Texas Rangers Josh Hamilton’s four home run game this past week jolted a lot of memories of an earlier time for me. One month shy of fifty-three years ago Cleveland Indians’ Rocky Colavito accomplished the same feat and in the same city. During the 1959 season, I was an avid if not rabid baseball fan. Early in the year I read a sports magazine that had stories of players the editors predicted would be the stars for each of the then eight major league teams in the coming season. I remember Nelson Fox of the Chicago White Sox, Ernie Banks of the Cubs, Roger Maris of the Kansas City Athletics, Sure enough, Fox was an MVP for the White Sox and Colavito hit his four 4-baggers in one game, and hit 42 for the season. The Indians came in second to the White Sox in the American League. I don’t recall what kind of season Maris had, but he went on to break Babe Ruth’s season home run record (with an asterisk, because the season had more games) two years later after he had been traded to the Yankees. Banks may have had a good season too, but Cubs, being the perennial heart breakers, probably did not.
Until the late 1950s, major league baseball was mostly confined to the northeast quadrant of the country. This was because traveling from city to city for games was by train or bus, and a journey from the east to the west coast was two days by those modes. Air travel was coming into its own, but was expensive and the safety was not universally accepted. The fear that a team’s plane might crash and kill everyone was a consideration. And the South did not have a city considered large enough to support a major league team. To follow the majors in most of the nation a fan was dependant on radio networks, the clear-channel AM stations in the evening, and newspaper accounts the next day. Television coverage was sporadic, and mostly confined to Saturday or Sunday afternoon. One of the networks had a “game of the week” on Saturday in which former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean was the color announcer. Big games like the World Series might be televised nationwide on week nights, but that was about it.
Early in 1959, I became a carrier for the Dallas Morning News, delivering newspapers every morning in my neighborhood. When the baseball season started, the first news item I looked for after finishing my route was the baseball scores. On June 11, I was thrilled to see Rocky Colavito, who had become one of my heroes, had hit his four home runs against Baltimore. I’ll never forget the photo in the News of Rocky kissing his bat.
To experience real live baseball in the rest of the country, fans had to settle for the local minor league team. There were plenty of them, rated as AAA to class D, depending mostly on the size of the franchise location. Their drawback was they were mostly farm teams for the big leagues. The really good players didn’t stay long before they were called up. Still, a lot of good ball was played in the minors. Locally, we had Dallas Eagles of the Texas League who became the Dallas Rangers in 1958 as a franchise of the American Association. In 1960, the Rangers merged with the Fort Worth Cats, and became the Dallas-Forth Worth Rangers.
An interesting aside is that the Dallas Cowboys football team was originally to be called the Dallas Rangers. That was changed in March 1960 because of the perceived confusion. I recall hearing at the time that mail addressed to the football Rangers was often delivered to the baseball team.
Before the team moved to Arlington in the mid-sixties, the local team played at Burnett Field, now a grassy but otherwise empty field between Colorado Blvd and the levee where I-35 crosses the Trinity River into Oak Cliff. Another memory of the summer of ‘59, was winning tickets in a newspaper sales contest and treating a couple of my friends to a Dallas Rangers game. Don’t remember who the opposing team was, or even who won, but it went into extra innings. By the time it was over and we had dawdled around, the last city bus had run. We decided to walk home to our neighborhood near Love Field. Sounds crazy now, but we really thought nothing of it. About halfway there, the Dallas Police, alerted by the parents of one of my buds who had immigrated from a northeastern city, picked us up and took us home. It was my first ride in a Dallas Police car; the next one was 13 years later – as a newly hired police officer.
During that year, I borrowed books of every sort about baseball from the library, biographies of players, news articles, baseball fiction, and absorbed all manner of baseball lore. I recall one story in a magazine where the author was reminiscing about his great and pleasant experiences of baseball. The story ended with the line, as I remember it, that “Baseball was wonderful; it still is.” Fifty or some years later, is it still? I really can’t answer. While I can still enjoy a game, particularly if the home boys are playing – I watched a World Series game start to finish when the Texas Rangers were playing the Giants last year, or was it the year before? I really lost interest about the time Willie Mays retired. Not sure why.
Only sixteen players have hit four home runs in one game in the major leagues. Of those, only Willie Mays and Lou Gehrig qualify as all-time greats who have become household names to fans and non-fans alike. That jury may still be out.
Despite his feats in 1959, and his unmatched popularity among the fans, the next year Rocky Colavito inexplicably was traded to the Detroit Tigers. He returned to Cleveland several years later. He was inducted into the Indians’ hall of fame in 2006. Hasn’t made it to Cooperstown –yet.
For more see this link.