.” It was the beginning of decades-long frustration for Indians fans.

In a news conference on the occasion of his 80th birthday party in Cleveland, Colavito discussed his career in what called “the best 16 minutes of your day.” The video is available online.

I watched it several times, fascinated that Rocky remembers his playing days like they were yesterday. They weren’t, of course. They were a half-century ago. Man, I feel old.

And then I dug that old treasure out of the storage room.

Have to hang it up again…

Dick Farrell writes weekly for the Bargain Hunter.

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