This article was written by Joseph Wancho
“He was everything a ballplayer should be: dark, handsome eyes, and a raw-boned build – and he hit home runs at a remarkable rate.” — Terry Pluto1
If you were to stroll by a Little League field in greater Cleveland in the late 1950s, you might have seen a trend among the players. You might have noticed that before a youngster stepped into the batter’s box, he would take the baseball bat with both hands, shift it beyond his back, lean forward slightly, extend the bat horizontally away from his body, and stretch. This act, which mimicked the preparation Rocky Colavito went through before stepping to the plate, was an example of the adulation most young players had for Rocky Colavito.
The slugger of the Cleveland Indians was the face of the franchise. Colavito smacked 41 home runs and drove in 113 runs in 1958. The Sporting News ran an article in its June 10, 1959, issue headlined “Best Bet to Beat Bambino’s 60?” The article wrote that Colavito and Milwaukee’s Eddie Matthews were the best candidates to eclipse the single-season home-run record Babe Ruth set in 1927. On that date Colavito was leading the Indians’ attack, clubbing 14 homers with 28 RBIs going into the evening’s matchup with Baltimore. Indeed “Don’t Knock the Rock” was a slogan that was catching on outside of Cleveland.
The Orioles and Chicago White Sox were tied atop the American League standings with records of 29-24. The Indians were close behind, trailing both teams with a 26-24 record, 1½ games back. The day before, Baltimore had won the first game of the three-game set at Memorial Stadium, 7-3.
The pitching matchup for the 10th was Gary Bell (4-5, 3.87 ERA) for the Indians and Jerry Walker (4-2, 2.14 ERA) for the O’s. Both starters were on losing streaks. Bell had dropped his last three games while Walker lost his last two. Both got off to rocky starts in this game. With two outs in the top of the first inning, Tito Francona singled to right field, Colavito walked, and Minnie Miñoso homered. The Orioles got one back in the bottom of the frame on a Gus Triandos sacrifice fly.
Billy Martin added to the long-distance parade with a solo shot off Walker in the second. Bell couldn’t hold the lead, as the Orioles loaded the bases after the first two batters were retired, and Al Pilarcik singled to center field to plate two runs.
With the Indians up 4-3, Vic Power walked, Francona popped out and Colavito smacked a changeup slider from Walker high over the left-field fence for a two-run homer. The blast chased Walker from the game, as he gave way to Arnie Portocarrero. The tall right-hander got out of the inning, but was not immune to Colavito’s power surge. The Rock hit a slow curveball some 420 feet for a solo shot in the fifth inning. After Francona doubled in the sixth inning with two outs, Colavito smacked another home run, this time off a fastball, to extend the Indians’ lead to 10-3. The ball got out in a hurry, a line drive to left-center field. “I wasn’t sure it would clear the fence,” said Colavito.2 It was noted in the press box by a Baltimore scribe, “No team ever has hit more than three home runs in one game in this park. Rocky has equaled that record himself. This is the toughest home-run park in baseball.”3
Meanwhile, Bell was keeping the Orioles off the scoreboard. After giving up three runs in the first two frames, he surrendered only two hits over the next four innings. But he ran into trouble in the bottom of the seventh inning. After Gene Woodling singled to score a run and Joe Ginsberg walked, Bell left the game with the bases loaded and one out. He had given up eight hits, walked four, and struck out three.
Mike Garcia came in from the bullpen. The Big Bear had been relegated to relief duties after a stellar career as a starter. Garcia got out number two but then Billy Klaus doubled to left field to clear the bases, narrowing the Indians’ lead to 10-7. All three runs were charged to Bell, for a total of seven.
Both teams tallied a run in the ninth inning. The Indians’ run was courtesy of none other than Rocky Colavito. He crushed and inside fastball from Baltimore reliever Ernie Johnson. A towering shot to left field. The crowd of 15,883 at Memorial Stadium cheered for Colavito heartily, honoring his feat with a standing ovation. He was the eighth major-league player to hit four homers in a game, and only the third to hit them consecutively. His stats for the day were indeed impressive: 4-for-4, five runs, and six RBIs. He tied the American League record for total bases in a game held by Pat Seerey, Lou Gehrig, and Ty Cobb. (Seerey and Gehrig on four homers.)
The other two players who had hit four consecutive home runs in a game were Bobby Lowe of the 1894 Boston Beaneaters and Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees in 1932. “Gehrig? No kidding,” said Colavito. “He was my favorite player when I was a little kid. My brother, Vito, was a first baseman and he loved Gehrig; so naturally I did, too.”4
The ball was retrieved in the stands. The fan who caught it agreed to trade it in for two signed baseballs, one by Colavito and one by Herb Score. The recipient was also given $25 to sweeten the deal.5 Colavito did not have much of a chance to admire the baseball, as it was soon whisked away to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
“Somebody up there threw beer on me,” said Colavito, referring to the right-field stands. “It hit me on the arm. I knew who it was, too. It made me a little mad. After I hit that fourth homer and went out to right field, though, he waved at me. Nice fella.”6
As the 1959 season progressed, the Orioles faded out of the race for the AL pennant. Cleveland, Chicago, and New York held a three-team race. Chicago all but eliminated the Indians by sweeping the Tribe in a four-game series in late August at Cleveland Stadium. The White Sox returned to Cleveland a month later to clinch the pennant. Colavito tied Harmon Killebrew for the most home runs in the junior circuit with 42.
At the end of spring training in 1960, Colavito was traded to Detroit for shortstop Harvey Kuenn. The trade by general manager Frank Lane enraged fans, especially after Colavito hit 139 home runs during his four years with the Tigers. Kuenn was traded away from Cleveland a year later.
- Related link: View a comprehensive list of all 4-HR games in professional baseball history at SABR.org
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also accessed Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
1 Terry Pluto, The Curse Of Rocky Colavito (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 11.
2 Hal Lebovitz, “Rocky Colavito: Can’t Believe It,” Cleveland News, June 11, 1959: 16.
5 Lebovitz, June 11, 1959 :16
6 Lou Hatter, “Rocky Aiming Just For Hit,” Baltimore Sun, June 11, 1959: 23.