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Cleveland Indians: Looking back at the first Rocky Colavito trade

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How the Tribe front office controversially traded away the face of the franchise just to prove a point and may have inadvertently created a curse.

The Rock, the original
The Rock, the original
Jason Miller/Getty Images

While the Indians had finally broken through the Yankees stranglehold in 1948 for their second (and most recent!) title, by 1957, they had slipped into the second division. That winter, ownership hired Frank Lane to run the franchise. He had just culminated a two year stay with the Cardinals where he actually tried to trade away Stan Musial for Robin Roberts. Prior to that he had made a whopping 241 trades in just seven years on the job with the Chicago White Sox.

But in 1958, the Tribe pushed back up the standings to fourth, and then in 1959 won 89 games, pushing them into second place, just five games behind the White Sox. Even with a 12 game improvement, Lane couldn't help but tinker with the roster because that is who he was.

The first offseason move was a seven player deal where he traded LF Minnie Minoso (fresh off an .846 OPS season), SP Don Ferrarese, C Dick Brown and SP Jake Striker to the White Sox for OF Norm Cash, 3B Bubba Phillips and C John Romano. Then he sent hotheaded 2B Billy Martin, SP Cal McLish and 1B Gordy Coleman to the Cincinnati Redlegs for 2B Johnny Temple.

At this time, the face of the franchise had been Rocky Colavito. The Bronx native had been signed by the Indians in 1951 right out of high school. He opened in for Class D Daytona Beach and had a 0.492 slugging in 140 games. In 1952 he split time for two Class B suads, Spratnburg and Cedar Rapids. In 1953 he was with Reeading in Class A and had another 0.492 slugging. He pent the next two season in Indianapolis (AAA) with a 0.924 and 0.861 OPS respectively.

He did get his cup of coffee in late 1955 and spent most of 1956 with the Tribe, cranking 21 homers and a great 0.903 OPS, good enough to finish second to Luis Aparicio. He slumped a bit in 1957, but still hit 25 homers and had a better than average 0.812 OPS. He exploded in 1958 to the tune of 41 homers and a league leading 0.620 slugging, placing him third in MVP voting. And then in 1959, he led the league with 42 homers, made his first All-Star Game and finished fourth in MVP voting.

Heading into the 1960 season, the Tribe had one of the most feared sluggers in the game, who some pundits felt could be the first guy to approach the Babe's legendary 60 home run mark. Even with the dealing of 34 year old Minoso, the outfield appeared to be set with Tito Francona, Piersall and Colavito.

However Lane was not a fan of the long ball, feeling guys who got on base were much more valuable players, a notion today that is much more prevalent. He had long coveted Harvey Kuenn, who had actually won the batting title in 1959 for the Detroit Tigers, was a former Rookie of the Year, a perpetual All-Star and often also received MVP votes.

Just prior to the season, Lane made another last second deal by trading the recently received Norm Cash to Tigers for IF Steve Demeter. That must have been when Lane started to inquire about Kuenn. And then five days later, the deal was consummated. A straight one for one deal, Colavito for Kuenn.

From afar and if one believes that on base is better than power, the deal might have been somewhat justified. After dealing Martin, the Tribe did need a leadoff hitter. But if one looks a bit closer, the deal actually made little sense. Heading into 1960, Kuenn was a full three years older, albeit in the back half his prime and had just had a career season. Colavito was just 26 and was likely to have a greater career from that point forward.

Colavito was supposedly quoted when he was told of the trade for Kuenn, "and who else"? He later denied this, but in reality, that question is valid. While in general, trading for more on base players makes a lot of sense, trading the clean-up hitter for just one is a bad idea. Now had there been another piece, perhaps it could be more justified. The trade also was a serious blow to the Indian fanbase. Colavito was a huge box office draw and adored by the men, women, children, and even the press.

In any case, after all of the tinkering, the Tribe struggled most of the season, finishing in fourth with just 76 wins and just below 0.500. Lane continued to wheel and deal through the season, including manager Joe Gordon to the Tigers for manager Jimmy Dykes. Lane would leave Cleveland in January 1961 to work with Charlie Finley and the Kansas City Athletics, which to no one's surprise, ended poorly.

Even though Lane loved Kuenn a lot, he lasted just the one season in Cleveland, with Lane dealing him that winter before he left, to the San Francisco Giants for OF Willie Kirkland and P Johnny Antonelli. Colavito had four very productive season in Detroit, was dealt to the Athletics in 1964, before returning to Cleveland in 1965-1966.

Tigers

Rocky Colavito

G

PA

2B

HR

SB

BA

OPS

OPS+

bWAR

wRC+

fWAR

1960

145

616

18

35

3

249

791

108

1.0

107

1.6

1961

163

708

30

45

1

290

982

157

5.9

153

8.0

1962

161

707

30

37

2

273

885

132

4.1

133

6.0

1963

160

692

29

22

0

271

795

119

2.2

119

3.7

Total

629

2723

107

139

6

271

865

130

17.3

-

19.3

Indians

Harvey Kuenn

G

PA

2B

HR

SB

BA

OPS

OPS+

bWAR

wRC+

fWAR

1960

126

537

24

9

3

308

795

118

2.3

118

1.9

Net Result:

The Tribe actually slightly wins this deal in 1960, but it cost the franchise a lot of fans in the process, trading their most popular player, especially right before opening day. They did lose the trade in totality though as Kuenn only lasted one year in Cleveland.