How we choose our heroes has a lot to do with how much we enjoy our lives. If we wait until we’re adults, if we chose any at all, we normally achieve reasonably good results. By then, we are, hopefully, a little wiser, and we tend to select folks for the right reasons. However, as children, we naturally gravitate toward the glitzier types, often professional athletes or entertainers. More often than not, they usually wind up disappointing us in the end.
I was a typical male child of the 1950s who selected a professional baseball player as my role model and hero. Atypically, the man has never let me down.
I should acknowledge that I was born lucky. I was part of a big, loving family, and, long before I chose someone outside my family circle to embrace with hero worship, I had already identified my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents for that kind of adulation. They were all part of what has appropriately been labeled “America’s Greatest Generation”, and they lived up to that honorarium.
In other words, I had no need to select a stranger for such idolatry, but, in the summer of 1958, at age eleven, I did it anyway. That was a very long time ago, but, with each passing year, I realize with increasing conviction that I did the right thing.
All baseball fans have their personal favorite players. In my case, born in Philadelphia in 1947, I gravitated toward the so-called Wiz Kids. That was the nickname given to the youthful 1950 Philadelphia Phillies, who, surprisingly, won the National League pennant.
Like almost everyone else in Philly, I was drawn to legendary pitcher Robin Roberts as well as speedy center fielder Richie Ashburn. Yet, since I was particularly fond of home run hitters, when catcher Stan Lopata enjoyed productive seasons in 1955 and 1956, he became another favorite. Sadly for me, Big Stash had faded somewhat by 1958, thereby leaving a void in my youthful passion for long distance hitters. Presto! That’s when Rocky Colavito entered my life.
Sometime during the summer of that year, I visited my family doctor. Dreading the prospect of my forthcoming tetanus shot, I tried to calm myself by reading a sports magazine (I can’t recall which one) while waiting in the office. One of the articles featured Rocky Colavito who was making headlines for the Cleveland Indians with his first star-caliber season. The story told how the handsome, charismatic Colavito was taking advantage of his opportunity to play everyday by slugging frequent home runs and regularly making extraordinary throws from right field. I was immediately hooked; Rocky was my new favorite player.
More importantly, by the end of that year, he had become my new hero.
Born in Bronx Borough, New York City on August 10, 1933, Rocco Domenico Colavito grew up as an ardent New York Yankees fan. Although scouted by the Yanks while still in high school, Rocky saw better career opportunities with the Cleveland Indians. Making a difficult decision (especially for a teenager), he signed with the Tribe in late 1950. Young Rocco then did something almost unparalleled in the history of Organized Baseball. As a seventeen year old kid, living away from home for the first time, he tied for the Florida State League home run leadership in 1951. Playing for Daytona Beach, Colavito bashed twenty-three homers, the same total as another promising slugger who happened to be seven years older than him. It was an astonishing accomplishment.
Ultimately, Rocky grew into a six-foot-three-inch, two-hundred-pound dynamo who made the final jump onto the Indians roster in 1956. Colavito spent the next two years (1956 & 1957) playing part time, while growing increasingly impatient. However, he still managed to hit twenty-one and twenty-five home runs respectively, thereby continuing to show exceptional potential as a power hitter. Finally, in 1958, in his twenty-fifth year Rocky got the opportunity to play Major League Baseball every day. Recording forty-one home runs, he rocketed to super-star status while ascending to the pinnacle of popularity in the city of Cleveland.
So, when my father asked me in early October 1958 if I wanted to see Rocky Colavito play at Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium, I reacted as if Christmas had arrived early. Dad explained that two teams of barnstorming Major League stars were coming to town that Friday night (October 10), and Rocky would be playing right field for the American Leaguers. Wow! How lucky could a kid get?
And what a night it turned out to be. Along with several other prominent power hitters, Rocky participated in a pre-game home run derby that was won by the National League’s Gil Hodges. In that competition, Mickey Mantle (fresh from his World Series victory) launched a prodigious drive over the Philco billboard atop the grandstand in deep left centerfield. In the actual game, Mickey also amazed everyone with his nearly blinding running speed. Yet, my devotion for Colavito did not go unrewarded.
