The Rock sat clutching a can of beer on the porch of the roadside motel in the spring-training town in the middle of Florida. It was back in the age when beer cans were made of heavy gauge steel coated with tin.
He finished his beer and calmly crushed the empty can in half with one hand. Then he grinned at his audience.
That was the awesome strength of Rocky Colavito. The others — Hank Aguirre and Norm Cash plus the rookie sports journalist — needed two hands and a couple of grunts to bend the heavy gauge steel cans in half.
“Here’s how it’s done,” said Colavito, grabbing one of the empties from a teammate. And with one hand, fingers, he flattened it in half.
We all tried and just did not have the muscle power.
And the Rock laughed at us, a grin beneath the black eyebrows.
That was the way we spent our nights in Lakeland during spring training in 1962.
It was my first time covering the Tigers in the spring, my first visit to Lakeland, as Michigan sports editor of the Associated Press. I felt privileged to be staying in the same place as some of the Tigers; honored to be drinking beer with them.
We had rented rooms at the Acer Nook Motel on the old Tampa Highway. It cost us $63 — a week. Per family. Al Kaline stayed at a slightly swankier motel a mile or so down the Tampa road.
I would write my articles inside the room at the dining table on my Olivetti portable typewriter. A feature piece about Cash, the reigning American League batting champion. Or about Frank Lary, and the state of his tender right arm; or Jim Bunning; or the kid, Dick McAuliffe, with the odd batting stance. Or perhaps, I’d feature Bill Freehan, another newbie who’d been a tight end at Michigan and who had signed with the Tigers and was in his first spring camp.
Finished writing, I would walk to the telephone booth at the edge of Florida 92 — the old Tampa road — dictate my article to a guy wearing a headset back in the AP bureau in Detroit. There, it would be edited and passed to a teletype operator and dispatched on the state wire to newspapers in Muskegon, Jackson, Saginaw, Lansing, Houghton, Sault Ste. Marie, Kalamazoo — and other hot spots around Michigan.
And the AP newspapers would publish my pained words in their sports sections — I hoped.
The great sports columnist Red Smith had once described writing a column with these precious words: “Every day I slit a vein in my wrist and drip it out word by word.”
Vivid words, very understandable!
Most nights, I had to fight off monster flying bugs attacking me as I went word-by-word — spelling for the guy in Detroit ‘A-G-U-I-R-R-E’ — as the strawberry trucks groaned past. I seldom saw in print what I had written.
Then, sometimes bitten up, I’d join the others to admire the Rock’s feats of strength.
The Acer Nook was well-located, perhaps three miles from the county line.
Polk County was dry then, back in ’62. But there was a package store across County Line Road, right off the pavement, all lit up, doing a brisk business. There were evenings when Aguirre and I would drive there, into sinful Hillsborough County, on a beer run.
We’d buy a case of beer in the heavy gauge steel cans and bring them back to the Acer Nook for our nightly consumption.
Sort of bootleggers, as in the prohibition days on the Detroit River.
The Tigers conducted their spring training in Henley Field then. Henley Field was a battleship gray wood-plank structure with the clubhouse in left field. You could feel an atmosphere of history in that clubhouse. The Tigers had been training in Henley Field since 1934 when Mickey Cochrane managed them — Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Billy Rogell, Tommy Bridges, Schoolboy Rowe, Goose Goslin, Jo-Jo White and the lot destined to win two pennants and a World Series.
Detroit had had this baseball connection with Lakeland ever since — except for three seasons during World War II.
And in 1962, the Tigers had high hopes working through spring training at Henley Field.
The previous season, they had hung into September as a realistic challenger in the AL’s pennant race — the Yankees, naturally, vs. the Tigers. A Labor Day weekend series in New York doomed the Tigers. Still, the Tigers had won 101 games — second-most in the newly expanded major leagues — and had finished within shooting distance of the Yankees. Eight games back.
That 1961 season, MLB had captivated America with Roger Maris’ pursuit of Babe Ruth and the season home-run record of 60. Maris had finished with 61 — pushed by teammate Mickey Mantle. For Detroit, Cash had a .361 batting average that had included some monumental home runs over the right-field roof at Tiger Stadium.
And as the Tigers worked at Henley Field under manager Bob Scheffing, in spring training 1962, there were haughty visions of a World Series to climax the season. For sure, baseball was the conversation topic as Colavito squashed iron beer cans on a porch at the Acer Nook.
Access was perfect for the rookie baseball writer in the Tigers’ clubhouse. The sessions in Scheffing’s office, beneath the huge portrait of Ty Cobb, were friendly and productive to the few writers.
And that ’62 training camp provided general manager Rick Ferrell and assistant Jim Campbell a hint of the ballclub’s future. Then, as now, a few special minor leaguers participated in spring training with the veterans – Kaline, Colavito, Cash. Back then the Tigers sought young promising ballplayers with Michigan heritage. Freehan, Willie Horton, Jim Northrup and Mickey Stanley would that spring be returned to the minors, but ultimately would figure prominently in an historic, victorious season in Detroit.
If Stanley needed a hitch, he plopped into my rental car.
That’s the way it was in 1962 in Lakeland, 60 seasons ago.
Back then, that ’62 spring, as an Associated Press writer, I was responsible for any news for the AP World Service. One night my new wife, Nancy Hamilton Green, had a question at dinner in our room at the Acer Nook. The baseball wives had admitted her to their group.
“How come you didn’t tell me the Tigers were going to Japan after the season?” she said.
“Huh?” I replied, dumbfounded. “The Tigers never said anything about that.”
“Myrna Cash told me,” said Nancy.
Alas, the ’62 season started. The high hopes shattered, no challengers to the Yankees, the fourth-place Tigers would go barnstorming off to Japan in October ‘62
My first season! And I’d been scooped by my wife!
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports reporter.