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July 18, 2015

The Major League Baseball All-Star Game last Tuesday night 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.

The tall dark stranger strolling beneath the blooming dogwood trees in the spring of 1952 was enough to stop traffic on South Converse Street. He was a handsome eighteen-year-old Italian-American from New York City.

Rocco Domenico Colavito, Jr. was born in 1933, about the same time the Roosevelt Administration created the Civilian Conservation Corps to help the country recover from the Great Depression. CCC workers dug the hole and built the dam that created Duncan Park Lake. The dogwood trees were transplanted from the future lake bed to beautify South Converse Street.

Rocky, as he was known, was also a transplant. He was here from the Bronx to play baseball. He was a devoted fan of the New York Yankees. Joe DiMaggio was his boyhood hero. He came to our town as right fielder for the Spartanburg Peaches, and he lived in my grandmother’s house.

Belle Hudson was the widow of Joe Hudson, a Spartanburg businessman. His death left her a single mother with seven children. My mother was her youngest. During World War II, Granny had two sons in the Army; one was held as a prisoner of war in Germany.

The house at 288 South Converse was a large two-story gray Victorian with a wrap-around porch. After the war, Granny’s home became the transitional home for several of her children. Her house was only a short ride around Duncan Park Lake from my house.

In time, aunts, uncles, and cousins all moved out and into homes of their own. Then Granny became a landlady. She rented the second floor of her spacious home to the Stevens family.

Just off of 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, while he was in Spartanburg, he did not have an automobile. If he had girlfriends, I can assure you that he did not entertain them in his room at Granny’s house.

Rocky’s summer in Spartanburg was all about baseball. In fact, baseball was his life. By age nine he was playing semipro baseball. He dropped out of high school at age sixteen to pursue his career. Major league rules required him to wait until his high school class graduated before he could sign a contract. Only a special appeal allowed him to go pro after a one-year wait.

The Yankees, his favorite team, expressed little interest in him. The Philadelphia Athletics had an interest but had financial problems. The Cleveland Indians finally signed him in 1950. Two-thirds of his signing bonus was deferred until he proved himself.

Rocky spent most of the next six years working his way up through the Cleveland organization. Spartanburg was one step along the way. By the time he played for the 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 there was an air of anticipation. Every time he uncorked a throw from right field there was a murmur of appreciation.

Spartanburg was a baseball town. Baseball was the topic of conversation every day at Neely Lumber Company. Textile league games drew capacity crowds. People flocked to see players like Powerhouse Hawkins.

Baseball lore and legend were abundant. For example, Powerhouse Hawkins, by his own account, clobbered a homerun that traveled further than any ever hit by any player in any league, including the majors.

“I hit that homerun at Drayton Mill,” he recounted years later. “It was a line drive that barely cleared the fence. A freight train was passing by at the time, and the baseball went into the open door of a boxcar. There’s no telling how far that homerun ball traveled!”

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.

When the Indians left spring training in Florida, they would stop in Spartanburg to play an exhibition game on their way to Cleveland to begin the season. Over the years, Cleveland greats like Bob Feller, Early Wynn, and Bob Lemon made pitching appearances at Duncan Park.

In 1952, many suspected that the tall, lanky kid from the Bronx might become one of the better players in Cleveland; few could have predicted that Rocky Colavito would be one of the greatest.

For Christmas the year before Rocky came to town, I had gotten a crystal radio kit. My dad and I put the crystal set together. 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 of the games in person, I listened to almost every game, especially after school was out for the summer.

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

The All-Star Game in 1952 featured a contest between All-Star outfielders. They were to throw the ball from center field to the catcher behind home plate. Rocky won the event, firing the ball from deep center to home plate on the fly. If there had been a batter in the box, Rocky’s throw would have been called a strike.

Over the loudspeakers, the announcer issued a challenge, “Show us that arm, Rocky!” Rocky picked up another baseball and uncorked a throw from the center field fence as if he were throwing at the phantom voice in the press box. The baseball cleared the glass enclosure atop the stands sailing complete out of the ballpark. The ball landed somewhere between the always dark parking lot behind Duncan Park and the former Morningside Baptist Church at the corner of Converse Street and Caulder Avenue, traveling well over 400 feet. What an arm!

