Sunday, March 16, 2014

Rocky Colavito and the Gods of Baseball

 Like many kids, I went to my first baseball game with my father and grandfather. I was young—seven or eight years old—and most of that day was forgotten. More than a half a century later, some memories still remain. Connie Mach Stadium still had poles in the stands, much like Yankee Stadium did before several renovations. Yankee Stadium they renovate, Connie Mack, with a much more elegant, classic entrance, they tear down.
Note the poles in both Connie Mack's decks

                     An elegant entrance - originally Shibe Park
Pennsylvania was a national league state, Phillies and Pirates. The Yankees were in the other league, the “Junior Circuit,” not around as long as the National League. Now not much separates the leagues except the notion that when your career as a fielder is over you go to the old age farm of designated hitters in the AL, banished forever from the league where pitchers know how to bat.
National Leaguers rarely paid close attention to the other league except when they intersected (the years before inter-league play started in 1997) at the annual All-Star Game and the World Series. My family moved from Pennsylvania to a New Jersey battleground fought over by Mets and Yankees fans. The Mets were the new kids on the block. The Yankees establishment was pushing back. I was quite happy to be neutral in that war.
The “Big Men on Campus” in my old neighborhood were a doctor, a dentist and a disabled WWII veteran who had an injury that required crutches. He sat on his front porch every day and taught neighborhood kids how to play chess. Doctors and dentists weren’t the most exciting people and as a kid, people you wanted to avoid—think polio booster shots and tooth fillings.
Everything in the New York metro area seemed larger than life and more exciting. My new neighborhood had scientists, professional musicians, a ski jumper from Norway, entertainers, international businessmen, and Yankees first baseman Moose Skowron. Our moving vans nearly clipped each other because he was moving out at nearly the same time as we were moving in and if you had told me we were neighbors of Moose Skowron then, I would probably have thought you were talking about hunting and fishing. Remember, I was from the National League.
Moose made a visit to my eight grade class one day when he was running his morning errands. He spoke about 20 minutes and fielded questions. I remember him as being very gracious and modest, amazing as one of the gods of baseball.  His son, Greg, was a fifth-grade classmate of my younger brother, Dennis. If I turned around in my seat, I could talk to John Lopat, the son of Yankee legend, Eddie Lopat, “The Junk Man” (called that because he threw a lot of off-speed pitches). John introduced himself to me within a few days of my arrival at the new school. He made no mention to me that his father was a Yankee pitcher and none of my synapses connected the name “Lopat” to the Yankees. He eventually invited me to go as his guest to a baseball game with two other classmates. It was 1964 and his father at that time was a scout for the White Sox. His 12-year major league career included being part of the "Big Three" Yankee pitching rotation from 1951-53. When his playing career ended, he managed the Kansas City A’s and later left that organization when the A’s moved to LA in 1967. How many kids can say they went to their first Yankee game with a guy who pitched in seven World Series games with the Yankees?

                              Mickey Mantle and Rocky Colavito

 The Yankees just weren’t on my radar. When we lived in Reading, after a business trip, my well-intentioned uncle gave my older brother, Phil, a Yankees tee shirt. He stopped wearing it around classmates under threats of being beat up. The bubble gum we bought in Pennsylvania had few American League baseball cards, usually duplicates of bench players for the Minnesota Twins. What do you do with three or four copies of  Zoilo Versalles? The odds of getting Mickey Mantle were astronomical. To trade Zoilo Versalles, who played for the highly-devalued Twins, for one Mickey Mantle would be like those photos taken during the Great Depression with Germans toting wheelbarrows full of German marks.
The Zoilo Versalles for one Mantle deal

When my son, Matt, was still in high school, I received an invitation for a group outing to Yankee Stadium so we went. My grad school alumni association put together a wonderful event, especially for a Yankees fan like my son. We drove to Jersey City and parked in St. Peter’s Alumni House lot just off Kennedy Boulevard. There was a cocktail party in full swing and we mingled with alumni of all ages. Two hours before the first pitch,  we boarded a luxury bus with individual video screens playing Field of Dreams. Lunch was served in the “Legends Club” and Matt was impressed. White-gloved chefs with tall linen hats used tongs to place huge hamburgers into perfect buns. I had never seen that done to a hamburger—it reminded me of Seinfeld’s episode eating Snickers bars with a knife and fork. On the walls, the gods of baseball were captured in massive, life-sized oil paintings. It struck me that one of these was Eddie Lopat on the mound. I don’t remember much else about the game that afternoon except seeing that magnificent oil painting of John’s father.

