Happy Birthday to Rocky Colavito, whom I believe never put any curse on the Cleveland Indians. Rocky was the first major leaguer I ever saw up close. It was in April of 1963. Dave Duncan and I were both prospects at the time and we were among a group of players invited to try out for the Kansas City Athletics. We went out to eat, and a group of Detroit Tigers who were in town came to the same place for dinner. Rocky was a Home Run hitting superstar in 1963 and was very recognizable, and I was in awe of him. I never stopped, largely because he earned it; Rocky had a .391 career batting average when I was the pitcher.
The first time I pitched to Rocky was on June 7, 1966 at Cleveland Stadium. Rocky hit a leadoff single to start the second inning. And I remember the fourth inning well, because I struck out the side, including Rocky and Leon Wagner. The Yankees won that game 7-2, the fourth win of my fledgling career, and I struck out nine batters.
Rocky became a Yankee at the end of his career. The Dodgers had released him around the 1968 All-Star break and the Yankees signed him a few days later. It was very cool when Rocky arrived in the clubhouse and put on the Pinstripes with #29 across his back. And he was a Bronx-born guy and felt very comfortable playing in New York. We were playing the Washington Senators at Yankee Stadium and Rocky was in the lineup, playing Right Field and batting sixth. In his first At-Bat, he hit a deep fly ball that I thought might be a homer, but Del Unser caught it at the warning track. The next time he came to the plate was in the bottom of the fifth. The pitcher was Joe Coleman. It was still a scoreless game, but the Yankees had something going: Joe Pepitone hit a leadoff single, and moved to second on Andy Kosco’s hit. Rocky hit a Home Run, the 370th of his career and his first in Pinstripes. I was pitching the day Rocky hit the last Home Run of his great career, on September 24, 1968 against the Cleveland Indians.
The other story to tell when talking about Rocky as a Yankee was the time he pitched. He was 35-years-old and near the end of his career on August 25, 1968, the first game of a Sunday doubleheader against his old team, the Detroit Tigers. Future Yankee Pat Dobson was on the mound for the Tigers. s Ralph Houk was short on pitchers and was trying not to go to his closers until the end of the game. Detroit had taken a 5-0 lead when The Major pulled Steve Barber and turned to Rocky, who entered the game with one out and runners on first and second. Rocky got Al Kaline and Willie Horton out to end the inning. Rocky came back to pitch the fifth and sixth innings. He walked two in the fifth, but gave up no hits and no runs. In the sixth, he gave up a double to Al Kaline, who was left stranded; he even struck out Dick Tracewski.
But wait, there’s more. In the bottom of the sixth, the Yankees took the lead, 6-5, off Home Runs by Bill Robinson and Bobby Cox. Rocky walked and scored the go-ahead run on Jake Gibbs’ single. The Major brought in Dooley Womack and Lindy McDaniel to finish the game, and Rocky got the win. One hit, no runs, and a strikeout. And in the second game, Rocky played Right Field and hit a Home Run off Mickey Lolich; the Yankees won 5-4 and swept the doubleheader.
Happy Birthday to Fred Scherman, a pitcher for the Tigers, Astros and Expos from 1969 to 1976. The first time we pitched against each other was on April 14, 1971 at Yankee Stadium. We beat the Tigers and Mickey Lolich, 8-4; it was my first win of the ’71 season. Fred came in to pitch in the bottom of the sixth inning with the bases loaded (on three walks) and one out. I was the batter and he walked me, giving me my first RBI of the season. With the bases still loaded, Horace Clarke hit into a double play to end the inning. Fred gave up no hits in the seventh and was taken out for a pinch hitter in the eighth.
Loyd Colson was drafted by the Yankees in 1967, their first pick in the 28th round. Of the 77 players the Yankees drafted that day, only five ever wore the pinstripes, and Loyd was one of them. Just making it to the major leagues is an extraordinarily tough task, and while Loyd’s career was short, he still made it. I’m sure he will never forget the thrill of standing on the mound at Yankee Stadium, and while he never made it back, our team was honored to have him there and grateful for his strong showing that day. So today’s installment of Monument Monday is dedicated to all the young players who made it to the major leagues, even if for only a short time, and I want to recognize their monumental achievements.
