Looking back: Rocky Colavito hit 4 homers against Orioles in 1959
Cleveland Indians slugger was the only player to do that before Josh Hamilton on Tuesday night
Rocky Colavito of the Cleveland Indians kisses his bat after hitting four home runs in a game against the Orioles at Memorial Stadium in 1959. (George Cook, Baltimore Sun / June 16, 2008)
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June 18, 1989
30 years ago, Rocky Colavito ended a slump by becoming only the third player to hit four homers in four consecutive at-bats in a nine-inning game
Rocky Colavito clicked his way down the tunnel from the visitors clubhouse and emerged in the Cleveland Indians dugout carrying his K-55 bats -- 33-ounce models that most hitters would consider light when compared with the weight of a 3-for-28 batting skid.
The date was June 10, 1959, and though Colavito remembers much of it well, it wasn't yesterday.
Newspaper stories that day featured words you're not likely to see in today's edition -- atomic bombs and coeds. A bear was running loose on Lombard Street. A Baltimore Orioles minor leaguer named Cal Ripken, who later would have a son of the same name, was hitting .314 in Class D. Later that week, an outfielder named John Powell would be signed.
Memorial Stadium, which will be abandoned after the 1991 season, was in just its sixth year when Colavito entered its third base dugout and saw Harry Jones, a beat reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
"Hey, Rocky, when are you going to come out of this slump?" Jones asked.
Slump was a word Colavito, then 25, used as often as he tried bunting for singles.
"What slump?" was Colavito's reply.
Jones: "C'mon, you know what I mean."
Colavito: "I don't know what you mean."
Jones: "Geez, you're 3-for-28. Don't you call that a slump? When are you coming out of this thing?"
Colavito: "You never know, Harry. Tonight might be the night. You never know."
That was the end of the conversation. Colavito and Jones, who worked together on Indians telecasts in the 1970s, never mentioned that exchange again -- even though Rocky Colavito hit four home runs that night.
Rocky Colavito, 31st on major league baseball's home run list with 374, is retired and living in a hilltop home in Bernville, Pa., eight miles northwest of Reading, where he met his wife-to-be, Carmen, as a minor leaguer in 1953.
Back then, he was referred to by some as a younger Carl Furillo, a Reading Rifle with an arm that would make him, in 1968, the last field-position player to be credited with a victory in a big league game. Now the rifles are literal, enclosed in a display case between a collection of bows and arrows.
From Colavito's desk, he can look out across his back lawn and into the mountains where he hunts. The spoils hang on the wall, deer heads and antlers, an exhibit that dwarfs the baseball memorabilia -- paintings, trophies, plaques and, there, tucked on a corner shelf, a baseball.
It's the ball Colavito hit for his fourth home run. Robert Powell of Woodbine traded it through Indians traveling secretary Spud Goldstein for $25 and two autographs.
Colavito grips the ball lightly on its "Ball of Fame" stand, so as not to break the protective plastic covering. But his hold on it is as firm as his hand-numbing handshake.
The late Frank Lane, then the Indians' general manager, had told Colavito he would have the ball bronzed, but never did. Officials at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., once asked for the ball but never came after it.
"I would have considered it. But not anymore," said Colavito, silver-haired and seemingly in great shape. "That ball is going to stay in this family."
It's his most treasured possession from what he calls his favorite day in 14 major league seasons.
Only 10 other players have hit four home runs in a big league game, and only seven have done it in a nine-inning game. Colavito is one of four players to hit four homers in a game in consecutive at-bats, one of only three to do it in a nine-inning game.
The Orioles went into June 10, a 93-degree night, as hot as Colavito was cold.
The night before, a throwing error by Colavito had helped allow the Orioles to turn a 3-2 deficit into a 7-3 win. Colavito was 0-for-3, and the Orioles well, as one headline Wednesday, June 10, read, "THE ORIOLES -- They're At The Summit."
Baltimore had moved into a first-place tie in the AL with the Chicago White Sox. Never before had the Orioles been atop the standings that late in a season.
But their perch didn't survive the first inning, when Colavito was walked and scored on a three-run homer by Minnie Minoso. The Indians kept the lead all night, but not because the Orioles weren't hitting. In the second inning, Albie Pearson pulled a drive that Colavito caught one-handed on the run near the right-field foul pole.
As his glove squeezed the ball, Colavito felt a splash. A fan in the front row had poured a tall, cold one: Rocky Colavito, this Bud's for you. Foaming over, Colavito looked up and saw a chunky, middle-aged man.
"Right away, as soon as I got hit, I pointed my finger at him, and I went after him verbally and challenged him, Colavito said.
"He said, 'Yeah, I'll meet you outside.' "
"And I said, 'Don't forget. You be there.' I was really upset.
"And I meant it. I was angry as anything. If the wall wasn't high as it was, I don't know what I would have done," said Colavito, who, two years later, was ejected from a game for entering the stands at Yankee Stadium after a fan had taken a swing at his father, Rocco Sr.
Colavito stayed on the field this game, discretion being the better part of a 14-foot wall. But he was angry. Don't knock the Rock.
ROCKY I: Colavito, 3-for-28 but not in a slump, batted in the third with Cleveland leading 4-3 and Vic Power on first base.
Six feet 3, 190 pounds, Colavito was a right-handed hitter who held the bat shoulder height, gripping it near the knob. He stood deep in the box, crouching slightly. He was in his prime, having finished the previous season with 41 home runs and 113 RBIs, second in the league in both categories.