                      Yankee Legend Eddie Lopat

Baseball is a family tradition, a generational bonding between father and son. I remember one of my son’s little league practices and shagging balls in the outfield. The other coach hit a long fly to left center and somehow with an extended outstretched swat, I caught the ball on the dead run, not even sure it was in my glove and then wind milled my arms to keep from falling. I recovered my stride and then threw it in like it was something I did every day as a matter of routine. I can remember my son’s excited voice carrying all the way out there, “That was my Dad.” Some things you file away in your heart’s memory bank.
Going to baseball games is all about the tradition of father, son, and grandfather attending together, passing the baseball torch. People who know me chuckle when I mention memories and food because they know how I enjoy simple fare and lots of it. I don’t remember much about that day at Connie Mack but I remember stopping at a classic diner on the way home and sitting on a stool at the counter having a hamburger with my dad and grand-pop. I like to think it was the 5th Street Diner in Temple or maybe the Queen Diner on Morgantown Road, two logical places on the route to Philly from Reading, but it was probably just a quick stop at any one of those millions of shiny aluminum Pullman car style diners all over America.
 I remember going to Reading Indians games with my father and one game in particular when a foul ball came straight back and cleared the backstop. We all stood up and my father, who was quite tall, reached up and the ball missed his hand by a few inches, pretty much a metaphor for the type of luck my family usually had. 

     Pop-pop umpiring a softball game in "the Grove."

My maternal grandfather, Clarence P. Bowers, was a lot of things—an industrialist, an innovator, a politician, a racing horse owner, an aviator, a neighbor of Al Capone in Fort Lauderdale, and a catalyst in Reading for the grand things that needed doing. He sponsored industrial league baseball teams. He was a pioneer in the manufacture of car batteries, known worldwide for his innovations. He chaired the board that developed the municipal airport—he had a company pilot on call for his twin-engine corporate plane. He was instrumental in bringing professional baseball to Reading, a city of about 110,000 people at the time. 

Heavy cotton jersey from one of Pop-pop's Industrial teams.

Snazzy air holes for ventilation.

Pop-pop, as we called him, was way out ahead of Kevin Costner. Professional baseball was gone from Reading for several years and the outlook of getting a team back was bleak. He felt that if Reading built a major league caliber ballpark, some franchise could be enticed to make Reading a member of their farm system. On spec, he and others on a board (called “The Old Timers”) started a movement to build Reading’s stadium. It worked. The Cleveland Indians took the bait deciding to take a ride on the Reading. That enabled the planets to align creating another one of my encounters with the gods of baseball. Reading became Cleveland’s Single-A team halfway through the 1952 season.

       My grandfather's name is fourth from the top.

 The plaque is on the wall just left of the ticket window

In 1954, the Indians were in the World Series and there were local, Reading stars, in the series. One, Vic Wertz, never played for Reading. He graduated from Reading High, but his path to the Cleveland Indians took another path because the Reading Indians didn’t exist at the time he came out of the minor leagues. Vic Wertz will always be paired with the catch Willie Mays made in Game 1 which might have decided that World Series. The bigger local hero* at that time was Carl Furillo, the "Reading Rifle," known for his laser throws from right field. One season he threw out seven runners who rounded first too wide. The Dodgers, channeling an inner Yankees’ greed, bought the entire Reading franchise so they could acquire his rights in 1940. Baseball disappeared from Reading for a few years after that until my grandfather helped bring it back.
Rocky Colavito did play for one season for Reading, on his way to stardom in the major leagues. During that season he met a local girl, Carmen Perroti, from Temple (about 4 miles from the center of Reading) They met in 1953 and were married in 54 and the couple makes their home in the Reading area today. When I lived in Laureldale, my parish was Holy Guardian Angels. Laureldale was a suburb was about 3 miles from Reading and Temple was the next town north. After that, there were cornfields until you reached Kutztown. Philly was 58 miles to the south.

