Although he would only play four seasons in Detroit, Tigers’ left fielder Rocky Colavito was the team’s most productive slugger from 1960 through the 1963 and was second only to Al Kaline in popularity.
Just before the start of the 1960 season, the Tigers and Indians shocked the baseball world when Detroit acquired the 1959 home run champion and Time magazine cover boy from Cleveland for fan favorite Harvey Kuenn, the 1959 batting champion.
It didn’t take long for Detroit fans (especially the girls) to appreciate the handsome Italian-American from the Bronx who became the biggest home run threat in the Motor City since Hank Greenberg two decades earlier.
During his four years in the Motor City as the clean up hitter sandwiched between Al Kaline and Norm Cash, Colavito slugged 129 home runs and drove in 373 runs while averaging 35 dingers and 107 RBI per season. (No one in the American League hit more home runs than Colavito in the period of 1958 to 1963.)
But for a September swoon, the Tiger’s own “Murders Row” nearly led Detroit to the 1961 pennant as they lost out to the Yankees led by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris’s then record 61 home runs. (Trivia note: Rocky Colavito and Norm Cash, the ’61 batting champion, combined for more RBIs than Mantle and Maris that season.)
Many Detroit area baby boomers fondly recall seeing Rocco Domenico Colavito standing in the on deck circle as he held a K55 Louisville Slugger over his head before pulling it back down behind his shoulders, stretching his muscles. When he stepped into the batter’s box, as a timing device, Colavito would slowly point his war club at the pitcher in one motion as he locked into his batting stance.
So it was a shock to hear just four days before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that the Tigers sent Colavito, pitcher Bob Anderson, and $50,000 to the Kansas City Athletics for infielder Jerry Lumpe, and pitchers Dave Wickersham and Ed Rakow.
The Tigers claimed the trade was made because rookie Willie Horton was ready to take over in left field.
But in fact one of the biggest factors was that 29-year old Rocky Colavito and 39-year old Jim Campbell, serving in his first year as Detroit’s general manager, had gone to war during spring training in ’63 in a bitter contract dispute that set the stage for the slugger’s departure.
In an era before free agency and player agents when the owners had all the leverage thanks to the reserve clause, sluggers like Colavito found it nearly impossible to be fairly compensated.
The year before, during spring training in ’62, Colavito held out for four days seeking a raise from $35,000 to over $50,000 following his tremendous 1961 season when he slugged 45 home runs and 140 RBIs.
According to an article by the UPI, then Tiger GM Rick Ferrell said the Tigers would refuse under any circumstances to meet Colavito’s demand on the grounds that the club wanted favorite son Al Kaline’s $49,000 salary to be tops.
When Colavito ended his holdout, the Detroit News (3/5/62) reported that he signed for $48,000, a grand short of Kaline’s salary.
However, the Detroit Free Press had a banner headline that declared: “Highest Paid Tiger Colavito Signs” with an article stating that he had inked a contract in the “$50,000 bracket. The Tigers never corrected the story and remained silent. (Website Baseball Almanac lists Kaline’s 1962 salary as $49,000 and Colavito’s at $54,000. )
In a recent interview Colavito told me that he does not recall how much he made in 1962 and that he never knew how much Kaline made.
“Unless you were perhaps very close to a roommate, ballplayers did not usually tell each other how much they made,” “said Colavito.
Although Rocky’s 1962 numbers were down a bit from ’61, he still managed to hit 37 homers and 113 RBI’s despite not having the advantage of Kaline batting in front of him for two months after the All Star right fielder broke his collarbone in May.
Colavito would become rookie GM Jim Campbell’s first real test during spring training of 1963 when #7 held out for five days before finally signing a contract.
“I took my wife and family to spring training and I was influenced by that,” Colavito told me. “I should have said ‘let’s go we’re going home’ and held out longer and then make them fly my family back. I also should have said [trade] me.”
Colavito recalls one of several heated meetings with Campbell.
“He was a nervous wreck and I remember in one hour and a half meeting he smoked 18 cigarettes and I know that for a fact because I counted them. But he would not relent. The players had no real leverage back then.”
Years later, Campbell reportedly said, “I made up my mind, it was him or me.”
“Campbell never said it to me that I would never make more than Al Kaline but that was the implication,” said Colavito. “Kaline was their boy and no one was going to make more money on that team. To me that wasn’t right.” (In fact, it is well known that for the rest of his career Campbell made sure that Al Kaline’s salary was the high bar that no other Tiger player could ever cross.)
For 1963, Baseball Almanac lists Kaline’s salary at $55,000 and Colavito’s at $54,000.
Colavito pulls no punches when he looks back at Jim Campbell.
“After I finally signed I refused to talk with him” said Colavito. “If I was on an elevator with him and he said hello I wouldn’t even talk to him. To me he cheated me. I never asked to be traded during the ’63 season but Campbell made a statement that said ‘I hope Rocky has a good second half so his trade value is high.’ He already had in mind to get rid of me. I did nothing but give the Tigers a 100% at all times.”
By Colavito numbers, 1963 was a disappointment, on top of the fact that the Tigers struggled all year. He finished with 22 home runs and 91 RBI.
Colavito found out about the trade to the lowly Kansas City A’s second hand.
“I was on my way back from a New Hampshire hunting trip when I heard about it on the radio,” said Colavito. “My wife said they had tried to reach me but I guess they couldn’t wait to make the announcement. I never did hear from Campbell or anyone. I liked the people in Detroit after my first year and I made some great friends there.”
Ultimately, Willie Horton was the beneficiary from the Colavito trade, since Willie took over left field from the man who became his hero.
No one is a greater fan of Rocky Colavito than Willie Horton.
A few years ago, Horton shared with me this remarkable story and his thoughts on Colavito.
“He probably doesn’t remember this, but when I was in junior high, a buddy and I were stopped by security at Briggs Stadium after we had once again snuck in the ballpark. Rocky had just walked off Cleveland’s bus and saw what happened. He took us over to the Tigers’ clubhouse manager John Hand and asked him if he would give us a job working in the clubhouse and sure enough we got the job. From that day on Rocky was my hero. I would imitate his batting stance in a mirror pointing my bat like he did, trying to get his stroke. Later when he came to the Tigers he took me under his wing when I joined the team and helped me become a major leaguer. He also told me that I would one day take over from him in left field. I will never forget what he did for me.”
Of course, Tigers’ fans out there who fondly recall Rocky Colavito remember this famous saying:
“Don’t Knock the Rock.”