Late in the game, Rocky retrieved a ball that had rolled into the right field corner near the 329-foot-sign, and unleashed a throw to third base that left everybody audibly gasping. I can still see it fifty-seven years after the fact. It seemed to hiss and trail sparks as it sped on the fly all the way from the right field wall directly to the third baseman. I can’t recall if the runner was out. I just remember my father, along with all the other adults in our section, rising to their feet, and hailing the throw as the greatest that they had ever witnessed. I was so happy that I thought that I would burst!
Over the forthcoming years, I saw Rocky Colavito play several more times, but it wasn’t easy. Since he played almost his entire career in the American League, which had no franchise in Philadelphia, I was required to travel to Baltimore, Washington, or New York to see my guy. Those were the pre-cable and pre-internet days, and it was difficult to follow a ball player from a different city and league. But, that didn’t deter me.
Dad had also taken me to a nearby Silo appliance store, and funded my purchase of an old-style AM-FM radio. I then dutifully learned all the radio stations that covered Rocky’s games wherever he traveled for the remainder of his career. Long range reception was spotty (sometimes even impossible), and, oftentimes, I listened to as much static as I did the actual broadcast. It was a lot of work, but I never minded.
As any older baseball fan can tell you, 1961 was a particularly interesting year. That was the season when the American League expanded for the first time, and, predictably, offensive production sky-rocketed. Many players, including Rocky Colavito, enjoyed their best statistical success in that year. In Rocky’s case, that translated into a .290 batting average, forty-five home runs, 129 runs scored, and 140 runs-batted-in. It was also in 1961 that Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s hallowed single season home run record by bashing the imposing total of sixty-one. Yet, it was something that occurred in the stands rather than on the field which gave me the greatest joy that memorable summer.
On the evening of May 12, 1961, Rocky Colavito came to New York’s venerable Yankee Stadium along with the Detroit Tigers for whom he was then playing. As a Bronx native, Colavito always seemed to play inspired baseball on his return visits, usually with many relatives and friends in attendance. That night was no different. In the fourth inning, Rocky boomed a triple off the right centerfield scoreboard, and later scored on a sacrifice fly. That greatly pleased his wife, brother and father who were watching from box seats near field level. However, four innings later, the fun stopped for the Colavito family.
An unruly fan started harassing Rocky’s wife, Carmen, whereupon his father and brother tried to intercede. From the field, Colavito could see someone throwing a punch at his dad, which prompted him to leap into the stands and hurry up the aisle. Four guys from the Tigers’ entourage, including future Hall of Famer and U.S. senator Jim Bunning, attempted to aid Rocky, but other fans intervened before the scenario escalated out of control. By rule, Colavito had to be ejected from the game.
The next afternoon, Rocky was back in the line-up, and before the game, he spoke about what had occurred the night before: “What would you do if you saw someone belting your sixty-year-old father? My dad is here today and if the same thing happens I will act the same way.” He then went onto the field, going four for four with two home runs deep into the left field grandstand.
My own father, reading about all this the next morning in the Sunday newspaper, looked at me, and said: “You picked the right guy to be your hero. Rocky Colavito is a real man.” Coming from my ultimate hero that made me very happy.
My single favorite moment in all those years of Rocky Colavito fandom occurred on the evening of July 30, 1965. Tragically, for all of us in the Jenkinson family, we had learned just a few weeks before that my father had only a short time to live. Dad had worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during World War II, and had helped to build the battleship U.S.S. New Jersey. In so doing, he had been exposed to massive amounts of asbestos, and had developed a fatal case of mesothelioma (a form of lung cancer).
Yet, just like so many others of his generation, my father was an honorable man. He never complained. Instead, despite the pain and fatigue, he kept working until only three weeks before he died. That summer, I was employed as a laborer for a brickwork construction company which required a 7 A.M. start. I admit that I didn’t like those six o’clock departures every morning. The good news was that I was home by 4 P.M., and, on that Friday afternoon, I arrived with some grandiose plans.
I had always wanted to see Rocky perform at Yankee Stadium, but, for various reasons, had not yet done so. So, as I bounded into the living room that hot summer afternoon, I immediately asked my mother if I could borrow the family car for the evening. When I explained why, she reluctantly gave her permission. Mom was a selfless woman, and did not hesitate out of any concerns about the availability of the automobile.
