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Cleveland's relationship with Colavito remains strong

Indians celebrate former slugger's 80th birthday with luncheon at Progressive Field

CLEVELAND -- My father is like many Clevelanders of a certain age and, yes, ethnicity. He still has not fully forgiven the Indians for trading Rocky Colavito.

Now, if you're not an Italian-American male in your 60s, maybe the 1960 trade that sent Colavito to the Tigers doesn't retain its resonance as a personal affront to your childhood innocence. If I ever want to get my dad riled up, all I have to do is mention the name Harvey Kuenn.

But if you're an Indians fan of any age, chances are Colavito's name still lights a spark after all this time, whether you watched him play personally or simply heard the tall tales about his prodigious power and the impact of that ill-fated swap.

So here was Colavito, on his 80th birthday, making a rare appearance at Progressive Field. And here were the 150 people packing a sold-out luncheon Saturday and the thousands more happily receiving a commemorative plaque bearing his name and image as they entered the gates for the Tribe's game against the Angels.

Colavito, they proved, still matters here. He is still recognized, he is still a legend, his four-homer game in Baltimore in 1959 still lives in Indians lore. And his 80th birthday, the Tribe rightly determined, was very much worth celebrating.

For a guy with a white head of hair -- "That's a lot of 0-for-4s up there," he said -- who lives a quiet retirement life in a small borough in southeast Pennsylvania, this bash was all a little overwhelming.

"It's hard to explain it in words," Colavito said, clearly choked up. "So many people remembering you and telling their kids about you, and they remember you. It's definitely a wonderful feeling. It really is."

The Indians and Colavito had a tortured relationship for many years. The club low-balled him on salary both in his playing days and, later, when he briefly served as their hitting coach in the 1970s. The trade with the Tigers was made purely out of spite. The Rock, fresh off tying for the American League lead in home runs and finishing fourth in the MVP vote in 1959, wanted a raise from $28,000 to $45,000, and Frank "Trader" Lane fought him on every penny. Colavito's contract was renewed at $35,000, and Lane felt even that was too much. So on the final day of Spring Training '60, Lane dealt Colavito to the Tigers for Kuenn -- a good hitter, sure, but one who, at 29 years old, was already beginning to fall apart physically.

Colavito was standing on first base, fresh off a single in an exhibition game in Memphis, Tenn., when he got the news. When he saw manager Joe Gordon trotting out to the field, he figured he was getting word that he was being pulled from the game so that he could hit the shower at the hotel and be ready to board the bus on time.

Instead …

"He told me, 'You've been traded to Detroit for Harvey Kuenn,'" Colavito recalled. "And he said, 'And I want to wish you all the luck in the world.'"

Now, here's where the myth of the Colavito trade begins to diverge from the truth. Because it is at this point in the story that Colavito famously (and cockily) said, "Kuenn and who else?"

Colavito, in the present day, insists that in that stunning moment, all he could think to say to Gordon was, "Same to you."

"They wanted to make me look bad to the Cleveland fans," Colavito said. "It would never be true. Harvey was a damn good player. He was the league-leading batter at .353, and I was tied for the league lead in home runs with 42. I would have never said that even if it was a lesser player. They tried to deface you a little bit."

Didn't work. Cleveland fans, who had taken up the mantra "Don't knock the Rock" whenever an ill word was uttered about their beloved home run hitter, were outraged at Lane, who would dubiously gloat that he had traded "a hamburger for a steak."

Kuenn would make the AL All-Star team in his one season with the Indians, but he was no Colavito. At the end of 1961, the Indians dealt Kuenn to the Giants for Johnny Antonelli and Willie Kirkland, neither of whom amounted to much.

Colavito, meanwhile, hit 35 homers or more in three of his four seasons with the Tigers before being dealt to the Kansas City A's for the 1964 season and then -- in a trade that was even worse than the one that dispatched him from Cleveland -- back to the Indians in '65. By that point, Colavito was the one entering his post-prime, and the Indians gave up Tommy John and Tommie Agee to get him.

Ah, well. It's all ancient history now. And Colavito, who was inducted into the Indians Hall of Fame alongside his best friend Herb Score in 2006, is no longer sour on the Tribe organization.

Still, the notion of "The Curse of Rocky Colavito" was strong enough to support a successful book of the same name by sportswriter Terry Pluto and -- who knows? -- maybe that curse continues to this day.

Not that the Rock is buying it.

"That's one of the all-time fallacies, that one," he said with a laugh.

Colavito was never a part of a pennant winner, so he begrudgingly accepts that the four-homer game on June 10, 1959, at old Memorial Stadium stands as his best moment in baseball. He has another vivid memory, though, that isn't as well-known: a game on July 5, 1962, at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium, in which he almost repeated the four-homer feat.

"I say this in modesty," he said, "but I had three in a row against Cleveland in Cleveland. Now, where else would you want to do that but Cleveland?"

The first two homers came off Pedro Ramos. The third came off reliever Frank Funk. And in the top of the eighth, facing Bill Dailey, Colavito had a chance to make history.

"I thought to myself, 'I'd be the only one in history to do it twice,'" he said. "The only one. I said to myself, 'It would be nice.' I hit a pitch off him in the upper deck as good as I hit any of the three of them. I just stood and watched, because it was hooking and hooking and hooking. It went foul by about 15 or 20 feet. And the next pitch, I hit a shot up the middle to the second baseman. So I didn't get it."

You could tell, by the twinkle in his eye, that Colavito relished this opportunity to share this story with a captive audience. Although he has remained relatively reclusive in his older years, hunting with his sons and enjoying baseball merely as a spectator, this was a day for Colavito to soak up the affection he first earned when he was Cleveland's up-and-coming, handsome home-run hitter.

Some folks here -- my dad included -- will never get over the trade that sent Colavito packing. And that's part of the unmistakable charm to Colavito's story. After all, this is a town so many have left willingly and merrily, so it's hard not to gravitate toward the guys who truly considered it home.

Colavito still does.

"I always felt this is my town," he said, misty-eyed. "I love Cleveland. It's my favorite town in the world. That's the God's honest truth. I'm not blowing smoke to anybody, because I don't have to."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.
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