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75 Years and Counting Part X: The Story of the 1958 Cleveland Indians

Trader Lane Begins Serious Hijinks

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Portrait Of Rocky Colavito Photo by Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

The 1958 baseball season in Cleveland was overshadowed by fear that ownership would move the team to Minneapolis or Houston, as the team limped their way to a 77-76 finish.

If you go to Baseball Reference and take a look at the 1958 Indians, you will see a formidable lineup, featuring a 180 OPS+ from young sensation, Rocky Colavito, a 139 OPS+ from future Hall of Famer left-fielder Minnie Minoso, 130 from a resurgent Larry Doby, 129 from Vic Power, 124 from Mickey Vernon, 109 from catcher Russ Nixon and even 91 OPS+ from a part-time outfielder named Roger Maris who didn’t hit the ball often but still managed a .412 slugging percentage when he did. The Indians were 3rd in the American League in runs scored, but fifth in runs allowed, as Cal McLish led a mediocre staff with underperforming years from Mudcat Grant and Ray Narleski. The Indians had an excellent bullpen arm in Hoyt Wilhelm, but general manager Frank “Trader” Lane dealt Wilhelm midseason, weakening that corps.

The constant trading activity from Lane, mostly in pursuit of well-known names to attract fans, had to lead to a general feeling of instability on the team and their manager, Bobby Bragan, was fired and replaced by Joe Gordon on June 26th. Gordon did manage to go 46-40 but that was obviously not enough to get these Cleveland players near the top of the American League in 1958.

But, at least Cleveland had Rocky Colavito, am I right? No chance that guy’s going anywhere after becoming a fan favorite and putting up a .303/.405/.620 slashline, socking 41 homers and knocking in 113 runners. He’s sure to retire an Indian with his statue adorning the sidewalk outside the stadium. Yep.

The Indians outfield was so set that Lane felt free to trade young Roger Maris (and two players who were out of baseball after 1959) for Vic Power and Woodie Held. Maris would go on to put up 33.7 fWAR in his career from that point on, including setting the MLB home run record in 1961. Power and Held put up 22.3, combined, which actually makes this one of Lanes LESS disastrous moves, believe it or not. Lane sold Hoyt Wilhelm late in the year to the Orioles, only to see the knuckleballer go on to put up 20.9 fWAR for the rest of his career. Here’s a thought, Frank - if you keep good players, they will win games, and that is what fans like to see the most.

Some fun things happened this season - Mudcat Grant pitched for the team, and if you have ever heard an interview with him, you know he was a special human being who could spin a great yarn and also sing quite well. Bobby Avila hit a foul ball off a pole on August 22nd and the ball ricocheted back and hit him in the back of the head, which is surely the only time that ever happened (Avila was ok). There were walk-off wins and big comebacks, and even a game where the Tigers’ Ray Boone was so upset about a groundout he’d made to end the game that he threw his helmet and missed that the throw was muffed and two runs scored to make the game a one-run deficit. When Boone discovered what had happened, he tried to go to second... and was tagged out to end the May 14th 9-8 win for the Indians. Weird, fun stuff happened, Colavito and Minoso absolutely MASHED, but it was still a “meh” team.

Perhaps the most important reason 1958 should stand out in our memories is that on October 15th, Indians board Chairman, William Daley, announced that after a full season of threatening to move the team to a welcoming and lucrative Minneapolis or Houston, he was keeping the team in Cleveland for now, despite disappointing attendance numbers. I’m sure, like most owners, Daley was an annoying human being, but I’m glad he made the right call so I can take my kids to games and teach them to love baseball and love the Guardians, even when they have middling seasons as they did in 1958.

Aside from Wikipedia, Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Google, I used The Indians Journal by John Snyder to help me research this article.