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Rocky Colavito

July 30, 2012

Bill Drake and I broadcast a program last week on WOLT 103.3 radio.  During our conversation, Bill rekindled my memories of a great baseball player who starred with the Spartanburg Peaches for only one season.

In the 1950s the Spartanburg Peaches was a minor league franchise of the Cleveland Indians. In those days, Duncan Park was considered one of the best minor league ballparks in the country. Even the seats in Duncan Park were legendary. They had once been used in Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia.

Rocco Domenico Colavito, Jr., was born in 1933. Rocky, as he was known, came from the Bronx as right fielder for the Spartanburg Peaches.  He was a devoted fan of the New York Yankees, and Joe DiMaggio was his boyhood hero.

The death of my grandfather Joe Hudson, a Spartanburg businessman, left his wife, Belle, a single mother with seven children. My mother was their youngest child.

My grandmother’s house at 288 South Converse was a large two-story gray Victorian home with a wrap-around porch. Just off the screened back porch was a private room that in more prosperous times had served as the maid’s quarters. Granny rented that room to Rocky Colavito in the spring of 1952.

I rarely saw Rocky when he was not in uniform at Duncan Park. I was only seven years old at the time. I remember seeing him walk whenever he left Granny’s house. Later in his career, he would be famous for his powder blue Cadillac and his pretty blond wife. As far as I know, he did not have an automobile while living in Spartanburg. If he had girlfriends, I can assure you that he did not entertain them in his room at Granny’s house.

By the time he played for the Spartanburg Peaches in 1952, Rocky had developed his own style at the plate. He was a power hitter, and he had a strong arm in the outfield.

Rocky became an immediate fan favorite. Every time he stepped into the batter’s box, the air was electric with anticipation. Every time he uncorked a throw from right field, a murmur of appreciation ran through the crowd.

In 1952, many suspected that the tall, lanky kid from the Bronx might become one of the better players in Major League Baseball. Few could have predicted that Rocky Colavito would become one of the greatest. Rocky had eleven consecutive 20-home run seasons, exceeding 40 home runs three times, and 100 runs batted in six times. He was voted to the All-Star Team nine times.

For Christmas the year before Rocky came to town, I had received a crystal radio kit, which my dad and I assembled. If I propped it in the windowsill of my second-story open bedroom window, I could faintly pick up one station – WSPA 950 AM, the station that broadcast all of the Peaches’ games. Though I actually attended only a few games in person, I listened to almost every game.

From my bedroom window, I could see the lights at Duncan Park. When the Peaches made a spectacular play, I would take off the crystal set earphones and listen to the roar of the crowd, echoing across Duncan Park Lake.

At the lumberyard one day, my great-uncle was reading the box scores in the newspaper. Rocky had hit two homeruns the previous night. Clicking his false teeth, Uncle Will said, “If you want to see Colavito play, you’d better go soon. He’ll be in Cleveland playing for the big team before long.”

He spoke what I feared, Rocky is such a good player; he won’t play for the Peaches ever again.    

Then, one August afternoon, I went to Granny’s house. I climbed the stairs to the screened porch and noticed that the door to Rocky’s room was closed. When I stepped inside the kitchen, Rocky was seated at the table drinking a Pepsi. Granny always had Pepsi-Colas in the refrigerator and ice cream in the freezer.

Granny said, “Both of you boys have August birthdays. Rocky has just turned nineteen; Kirk has just turned eight. So, I bought something special for you.”

From the freezer Granny took a new container of ice cream, Rocky Road.  When he saw the flavor, Rocky quipped, “This ice cream is named for me! Baby Ruth candy bars are named for Babe Ruth. This ice cream is named for me.”

I was eight-years old, and I believed!

One day when I went to Granny’s house, Rocky was gone, playing baseball far beyond the reach of my crystal radio set.

I own a vintage Rocky Colavito Topps baseball card. The card, with its tear near the top and a dark stain in the bottom left corner, has been well-loved. I cherish that old card of my favorite baseball player.

I am certain that the dark stain at the bottom of the card is Rocky Road ice cream.

Kirk H. Neely
© July 2012

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