I was just eighteen years old, and my brother, Joe, with whom I wanted to go, was only eleven. She was understandably worried about our safety, and needed to think about it first. Until the month before, of course, I would have asked my father to join in the adventure, but, by then, he came home from work completely worn out from his illness and exertions. Accordingly, I planned to simply tell him about it upon his usual five o’clock return (just before our scheduled departure).
I can still recall the weariness on his face as he slowly walked up the driveway and into the house that evening. When I explained my plans, he simply closed his eyes and thought about his two young sons making that ninety mile trip into New York City. He could see and feel our youthful excitement, and didn’t want to disappoint us by overruling Mom. So, in his typical fashion, setting aside his own needs, Dad asked if we minded if he came along. I still get emotional just thinking about it.
Looking back upon that night, I have no regrets that Rocky Colavito performed in “merely” average fashion. He went one-for-four with a single in a 5-0 Cleveland victory (yes, he was back with the Indians by then). On the contrary, I remember the experience with a sense of sublime blessedness and profound gratitude. That night, I spent several hours making memories with my younger brother, my favorite baseball hero and the greatest hero of my life.
Forty-five years after the fact, I shared that story with Rocky Colavito, and he became almost as emotional as me.
Rocky retired after the 1968 season, but I never stopped thinking about him. He left the game as an active player having recorded 374 home runs, driving in 1,159 runs, and making the American League All-Star team on nine different occasions. It had been a highly successful career.
During those years as a professional ballplayer, like almost all sluggers, Colavito had been prone to occasional slumps. But, when he was hot, he was sizzling. Three particular dates aptly illustrate that fact.
On June 10, 1959, Rocky batted in the third inning at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, a pitcher-friendly ballpark with distant fences. He had walked and scored in his first appearance, but, this time, he knocked the ball into the left field seats near the foul pole. Near those foul lines were the only places where hitters could aim at a fence that wasn’t notoriously difficult to reach. Colavito’s four-bagger had flown about 360 feet.
Then, against all odds, Rocky followed that first homer with three more, each one sailing well over 400 feet. When number four left his bat and soared in a towering arc high into the left field bleachers in the ninth inning, the Baltimore fans cheered him wildly. Only sixteen times in Major League history has anyone recorded four homers in a single game, but Rocky Colavito did it that night. Babe Ruth never did it; neither did Barry Bonds nor Henry Aaron. Nobody has ever done it twice.
Two years later, on August 27, 1961, Rocky visited Washington, D.C.’s Griffith Stadium which was an even harder place to hit home runs. That was especially true for right-handed hitters. In the first game of the double-header that day, Colavito blasted one into the distant left field bleachers. It was an impressive 400-footer. However, it was merely a preview of what would happen in Game Two.
That’s when Rocky launched home run drives to left field on three consecutive at-bats to give him four for the day. In the entire history of Major League Baseball, only one player has hit four home runs on two separate days. Rocky Colavito. For the record, Rocky’s fourth and final blow that day in D.C. landed halfway up the left field bleachers and flew over 450 feet.
The following season, when Colavito grounded out to third base in his first plate appearance at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on July 5, 1962, he had no reasonable expectation of doing great things that night. Yet, in his next three at-bats, he pounded balls high over the left field fence for home runs. So, when he batted again in the eighth inning against reliever Bill Dailey, he was in the unique position of doing something that had never been done. If he could hit another home run, he would be the first to record four in a game for the second time in a career. Rocky was determined to do it.
Colavito then slammed Dailey’s first pitch farther than anything he had hit that night. The ball shot off his bat like a missile, and smashed into the left field upper deck with thunderous force. Sadly, it had hooked just foul at the last moment. By then, Dailey and the Indians had had enough. The next pitch came flying straight at Rocky’s head, forcing him to scramble out of the way. He made it, but his bat didn’t. The ball collided with Colavito’s lumber, and dribbled softly to the second baseman who happily threw Rocky out at first. There would be no lasting record for The Rock that night, but he had come closer than anyone before, or since, in achieving that specific form of baseball immortality.
It was a “might-have-been” which still haunts me. For his part, Rocky Colavito just shrugs it off as “part of the game.”