Orioles starter Jerry Walker was behind on the count, but by how much? Colavito thinks it probably was 3-1, Walker 1-0. Newspaper accounts recorded the pitch as a slider. Colavito remembers a fastball, middle of the plate and in. Walker says change-up.
No matter. Colavito got under the ball and pulled it 360 feet down the line for a home run.
ROCKY II: Colavito batted in the fifth with Cleveland leading 6-3 and the bases empty. The late Arnold Portocarrero threw a slider on the outside corner , a pitch Colavito normally would lay off. Instead, he extended his arms and lined the ball 420 feet, pulling it slightly, for his second homer.
A half-inning later, there's a staring match in right field. "Same guy's in the stands. I'm eyeballing him," Colavito said, "and he's eyeballing me."
ROCKY III: In the sixth, Cleveland led 8-3 when Colavito batted with Tito Francona on second base. Again, Colavito got an outside slider from Portocarrero. Similar result: 410 feet to left-center.
Trotting out to his position, Colavito got an ovation from the crowd of 15,883. James Wheatley, a stadium fixture who rang a bell in the right-field bleachers, was chiming his tintinnabulations. Colavito's beery buddy was applauding.
"This goofball's up there," Colavito said, shaking his head. "He's cheering me."
ROCKY IV: It's the ninth.
"I get my bat, and my roommate, Herb Score, is standing there, right by me," Colavito said. "He says, 'OK, roomie. Don't fool around. Go up there and hit that fourth home run.' "
"I said, 'Are you kidding me?' and I'll never forget my words: 'The way I've been going, I'll be tickled to death if I get a single and have four hits in one game. I would be tickled to death."
"And he said, and I'll never forget him saying that: 'Bull. Go ahead up and hit the fourth home run.' And I just kind of nodded my head at him. We were very close. We're still very close."
No player had hit more than two homers in a game at Memorial Stadium. No team had hit more than three.
The pitcher was Ernie Johnson, a right-hander who had yet to allow a home run that season.
"I had been sitting in the dugout that game, and I was talking with some of the younger pitchers," recalled Johnson, then 34 and now a broadcaster for Atlanta Braves games. "I mentioned he looked like he was hitting the ball out over the plate. I thought you should jam [him]."
Johnson retired his first four hitters that night, then made his first pitch to Colavito a fastball under the chin.
"I got him out of there, more or less," Johnson said.
Colavito, who crowded the plate, said he knew three home runs would bring a 90-mph calling card. But he wasn't happy about it. Once in a Class AAA game for Indianapolis, he was hit on the elbow by a pitch from Minneapolis' Al Worthington. It hurt so much, he couldn't knot his tie that night. But don't knock the Rock. He homered his next three at-bats.
"If they knocked me on my behind, I always got inner angry," he said. "I thought to myself, 'I don't go out there and hit you on the head when you strike me out with the bases loaded; I don't hit you with my weapon.' So I would get angry, and I would get better."
Johnson, having pitched the previous seven seasons in the National League, said he didn't know that about Colavito. He just figured Colavito would be looking next for a pitch down and away.
"That's the way a lot of guys pitched," Colavito said. "Up and in, down and away. That's the old cliche, so to speak. He must have thought that I thought he'd go away from me, but I wouldn't think that way."
Johnson threw a fastball on the inside part of the plate.
"It was strategy that backfired," Johnson said, "to say the least."
"The second it hit my bat, there was no question in my mind," Colavito said. "Almost like a line drive that was climbing. Whoosh."
It landed 415 feet away, impressive even to Colavito's friendly beer spout.
"He waved at me," Colavito said. "Nice fella."
Cleveland won, 11-8.
"They were no flukes," Indians outfielder Jimmy Piersall shouted in the clubhouse. "He hit them in the toughest park in baseball."
Only 103 home runs were hit at Memorial Stadium that season, less than half the park-record 238 in 1987.
Between 1954 and 1958 -- a year before Colavito's feat -- the fences had been moved from 450 feet to 410 in center and 446 to 380 in the power alleys, but the shorter dimensions seemed to make little difference. According to the book "Total Baseball," the park was the league's stingiest to home runs in every year of its existence in the 1950s, except 1955 and 1959, when it was second-stingiest.
"It doesn't matter," Walker said. "Those last three would've gone out of Yellowstone."
Colavito didn't get a bonus for hitting the four homers.
"He'll get paid the first and the 15th of the month, just like he and everybody else have in the past," Lane said in the clubhouse. "After all, we don't deduct from a guy's pay when he goes 0-for-18, do we?"
ROCKY V? Colavito was asked whether he planned to go for a home run his first time up the next night.
"No," he said. "I think I'll bunt."
Colavito might not have been trying for a fourth straight homer, but he craved a fifth.
"I thought, Jesus Christ," he said. "I would have been the only one in history."
It wasn't to be. In his first at-bat, Colavito got a belt-high fastball from the Orioles' Milt Pappas -- "probably a better pitch to hit than any of the pitches I hit for home runs" -- and popped out to short left.
"Right in my wheelhouse and I had a good swing at it. I just got a little bit of the bottom," he said. "I'll tell you what, a quarter-inch more. I recall that as clear as I do the homers."
Colavito grounded out his next two at-bats but drove in the winning run in the eighth with a double off the top of the left-field wall.
Baltimore never recovered from Colavito's onslaught, finishing the season 74-80.
"I can just see those [four home runs] going out," said Lee MacPhail, then the Orioles' general manager, from his Manhattan home. "Every one of those balls was like driving a nail through me."