In the 1960s, the Tigers were blessed with two slugging leftfielders who brought fans to their feet when they blasted home runs into the leftfield stands at Tiger Stadium.
Yet many are unaware of the special connection between Rocky Colavito and Willie Horton, and a story that could have come from the pages of a sappy baseball novel or a made for TV movie.
In one of baseball’s most famous trades, just prior to the 1960 season, 1959 AL home run champion Rocky Colavito was traded from Cleveland to Detroit for fan favorite Harvey Kuenn, the 1959 AL batting champion.
From 1960 through 1963 Colavito smacked 139 home runs for the Tigers before being traded to Kansas City in a multi-player deal prior to the ’64 campaign. Colavito’s best season was 1961 when he hit 45 home runs, and had 140 RBI’s as the Tigers, lead also by AL batting champion Norm Cash and perennial All Star Al Kaline, battled the Yankees for the pennant until September. (Believe it or not, Colavito and Cash had more total RBIs in 1961 then Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, even though Maris hit his 61 home runs that year and Mantle slugged 54)
The man who replaced Colavito in left field was Willie Horton, a Detroit sandlot star who as one of the American League’s premier power hitters became a permanent fixture in the Tiger lineup for more than a decade. From 1965 through 1968 Horton hit 111 dingers, 36 of them in the Tigers’ world championship season of 1968.
For a Detroit Free Press article I wrote on Rocky to mark the 40th anniversary of the famous Kuenn for Colavito trade, Willie Horton shared with me a wonderful story about Colavito.
“He probably doesn’t remember this, but when I was in junior high, a buddy and me were stopped by security at Briggs Stadium after we had once again snuck in the ballpark. Rocky had just walked off Cleveland’s bus and saw what happened. He took us over to the Tigers’ clubhouse manager John Hand and asked him if he would give us a job working in the clubhouse and sure enough we got the job.
“From that day on Rocky was my hero. I would imitate his batting stance in a mirror pointing my bat like he did, trying to get his stroke. Later when he came to the Tigers he took me under his wing when I joined the team and helped me become a major leaguer. He also told me that I would one day take over from him in left field. I will never forget what he did for me.”
I don’t think a Hollywood script writer could have come up with that story.