Over the years, I have identified two other players as personal favorites. First, there was Dick Allen, and, next, came Mike Schmidt. Both played for my hometown Philadelphia Phillies, and, predictably, both were power hitters. Those attachments can’t be planned; they either happen or they don’t. So, in the cases of Allen and Schmidt, I was lucky to have connected with players who performed locally. That made it much easier to follow their careers than it had been with Rocky. Yet, looking back, I confess that there was something special about listening to those barely audible radio broadcasts from Cleveland and Detroit describing the exploits of Rocky Colavito. I guess it’s true that the more you work for something the more you value it.
More relevant to this discussion, I now know that all my early baseball experiences were leading me to the time when I would become active as an historian.
Always fascinated with power in all its forms, I had been drawn since childhood to the question of who was baseball’s mightiest slugger. That was the single baseball-related issue that absorbed most of my passion. I was so intrigued that, in 1979, when it finally occurred to me that no one possessed the knowledge to definitively answer that question, I took the task upon myself.
I began to study the careers of all the great power hitters in baseball history, and, within a few years, unexpectedly found other folks looking at me as some type of expert. The recognition fueled my enthusiasm, and I kept working. Most of my efforts landed me in some East Coast library, especially the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., but interviewing players (past & present) was also a big part of the job. So, in 1984, I connected personally with Rocky Colavito.
During his climb to the Majors, Rocky had spent the 1953 season with Cleveland’s Minor League affiliate in Reading, Pennsylvania. That is where he met Carmen, his future wife, and where he would eventually make his home. The Reading area was only a seventy-five minute drive from where I lived, and, lucky for me, I was able to meet Colavito as a baseball historian. Both Rocky and Carmen were warm and hospitable as I sat with my childhood hero in his kitchen, talking baseball. It was a fantasy which had come to life.
The meeting turned out better than I could have hoped. I already knew that Rocky was a smart guy, but I had no way of knowing the depth of his interest in baseball history. It turned out that Rocco Colavito was far more than a likable, retired ballplayer with large muscles. He was (and is) highly intelligent, articulate, and very serious about anything that he chooses to discuss. On that occasion, he chose to put aside his strong penchant for privacy, and discuss baseball with me. It was a revelation.
Mostly, we talked about Rocky’s career, and he answered all my questions regarding his longest home runs. However, after a while, I switched focus, and inquired about some of the long shots that he had seen other guys hit. There had been a bunch. Colavito had played many games against Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard, and various other historic sluggers. Often training in Arizona, Rocky had also taken the field many times against Willie Mays in spring training games. Eventually, I realized that Rocky Colavito was a walking, talking encyclopedia of baseball history.
It wasn’t just his contemporaries either. Coincidentally, Rocky had been born (1933) at exactly the right time to play at the midpoint in baseball history. Accordingly, many of the great names from the preceding era were still working as managers, coaches, scouts, executives and so forth. For example, Colavito played for teams that were overseen by Hank Greenberg and Ralph Kiner. He got to know Satchel Paige, Bob Feller and Joe DiMaggio. He even knew guys who had been associates of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Walter Johnson. And the list went on and on.
After that memorable meeting, I kept working at my craft, and eventually published a book about The Bambino (The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs) in 2007. Naturally, I sent Rocky a copy, and was heartily pleased when he both read and enjoyed it. Then, upon the completion of that project, I wrote the book that I had originally intended to write.
It told the story of the strongest batsmen who had ever played the game of baseball. The focus wasn’t directed toward career home run totals; there were already plenty of books on that topic. Rather, I intended to address the issue of pure power. I wanted to talk about the so-called tape measure home run hitters: the guys who blasted balls so far over the outfield fences that nobody could find them!
Over the years, there had been a lot of myths on this topic, but never a definitive study. I hoped to find out who were the real Paul Bunyans of baseball. Eventually, my aspirations turned into reality with the publication of Baseball’s Ultimate Power in 2010. Predictably, my primary consultant in this venture was (who else?) Rocky Colavito.
After he retired, Rocky did some coaching, scouting and broadcast work, staying close to the game. Plus, just like any one who loves baseball, he had watched the modern game, observing the careers of Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and so on. In one way or another, Rocky Colavito has insights into just about every prominent Major League player from the Dead Ball Era to the present time. Since he was kind enough to talk to me whenever I needed expert advice, why wouldn’t I work with a man whom I had admired for so long?
