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75 Years and Counting Part XI: The Story of the 1959 Cleveland Indians

The last gasps of a dynasty in decline

Cleveland Indians v Washington Senators Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

There aren’t many positives that can be attributed to Frank Lane’s tenure in Cleveland. Between the plethora of all-stars he traded away, the constant roster upheaval, and the complete unwillingness to create any semblance of stability in the organization Lane’s tenure in Cleveland can only be described as an absolute failure. He did, however, make one move that would only finish paying dividends at the end of the 2023 season. On March 21st, just a few weeks before the start of the season, Lane traded outfielder Larry Doby (again) to Detroit for a young outfielder named Tito Francona who, tired of sitting behind Al Kaline, had recently requested a trade. Francona would move to Cleveland to start the season, leaving his 8 month pregnant wife, Roberta, behind in Aberdeen, South Dakota where they had lived since he played for the Orioles farm team located there. One month and one day after the trade, she would give birth to a son, Terry.

It’s unclear how much spending his earliest years in Cleveland impacted Terry Francona’s decision to sign a contract to manage the Indians in 2013, but it certainly didn’t hurt. Was Lane perhaps playing four dimensional chess, seeing hundreds of thousands of moves into the future, trading Doby for Francona in full knowledge of the future payoffs for the franchise? Is it fair to say that Frank Lane, not Chris Antonetti, was the true architect of the run from 2016-18? Does anyone know if Harvey Kuenn had a son we could hire to replace Tito and perhaps finally break the curse? Who’s to say. But what is certain is that whether the product of omniscience or sheer dumb luck, the trade for Francona is certainly one of the most impactful in franchise history.

Beyond the groundwork being laid to acquire Terry as manager, Tito Francona had a career year with the Indians. Perhaps it was being protected by Rocky Colavito in the lineup, perhaps it was his new found “dad strength,” but regardless, Tito Francona absolutely raked in 1959, slashing .363/.414/.566 with 20 home runs.

As a team, the ‘59 Indians were a mixed bag. They were streaky team, they started the month of April 10-1, went .500 in May, then started the month of June 1-10, then immediately went on a 7 game win streak. I certainly thought 2023 was a roller coaster but my goodness, that had to be one of the most exhilarating yet frustrating teams to be a fan of in franchise history. Unfortunately ripping off a 4-5 game losing streak after every winning streak is not a formula for sustained success at the big league level, and they would falter when it mattered most going an abysmal 7-15 against the AL Champion Chicago White Sox en route to a second place finish. According to the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, the White Sox dramatically overperformed expectations (perhaps it was that 15-7 record vs. Cleveland) whereas the Indians were right where they should be. If the famed philosopher, primarily known for his work in discovering triangles or something along those lines, is to be believed then the Indians, not Chicago, should’ve been the AL Champions in ‘59.

The ‘59 Indians were a weird team. Apart from the chaos that was the constant winning and losing streaks, the teams performance makes little sense when you look at their production. They led the American league in offense despite having 4 players get 250+ ABs with an OPS+ below 80. They only had one pitcher, Cal McLish, make more than 30 starts, yet they were an above average pitching team. Just an utterly bizarre season.

The 1959 season would also be Rocky Colavito’s finest in a Cleveland uniform. The 25 year old slugger hit .257 with a league leading 42 home runs, playing in all 154 games for the Indians that year. Colavito had become the heart and soul of the team, a massive part of the offense’s success despite it featuring so many utterly Gallagher-esque hitters. As the decade of the 50’s came to a close, Cleveland fans had to be optimsitic. Sure the ‘57 and ‘58 seasons were major let downs, sure they had lost their future hall of fame ace when Herb Score got injured, but they had the Rock, and if Cleveland sports history has taught us anything its

  1. Don’t knock the rock
  2. Don’t bench Bernie Kosar

Unfortunately, being the writer of this series means being the frequent bearer of bad news. It’s not a role I relish in, but it’s the one I find myself playing. As much as I’d love to say that Rocky Colavito played happily ever after in the cavernous outfield of Cleveland Municipal Stadium, I can’t. Trader Lane lived up to his nickname as he dealt Colavito to the Tigers that offseason for Harvey Kueen. The trade was sold to the fans as the home run champion for the reigning batting champion, Ironically, had Tito Francona received merely 30 more at bats on the season, he would have qualified for the batting title, winning it himself by nearly 10 points.

I’m making the choice to not spend the rest of this article lamenting the trade for Colavito, that’ll be tomorrow’s topic, but for now we can wrap this up by saying that the Cleveland Indians closed out the ‘50s by making one last ill fated run at an American League championship, ultimately finishing second to the White Sox. Nobody at the time knew that three and a half decades would come and go before the Indians could call themselves second place finishers again.

Thus begins the darkest period in Cleveland baseball history. The next 35 entries in this series will be bleak. What was once the hopeful “we’ll get em next year” of the 1950’s teams falling just short will become the “they still have a team?” of the 60’s thru the early 90’s. There will be “star” players to talk about, but stars in more of a “they’re misfits, but they’re our misfits” sort of way. We’re still a long way from the likes of Albert Belle, Jim Thome, and Manny Ramirez. For the next month it’s gonna be a lot of Joe Azcue, Rico Carty, and Wayne Garland, so strap in.