I met Loyd for the first time in February of 1970, when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in Fort Lauderdale. He was one of nine new guys on the 40-man roster that the Yankees viewed as integral to regaining their past glory. The others were (if I remember this correctly) pitchers Larry Gowell (who had 217 strikeouts in 195 innings in the minors the year before), Terry Bongiovanni, Doug Hansen and Bill Olsen, outfielder Rusty Torres, and a trio of infielders – George Zeber, Mario Guerrero and Tim O’Connell. [One brief footnote to baseball history: one of the players cut to make room for these new prospects was Bobby Cox, who was our Third Baseman for two years.] Loyd had impressed the Yankees during his stint with the Kinston Eagles, the Yankees Carolina League AA team. He had 125 strikeouts in 120 innings, and a 1.73 ERA.
Going into spring training, there were fifteen guys competing for four open spots on the Yankee pitching staff. Mel Stottlemyre, Stan Bahnsen and I were expected to be three of the five starters, and Lindy McDaniel, Jack Aker and Steve Hamilton were going to be in the bullpen. There were six pitchers in contention to be the other starters: Bill Burbach, John Cumberland, Ron Klimkowski, Steve Kline, Joe Verbanic, and this guy named Mike Kekich, who had been traded from the Dodgers. Also in camp were Rob Grander, Dick Farrell (a veteran National League pitcher who was at the end of his career), Jerry Tirtle, Gary Jones, Terry Ley, Bongiovanni, Gowell, Hansen, Olsen and Colson. Yankee executives boasted that they had “pitching depth” heading into the 1970 season. I remember that I was excited. Entering my third major league season, I pitched the most pre-season innings of the Yankee pitchers and had a 1.55 ERA during spring training.
The four pitchers who made it on the 25-man roster were Burbach, Klimkowski, Verbanic, and Kekich. Verbanic had missed the entire 1969 season because of a shoulder injury. He started the season with the Yankees, but was gone in about a month, never to pitch in the major leagues again. He would eventually be replaced by Cumberland. Eventually Bile would lose his starting slot to Kline, who got called up in July.
So back to Loyd Colson. Loyd was impressive in spring training and sent to the Manchester Yankees, the AA team, to get some more experience. He gets called up to the Yankees in September of 1970. He’s wearing #49 on his back. I remember his one appearance. It was September 25, and we were playing the Detroit Tigers in a Friday twi-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. There were six games left in the season, and we were in second place in the American League East, thirteen games behind the Baltimore Orioles. Steve Kline was pitching against Mickey Lolich. After seven innings, we were losing 2-1. Dick McAuliffe had hit a solo homer and Elliot Maddox had an RBI double for Detroit; Ron Hansen hit a solo Home Run for us. Loyd entered the game in the top of the eighth, taking over for Gary Jones, who had left the game for a pinch hitter.
The first major league hitter Loyd faced was Tigers Second Baseman Dalton Jones, who it a fly ball to center that Bobby Mitchell caught for the first out. [For Yankee memorabilia collectors there is some significance to this, since Loyd and Bobby would share a Rookie Card in the 1971 TOPPS set. The next batter was Don Wert, who singled to Bobby in center. Gene Lamont, the Tigers catcher, then hit an RBI double. This was a tough debut for a pitcher and I recall being impressed by how Loyd settled down and struck out the next two batters, Maddox and Lolich.
In the top of the ninth, Colson led off the inning by striking out McAuliffe. He gave up an infield single to Mickey Stanley, and then retired Jim Northrup and the always threatening Norm Cash on flyballs. The Yankee offense threatened Lolich in the bottom of the ninth. Jim Lyttle hit a one-out single to center, and advanced to second when Gene Michael got on base due to Jones’ error. So with the tying run at first, The Major sends Roy White in to pinch hit for Loyd. Lolich struck Heeba out, and then won the game when Horace Clarke flied out to right.
So there it is, the history of Loyd Colson. Not a bad showing: 3 hits, one run, and three strikeouts (and zero At-Bats) in two innings as a pitcher for the greatest baseball team in history. He came to Fort Lauderdale in 1971, didn’t make the team, and got sent to Syracuse. He never had another opportunity to play in the majors, but he did have two good innings in pinstripes and all of us are grateful to him for that.
Monument Monday is a weekly tribute to the Pitchers I knew during my baseball career. Click here to read my previous entries.