It was a very rewarding experience, but I admit that I was a little nervous when I called Rocky to get his reactions after he had read the book. In my historical rankings for pure batting power, I had conservatively placed Rocky in the number fifty-three position. Of course, ranking number fifty-three out of 17,000-plus players in Major League history is pretty darn good. That puts Rocky in the top one-third of the top one per-cent. And those numbers don’t include the tens of millions of guys who played baseball dreaming of making it to the Big Leagues, but fell short. Even still, Rocky could have been inserted even higher in my rankings, but there was a rather troublesome x-factor to overcome.
As I had neared the conclusion of the process, I had decided that I should also address the other forms of power in the game of baseball. Specifically, I wanted to include the topics of running speed, pitching velocity and power-throwing. So, after about thirty years of intense research on the matter of long distance hitting, I invested one more year on these related athletic functions. The results were very interesting but also, somewhat, intimidating.
Although not conclusive, the clear consensus winner in the area of power-throwing was Rocky Colavito! While that made me happy, it also troubled me. I had worked diligently for three decades to earn a reputation as a reliable historian, and I was reluctant to risk that standing by anointing a personal favorite of mine as the greatest-ever in such an important category.
But what could I do? That’s where the data took me. So, when I had to make the final decision about Rocky’s power-hitting ranking, I shortchanged him just a bit. I didn’t want readers to dismiss my insights about him due to our personal relationship. Yet, I paid a price for my efforts at generalized objectivity. When I asked Rocky about my book, although he tried hard to disguise his feelings, I could hear a slight trace of disappointment in his voice. His only remark was: “I would like to have been ranked just a little higher.” What can I say? After everything that he had done to help me, I was truly saddened to know that I had let him down even slightly.
On the positive side, Rocky’s Number One ranking in power-throwing is for real. To be fair, modern players are essentially forbidden to engage in any demonstrations that could best make their case. As a result, regardless of whose responsibility it is, current position- players simply can’t throw the ball with the same power as the top guys from the past. Once they become professionals, they are instructed not to risk arm injuries. There are virtually no scenarios where they throw balls as far as they can. It’s a kind of “Use it, or lose it” situation, and, compared to the older fellows, they have lost it. Sorry modernists, but that’s the reality.
In the case of Rocky Colavito, he came along just about at the end point of the old ritual of measuring long-distance throws.
Rocky did it just once. That was on July 1, 1956 at San Diego’s Lane Field when he launched a ball the astounding distance of 435 feet and 10.5 inches. And consider this: Colavito’s single best throw on that occasion landed on top of a batting cage and wasn’t even measured. This is how it happened.
During Rocky’s rookie season, the Indians found themselves in a short-term roster conflict. As a result, he was optioned to the Padres of the Pacific Coast League for about a month. By then, he was clearly a Big League talent, and tore up the PCL in his thirty-five games, batting .368 with twelve home runs. Yet, despite his amazing slugging performance, that’s not what folks were primarily talking about. Up and down the Pacific Coast, everyone was raving about the power in his right arm.
Knowing a good revenue-maker when he saw it, new San Diego General Manager Ralph Kiner scheduled a demonstration for July 1, 1956 while he still had Colavito on his roster. Having played briefly with Rocky in 1955, when Colavito came to Cleveland for his “cup of coffee” first visit to the Big Leagues, Kiner had marveled at the young man’s throwing power. That had been during Ralph’s last month in a Major League uniform, after which he retired and returned home to the West Coast.
In a pre-exhibition statement on June 29, 1956 in the San Diego Union newspaper, Ralph Kiner said this:
Great throwing arms are scarcer than Padre home runs, but I believe we have the greatest throwing arm in the history of baseball on our Padre club. The owner of this fantastic arm is Rocco (Rocky) Colavito. Rocky can’t explain why his arm is so much stronger than that of the average baseball player, and neither can anyone else in baseball. I do know that his arm is unquestionably the strongest I have ever seen, and I have had the pleasure of seeing the best in the world in recent years…I have never seen him lose a bet on his throwing ability.
When he made that final reference, Kiner was probably thinking about the time the preceding September when Rocky, upon being challenged by his new Indian teammates, hurled the ball completely out of gigantic Cleveland Stadium.