At the lumberyard one day, my great-uncle was reading the box scores in the newspaper. Rocky had hit two homeruns the night before. 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 thought and feared, Rocky is such a good player; he won’t play for the Peaches ever again.    

One day in late August, I went to Granny’s house. I climbed the back stairs to the screened porch. The door to Rocky’s room was closed. When I stepped inside the backdoor, Granny and Rocky were seated together at the kitchen table. Granny had her Bible open; Rocky was drinking a Pepsi. Granny was doing to him what she often did to me. She lured me to the table to taste something good so she could read the scriptures to me.

This time she stopped reading. She got up from her chair, inviting me to sit down.

“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 in his Brooklyn accent, “This ice cream is named for me.”

I am sure I looked puzzled.

“Baby Ruth candy bars are named for Babe Ruth. This ice cream is named for me.”

I was eight-years old, and I believed!

Our birthdays were eleven days apart. He was more than twice my age. I had seen him hit baseballs over the fence at Duncan Park. I had seen him throw runners out at home plate from deep right field. And now Rocky Colavito and I sat together at Granny’s kitchen table eating ice cream that I was sure was named for him.

The Peaches’ season ended about the time school started. One day, I went to Granny’s house, and Rocky was gone, playing baseball far beyond the reach of my crystal radio set.

Rocky had an outstanding career. He had eleven consecutive 20-homerun seasons, exceeding 30 homeruns seven times, 40 homeruns three times, and 100 runs batted in six times during that span.

In 1958, his sixth season after leaving Spartanburg, Rocky batted .303 with 41 homeruns, one behind Mickey Mantle. In 1959, he hit 42 dingers, becoming the first Indian to have two 40-homerun seasons. On June 10th of that year, he smashed four homers in consecutive at bats in a single game at the cavernous Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. He hit a total of 374 career homeruns in his career. He made the All-Star team six times.

Rocky was easily the Cleveland fans’ favorite, with his handsome appearance and approachability, always accommodating the hundreds of autograph seekers after each game.

Just before the 1960 season, the Indians traded Rocky to the Detroit Tigers for Harvey Kuenn. The trade proved to be a good one for the Tigers but a terrible one for the Indians. The trade angered the Cleveland faithful so much that they blamed the next 30 years of Cleveland baseball futility on the deal. It became known as the “Curse of Rocky Colavito.”

Cleveland fans lost their favorite player, and I knew exactly how they felt. I was in the tenth grade, and I looked at the Detroit box score every day. Rocky enjoyed his best season with career highs of 45 homeruns, 140 RBI, and 129 runs scored.

After three seasons with Detroit and one with the Athletics, Rocky was traded back to Cleveland. He made his last years in Cleveland worthwhile. In 1965, the summer between my junior and senior years at Furman University, Rocky played every game. He did not make an error for the entire season. He became the first outfielder in American League history to complete a season with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage. Rocky made the All-Star team in 1965 and 1966. In 1966, Clare and I graduated from Furman and were married.

In his final season of 1968, Rocky was with the Yankees, where he always wanted to be. In a crucial doubleheader, Rocky was brought into the first game as a relief pitcher. The big right-hander hurled three scoreless innings and was credited with the victory. In the second game that day Rocky homered, driving in the winning runs. I read about the double-header in the Louisville Courier-Journal. I was in my second year in seminary.

Why would a Southern boy from Spartanburg become so enamored with a ball player from the Bronx. We were different in many ways. He was Italian American; I was Scots-Irish. He was Roman Catholic; I was Southern Baptist. He spoke  with a Bronx accent; I spoke with a Southern drawl. Our ethnicity, our language, our religion were all different. The list could go on. But we had three things in common – my grandmother’s love, our love of the game of baseball, and a shared moment over a dish of Rocky Road ice cream.

Several years ago, on Father’s Day, our son Kris gave me a vintage Rocky Colavito Topps baseball card. It was a special gift from a special baseball fan. The card has been well-loved. There is a tear near the top and a dark stain in the bottom left corner. Still, I cherish the old baseball card of my favorite baseball player.

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

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