If one were to ask a Cleveland baseball fan in the 1950s and 1960s who the team’s iconic players were, Rocky Colavito’s name would likely come up quickly. Colavito played parts of 14 seasons in Major League Baseball and spent eight of those seasons with Cleveland, earning the nickname “The Rock” and bashing a league-leading 42 home runs in 1959.
Colavito’s name is also likely familiar to younger baseball fans thanks to a couple of ill-advised trades involving the player and Cleveland’s utter futility in the years that followed, leading to the so-called “Curse of Rocky Colavito,” which allegedly has prevented Cleveland from winning another World Series since their last title in 1948.
However, despite Colavito’s relevance to Cleveland baseball and his overall excellent career, there has only been one real biography on him, “Don’t Knock the Rock: The Rocky Colavito Story” by Gordon Cobbledick, published in 1966, when Colavito was still playing. Mark Sommer, an enterprise reporter with The Buffalo News, a daily newspaper serving western New York, grew up a baseball fan and as a child would often imitate Colavito’s unique batting stance. He didn’t have many ties to the Cleveland area but said he purchased “Don’t Knock the Rock” as a 13-year-old using his bar mitzvah money.
In 2017, he started doing more research on Colavito. Sommer said he was shocked to learn nobody had written a book about Colavito since Cobbledick’s book, not including Terry Pluto’s “The Curse of Rocky Colavito: A Loving Look at a Thirty-Year Slump,” which was more a look at the franchise’s woes after trading Colavito away than a biography of the player.
“I realized (‘Don’t Knock the Rock’) wasn’t particularly comprehensive,” Sommer said. “There were whole chunks of his life not talked about. The book came out when he was still an active player and it felt like it had been rushed out to capitalize on his return to Cleveland. ... I realized no one had written a book about Colavito in half a century. I started thinking it was time.”
The result of his research, Sommer’s “Rocky Colavito: Cleveland’s Iconic Slugger” will be published July 5. Sommer said though he’s from Buffalo, he realized his hometown and Cleveland have a lot in common: They’re both Rust Belt cities that have been down on their luck but started to see a bit of a resurgence, and the two cities have nostalgia for better days.
“Rocky Colavtio was immensely popular to one or two generations of fans (in Cleveland),” said Sommer. “I also thought there was an allure around him due to the ‘Curse of Rocky Colavito.’”
Sommer’s research led him to contact Bobby DiBiasio, senior vice president of public affairs for the team, who put Sommer in touch with Colavito in January 2017. Through a series of phone conversations, Sommer got to know Colavito and had written most of the book between September 2017 and June 2018. He said the book was more than just Colavito’s story.
“I knew the trade (of Colavito in 1960) was crucial. This story, to me, was not just Rocky’s story, it’s Cleveland’s story,” said Sommer. “He was just such a beloved figure in Cleveland and that trade was so devastating. As we know, it led to a 34-year period of futility when the Indians never even challenged for a pennant. … I knew that was where I wanted to start the book. I also knew it was really important to talk to people in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. Rocky’s story is also their story. A lot of people from the Cleveland area talk about what Rocky meant to them, what the trade meant to them.”
Sommer said Colavito today is quite modest about his accomplishments, and in fact, would often downplay them.
“When talking with him about his exploits, he would say over and over, ‘Now, I say this in modesty.’” said Sommer. “He never wants to seem like he’s bragging about his accomplishments. He’s telling me a story about a game where he hit a grand slam, but he’s very careful not to seem like he’s tooting his horn too much.”
Sommer and Colavito will be in Cleveland for an event July 5 at Playhouse Square, with Sommer reading excerpts from the book and Colavito answering questions from moderator DiBiasio.
“Rocky Colavito: Cleveland’s Iconic Slugger” is available for pre-order at rockycolavitobiography.com.