For the forthcoming exhibition on July 1, Rocky would stand near the left field foul pole, and heave five balls toward the right field foul pole. When the time came, he carefully warmed up, and, when ready, unleashed the leather-covered sphere with everything he had. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing from right to left field which was the opposite of the normal pattern at Lane Field. In other words, it was tracking directly into Colavito’s face. He gave it a try anyway.
The ball sailed high and far, and, as the fans watched in amazement, it landed just in front of the right field foul pole. That throw was measured at 415 feet, seven inches. Into the wind! Decades later, Rocky recalled that this first throw was his most powerful. But, when it happened back in 1956, he simply tried another one in the same direction, achieving a similar result. Finally, the Padres management, realizing that the conditions were not right for a fair demonstration, spontaneously changed the plan. Not wanting to give Colavito an unfair advantage, they did not send him to right field to throw with the wind at his back. Instead, they positioned him behind home plate, and directed him to throw through the crosswind toward the centerfield fence located 426 feet away. He complied.
At that point, Rocky had three throws left. He then unfurled his first to center field with all his might. This time, onlookers were even more astounded as they watched the ball sail through the air without the handicap of the contrary breeze. There were several guys waiting to mark where it landed, but they never got the chance. Nobody had considered the prospect of Colavito reaching the batting cage stored behind the wall, so it had not been moved. Sure enough, that’s where the ball landed. To this day, Rocky is certain that this throw was his longest, but it was never measured.
On his fourth throw, the ball again cleared the center field fence, landing on the ground and hitting the scoreboard on the first bounce. That one was measured, and it was the one computed at 435 feet, 10.5 inches. On Colavito’s fifth and final throw, the ball again sailed over the 426 foot mark, but fell slightly short of the one before.
The still-standing world record is 445 feet and ten inches by Glen Gorbous on August 1, 1957 in Omaha, Nebraska. On that occasion, officials reported that Glen had taken advantage of a favorable breeze of three miles-per-hour. Gorbous also benefitted from temperatures in the upper-nineties and high humidity, both of which helped his cause. Then, there is the remarkable Don Grate. No discussion on this topic is meaningful unless you include this historically relevant figure. Don participated in many measured-throw events in the 1950s, including his personal best of 445 feet, one inch on August 23, 1953 at Bloomington, Minnesota.
It should also be noted that Gorbous, although admittedly awesome, launched his record-setting throw at an altitude of 1,010 feet. Rocky made his lengthy heaves at sea level. I have checked with Greg Rybarczyk, an expert in such matters and the inventor of the highly respected HitTracker system for measuring home runs. He reviewed this case and concluded that Gorbous’s throw, adjusted for altitude, was still longer than Rocky’s. Yet, the altitude factor closes the gap somewhat.
Gorbous earned his record fairly, and I do not wish to denigrate his historic accomplishment. I suggest only that readers consider all factors when deciding who, in their judgment, made the most powerful throw in baseball annals.
Before moving forward on the matter of throwing power, there is another insight about Rocky’s time in San Diego which should be shared. I have recently been in touch with some folks who recall Colavito’s brief sojourn in their community, and their recollections are revealing. They remember “The Throw” with amazement and admiration, but, most of all, they still honor the man. In fact, San Diego native Gene Leek (born in 1936) eventually became Rocky’s teammate in 1959 at Cleveland. Gene can still close his eyes, and see Rocky signing autographs long after the game ended until every child went home happy. In Leek’s opinion, Colavito stood particularly tall in this regard. And so on, and so on. Those types of memories are plentiful in detailing the career of Rocky Colavito.
For the record, the great Roberto Clemente is not known to ever have had any of his throws measured. His supporters are inclined to make claim to his arm being the strongest, but I am compelled to disagree. If they limit their claim to Roberto having the most efficient outfield arm in Major League history, I won’t argue with them. His career total of 263 outfield assists speaks for itself. I saw the man throw many times, and he was a master.
Yet, Clemente was an athletic virtuoso with quick feet and a fast release. He was also an extremely accurate thrower. Many of his assists resulted from his all-around ability as a defensive outfielder. If you’re talking strictly about throwing power, the facts say that Rocky Colavito had a stronger arm. That’s the way their common contemporaries remember it, and that’s what the record tells us. Rocky also had a highly accurate throwing arm, but his forte, above all else, was his tremendous arm strength.
