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.
Steve Barber was a southpaw who amassed some strong numbers as a young pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles in the early 1960’s. He played during some of the Orioles lean years, before the emergence of future stars like Jim Palmer and Boog Powell and the trade for Frank Robinson. I was in college when I first started following him, and was honored to become his teammate several years later. He was a genuinely nice guy. The story I heard is that the Yankees saw him for the first time during a 1960 spring training game in Miami where he struck out Mickey Mantle three times. Steve had pitched AA ball in 1959 (his mentor was a young minor league manager named Earl Weaver), but he had such an impressive spring that he made the major league team. He went 10-7 in 27 starts for the Orioles in 1960, and really broke out in 1961 when he went 18-12, with 14 complete games and 150 strikeouts. In 1962, Steve was on active duty in the U.S. Army; the Army gave him weekend passes to pitch, and while he started just 19 games, he had a 9-6 record. His best year was in 1963, when he went 20-13 with 150 strikeouts and made the American League All-Star team. That turned out to be his career year; he was 9-13 in 1964, 15-10 in 1965, and 10-5 in 1966 (when he was again named to the AL All-Star team). Steve developed tendinitis in his elbow, which forced him to miss the All-Star game, and the World Series.
Steve was 4-9 in fifteen starts for Baltimore in 1967 when he was traded to the Yankees on July 4 for Ray Barker, some cash, and a player to be named later – eventually this would be two minor league prospects who never made the majors, Chester Trail and Daniel Brady. His first start in Pinstripes was on July 8, against the Orioles at Memorial Stadium; he gave up six runs in 3 1/3 innings and his old team went on to beat his new team, 12-5. I still remember the look on his face when Ralph Houk went out to the mound to take him out of the game. Unfortunately, in baseball not every story turns out well. He started seventeen games for the Yankees that season and went 6-9. He was 6-5 in nineteen starts in 1968. Clearly his best years were over. His elbow problems were not going away.
One of the things that always impressed me about Steve was his perseverance. As a former two-time All-Star and 20-game winner, he took a demotion to the minor leagues in 1968 and played for the Syracuse Chiefs. The Seattle Pilots took him in the 1969 expansion draft; he was 4-7 in sixteen starts for them. Released by the Brewers during 1970 spring training, Steve refused to give up. He cobbled together another five years in the majors (and at times, in the minors) for the Cubs, Braves, Angels and Giants. He had a nice career: 121-106, with 950 strikeouts.
I heard that in his later years, he volunteered driving a school bus for special needs kids. Not surprising, considering how good a person he was. I was saddened when I learned eight years ago that he had passed away and I’ll always appreciate the privilege of being his teammate.
Monument Monday is a weekly tribute to the Pitchers I knew during my baseball career. Click here to read my previous entries.
Writing about Don Mincher got me thinking about the Seattle Pilots, the expansion team that lasted just one year at Sick’s Stadium before going bankrupt moving and becoming the Milwaukee Brewers. A bunch of my teammates and friends wound up on the Pilots: Mike Hegan, Steve Whitaker, Mike Ferraro, John Kennedy, Steve Barber, Dooley Womack and Jim Bouton, whose time with the Pilots became the focus of his controversial best seller (and one of my favorite books), Ball Four. Two future teammates, Jack Aker and Fred Stanley came to the Yankees from the Pilots.
Steve Whitaker innocently played a role in the Yankees comeback: just two weeks before opening day, the Pilots made a trade with the Royals that sent a promising outfielder named Lou Piniella to Kansas City for Steve. Lou was the 1969 AL Rookie of the Year and Steve had to wear the weird Pilots cap and settle for just being a good guy. With closer Lindy McDaniel expendable because the Yankees got Sparky Lyle for Danny Cater, the Whitaker trade sort of set up the Piniella for McDaniel deal that made Lou my Yankee teammate for the start of the 1974 season. And my trade to Cleveland for Chris Chambliss and Dick Tidrow helped create the winning George Steinbrenner Era. As I keep saying, the Yankees gave up a lot of talent for Chris and Dick, but they clearly got the best of that deal.