Rocky with his wife, Carmen

         My parish was predominantly Irish and Italians. The Germans in the area were generally Lutheran, so being a Pennsylvania  German, I was in a minority at my Catholic grade school. During the off season, Rocky sometimes attended my church. He was the original Italian Stallion—tall, dark, handsome, muscular and a famous baseball player. In the late 50’s, during my baseball formative years, he was a god of baseball—for me—the original. Just watching him out of uniform, I felt that he stood out among the lesser mortals. Actually he did—so tall, so young and handsome. He could have been an iceman like his father and he still would have stood out. But to a little boy, a baseball player… was a god.

I wonder what the going price was for Rocky's card?

I had other close encounters with the gods of baseball in New Jersey. One night during the summer before my senior year in college, my parents were hosting a couple in their church bridge group. They belonged to a small group that circulated at a different home each month. That night they were hosting the Kucks. My bedroom was downstairs. I was going out for the night but before leaving I did the polite thing and came up and introduced myself and exchanged small talk before heading out. The next day, my dad remarked that I seemed almost nonchalant when we had a former star pitcher for the Yankees in our living room. The American League was the other league so I had no idea that Johnny Kucks had played seven seasons for the Yankees and was the winning pitcher of Game 7 in the 1955 World Series. In my living room, he didn’t look like one of the gods of baseball. Years later, in 1980 when I was covering the New Jersey State high school basketball finals, I watched his daughter, Rebecca, win that championship. Small world.

Johnny Kucks with Yogi Berra

 As an adult I’d like to think that my next encounter with one of these gods, would not turn me into a nervous, stuttering worshiper. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t. The years reporting for the newspaper might have taken an edge off that but I do remember getting anxious when I interviewed people like Bill Bradley (as a US Senator, not as a New York Knick) Mario Andretti, Virginia Wade, and movie director Jon Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers). And I do remember being fascinated by getting up close with stars like Nancy Lopez, Peggy Flemming and Dorothy Hamill but I was in my late 20’s and they were still gods to me. Now I recognize that we idolize these people for their exceptional physical skills when they are just like you and me except exceptionally good at what they do. What matters in one realm is inconsequential in another and when you are young, they are gods, like Rocky Colavito.

                                   Tall, dark and handsome


NOTE: Scores of major leaguers played for Reading over the years, too many to treat fairly in this space. Among them: Whitey Kurowski, Roger Maris, Pat Burrell, Brett Myers,  Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Larry Bowa, Bob Boone, John Kruk and Robin Roberts. Also Note that the American League's Philadelphia A's shared the same park up until 1954 when they moved to Kansas City, so Philly was essentially a National League and American League City. By the time I reached the age of reason, Philly was solely a National League city.


  1. Wow! Talk about memories; you sure brought back some of mine. The only difference is that mine are of the old Brooklyn Dodgers. You'll have to read my upcoming blog to learn about them. :)

    1. Yet another Brooklyn Dodger fan. Is there no end? My good contemporary friend Joel still is in mourning about their move to the West Coast.

  2. I agree, baseball becomes a tradition to family. Watching a game together, buying a uniform from your favorite team, talking excitedly about it, as well as cheering for your favorite team. It’s really exciting. And I hope you’ll do this often in years to come.

    Jennine, Uniforms Express

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I am currently working on a re-write of my novel about baseball and the Amish. I have a book trailer on there you might enjoy: Please enjoy.

  3. Why did Rocky Colavito attend your church when he is Catholic?

  4. Reading was the Double-A franchise for the Cleveland Indians. He was a one year player there and met his future wife, dated her and came to my parish church where she was a member. That was Holy Guardian Angels parish in Laureldale, PA. He now lives with her in Birdsboro, a town about five miles south of Reading. Laureledale was about 4 miles north of Reading.