In my opinion, when all factors are considered, Rocky Colavito stands alone as a position power-thrower in the history of baseball. Pitchers are placed in a separate category. Since Don Grate never played an inning as a position-player in the Big Leagues, the case for Rocky Colavito’s supremacy in this category becomes even stronger. For anyone interested, try using modern, computer science to scan old newspaper records on this topic. It’s tedious work, but, eventually, a striking percentage of the stories about long baseball throws will be connected to the name of Rocky Colavito. When Rocky was a young man, he wasn’t bashful about showing off his arm strength, and he readily accepted challenges to throw balls just about anywhere teammates or opponents challenged him to do so.
As a result, there are accounts in almost every American League stadium of the 1950s (as well as many Minor League ballparks) where Colavito threw balls over grandstand roofs, towering scoreboards, distant outfield fences and so on. One of my personal favorites occurred at Victory Field in Indianapolis on September 15, 1954. Rocky was near the end of the first of his two stellar seasons with Indy’s Triple-A franchise as he worked his way up to the parent club in Cleveland. In fact, he and close friend Herb Score had dominated the American Association that season, Colavito blasting thirty-eight homers and driving in 116 runs while Score (with his blazing fastball) won twenty-two games and struck out 330 batters.
Just before their first playoff game against Minneapolis, responding to challenges from his teammates, Rocky walked out to home plate, and threw the ball over the scoreboard in left centerfield. Why was that so impressive? Here’s why: that structure was located a minimum distance of 385 feet away, and stood forty-two feet above the playing field. That was another throw of, at least, 420 feet.
Then, there was the story from noted Detroit sportswriter Joe Falls which I found so compelling.
When Rocky was traded to Detroit in 1960, Falls was already an established writer in the Motor City. Over time, Joe wrote for the Detroit Times, Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and The Sporting News. Unfortunately, he and Rocky never got along, and that is an important element in the following account. In the early 1980s, when I heard that Joe was interested in the history of tape measure home runs, I called him to discuss my project. By then, I knew about the coolness between him and Rocky, so I was surprised when Falls volunteered an insight about the absolute mightiest manifestation of baseball power that he had ever witnessed. I was surprised because, according to Joe, it had been authored by Colavito.
Falls recalled that, at some point during Rocky’s four-season Detroit career (1960-1963), he went into a batting slump (probably in 1963). During that low-point, on an unspecified date, Rocky was playing left field at Tiger Stadium when a right-handed batter hit a routine fly ball in his direction. Apparently, Colavito had worsened his situation by making a defensive misplay earlier in that same contest. Accordingly, when Rocky made the routine catch, the fans gave him a somewhat derisive cheer.
Well, Colavito had always been an emotional ballplayer, and that moment was fraught with emotion. Upon making the catch, he spun around to his left, and hurled the ball completely over the ninety-four foot high right field grandstand roof. Falls was in disbelief. He told me: “If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it!”
Playing the role of the interrogator, I questioned Joe thoroughly about the exact date, the name of the hitter, Rocky’s precise position at the moment of the throw, et cetera. Falls couldn’t recall much other than the throw itself. He remembered only that Colavito had been playing an unnamed right-handed batter in medium left field, and that the ball traveled directly to him. He didn’t have to move to make the play, therefore eliciting the taunting reaction from some of the Detroit faithful.
Recalling the throw itself was a different matter. From his perch in the elevated press box, Falls was certain that the ball flew completely over the three-tiered right field grandstand, landing somewhere on Trumbull Avenue. He was also sure that it left the ballpark just to the left of the right field light tower. Joe concluded: “Damndest thing I ever saw.” That entire story was spontaneously told to me even though I had never mentioned the name of Rocky Colavito.
Unfortunately, Rocky doesn’t remember the incident. Once the adrenalin wore off, I suppose that he just wanted to forget about his frustration. Over the course of his distinguished career, Colavito usually enjoyed excellent rapport with the fans, and this wasn’t a particularly fond memory. To him, the throw was not significant. As stated, in his early years in the Big Leagues, Rocky had routinely made demonstrations of that sort.
It’s unlikely that the exact date will ever be confirmed, but, I am confident that the event occurred. Why else would Joe Falls have gone to all that effort to describe an event which brought glory to a player he didn’t particularly like? How far did the ball fly through the air? Of course, without precise coordinates, we will never know for sure. Yet, I have provided the basic data to historian Bruce Orser who has helped me for years in estimating the distances of long home runs. Bruce is very dependable in such matters, and he believes that the throw likely traveled about 450 feet. Orser simply located the launch point where a left-fielder would play an average right-handed hitter, and accepted the description of the flight path as provided by Joe Falls. The results, if reported accurately, represent a world record.
Either way, “The Rock” had a bazooka for a throwing arm. I have personally researched all of his 123 Major League outfield assists, and they were consistently reported with accounts that ranged from deep respect to outright awe. That impressive total would be even higher if opponents hadn’t, essentially, stopped challenging him. Base coaches around the American League simply quit sending runners ahead when faced with the likely outcome of being thrown out.
Along with those previously-included remarks from Ralph Kiner, there are many other impressive testimonials from Rocky’s contemporaries about his lethal throwing power: too many to list. Yet, there is one quote from the scout who signed him which effectively summarizes how everyone felt on this topic.
Mike McNally played Major League ball from 1915 through 1925. He was a longtime friend and teammate of Babe Ruth who, by the way, also had a great arm. McNally faced the legendary Walter Johnson many times, and even teamed with him in 1925. Johnson (aka The Big Train), of course, is considered by many historians to have possessed the most powerful pitching arm in baseball history.
Mike was also the teammate of outfielder “Long Bob” Meusel for five seasons. Meusel was generally regarded as the mightiest position-thrower of his generation. Yet, years later when McNally first scouted the teenage Rocco, he stated: “I don’t think that I ever saw anyone with a stronger arm.” Mike McNally made that evaluation after watching Colavito perform around the time Rocky was turning only seventeen years of age. Colavito’s arm naturally strengthened considerably over the forthcoming years. Please consider McNally’s insight in its total context.
With the bat in his hand, Rocky was almost equally potent. Among his official 374 Major League home runs, there was a bunch that flew a very, very long way. In addition to those, I have confirmed over 200 additional homers that were launched in the Minor Leagues as well as spring training and exhibition games. Many of those were also noteworthy for distance.
Rocky Colavito traveled far from the vacant lots and dirt fields in the Bronx to where he is now. So, when he speaks to me about his journey, I listen intently. He has made me a better historian, and, in the process, enriched my life. For this, I am truly grateful.
There it is. That’s the account of my relationship with Rocky Colavito. As I write this, he is nearing his eighty-second birthday on August 10, 2015. He is slowing down, and acknowledges that his once powerful body isn’t what it used to be. Yet, whenever I call him for a consultation, I am amazed by the clarity and power of his mind. His memory is exceptional. Just this summer, I reached out for his impressions of former Cleveland slugger, Luke Easter, about whom I am currently doing research. In his typical fashion, Rocky instantly summoned up a barrel full of personal insights which allowed me, as an historian, to feel like I had known Luke myself. What an extraordinary blessing for me!
Afterward, I reflected on all the years since that moment back in my doctor’s office in 1958 when I chose Rocky Colavito as my hero. Fifty-seven years! Where have they gone? Then, another thought occurred to me. In all those intervening years, most sports heroes have eventually disappointed their admirers in one way or another. With Rocky Colavito, that has never happened to me. As a player, he had his moments when he lost his temper, and argued with umpires. There were a few times when he felt that his manager was not appreciating his efforts as much as he deserved, and he voiced his opinions accordingly. But, that’s about it.
No scandals, no drugs, no booze, no lies, no excuses!
He is still happily married to Carmen.
He enjoys the quiet life, but, when he was a professional ballplayer, nobody was better with the fans or in the community.
If you asked the man a question, he would look you in the eye and answer it.
Rocky will never again leave someone breathless by throwing (or hitting) a baseball out of sight. But don’t be fooled: the man is still a force in the world of baseball. He has seen things that few other living souls have ever witnessed. He has first hand knowledge about important events that men like me study for years to understand. Rocco Domenico Colavito has left his mark on baseball history, and done it with style, grace, and passion.
Like my dad said in 1961: “Rocky Colavito is a real man.”
N.B.-Thanks to Tim Reid along with his son, Timmy, for their help in preparing this article. Kudos also to J. G. Preston for his research into the topic of long-distance throwing.