On April 17th 1960, just two days before the start of the season, the Indians played an Easter Sunday exhibition game in Memphis, Tennessee. In what should’ve been seen as an omen, Russwood Park, the site of the exhibition, burned to the ground shortly after the end of the game. As the Indians returned home to face the Detroit Tigers on opening day, little did they know that in that opening series, not only would they be without their star hitter, outfielder Rocky Colavito, but he would be playing opposite them as a member of the Tigers. Tribe general manager Frank “Trader’ Lane had just traded Colavito to the Tigers in exchange for the reigning batting champion, center fielder Harvey Kuenn. To this day even fans born years later know that trading Colavito as the most infamous move in franchise history. It was our own version of trading away Babe Ruth for the cash to fund a production of “No No Nanette”
Even without the benefit of hindsight the trade made no sense. Colavito was only 25 years old, not even in his prime yet, he’d just led the American League with 42 homers and was the idol of nearly every young baseball fan in Cleveland. He was the type of player you just don’t trade, especially in the era of the reserve clause. This wasn’t like trading away Francisco Lindor where had we not made the move he would’ve left in free agency a year later, Colavito’s rights belonged to Cleveland as long as they chose to retain them. Rocky, by all accounts loved being in Cleveland and was happy there. Born in the Bronx, he spurned an offer from the Yankees to sign with Cleveland, he thought New York’s scout was “smug” and had an attitude of “everyone wants to play for the Yankees”
Apart from the near mythical figure Colavito was in Cleveland, the move made little sense from a baseball standpoint. Trading the 25 year old home run champ for a 29 year old slap hitting centerfielder is a flat out dumb move, even by 1960’s baseball sensibilities. It’s the rare case where the analytics folks and the baseball traditionalists will nod in agreement that Cleveland got fleeced here. To be honest, after coming off the 2023 season, writing about us trading away a 45 homer guy for a slap hitter stings a bit, even knowing it was 60 years ago.
So what the hell was Lane thinking? Was he a sleeper agent hired by the Yankees to take Cleveland down from within? Was he just that incompetent? Was he secretly me playing Out of the Park baseball and just too addicted to the “shop player” function for his own good? Who knows. Lane cited Colavito’s poor performance down the stretch and “too many strikeouts” as the reason for the trade, but it was likely a spiteful move made because Colavito chose to hold out, insisting that he be paid a salary more in line with his prowess as a player.
According to an article by SABR.org, Lane was fairly ruthless in his negotiations with the star outfielder.
Meanwhile, Colavito proved to be difﬁcult to sign, holding out for a contract beﬁtting a home run champion. He eventually signed for $35,000. But, not one to let Colavito forget his shortcomings. Lane included a $ 1,000 bonus in the contract that would kick in only if Colavito hit less than 40 home runs, the idea being that Colavito was to cut down on his swing, reduce his strikeout totals and improve his average.
An actual cash incentive to hit FEWER home runs? And you thought Chris Valaika was bad.
Detroit, however, knew what they had immediately as a newspaper printed the headline “140 singles for 42 home runs”
When looking back at the 1960 season, the season itself often gets lost in the shuffle as so much attention is placed on the Colavito trade. The 1960 Indians were average, strikingly so. They did get out to a solid start, coasting to a 43-33 record in the first half of the year, but it dissipated quickly as they stumbled down the stretch, finishing the season with a 76-78 record.
The team simply wasn’t very good. They had a below average pitching staff with an average offense. What little pop Kuenn had was fading as he posted a career low 33 extra base hits. Only one starting pitcher, Jim Perry, had an ERA+ north of 100. I’m going to sound like a broken record over the next few entries but the sheer amount of roster turnover they were facing in the Lane era was just not conducive to gaining any sort of foothold or building any momentum. Apart from Colavito, Herb Score was also dealt, as was Minnie Minoso. The return for Minoso was power hitting first baseman Norm Cash. Cash would go on to a “hall of very good” level of career, hitting 377 home runs. Unfortunately none of them came as a member of the Indians as he was dealt to Detroit a mere 2 months after he was acquired by the Indians in exchange for Steve Demeter. Demeter would only play in 4 games in the major leagues, whereas the acquisition of Cash would pay near immediate dividends from the tigers as he hit .361/.487/.662 with 41 home runs in 1961, accruing 9.2 bWAR as a first baseman, second only to Mickey Mantle’s 10.6.
Lane even traded managers mid season, sending skipper Joe Gordon to, you guessed it, the Detroit Tigers.
Just to recap, Frank Lane traded Rocky Colavito, Norm Cash, and manager Joe Gordon to the Detroit tigers in three separate deals, receiving Harvey Kuenn, Steve Demeter, and manager Jimmy Dykes in return. Lane sent 516 home runs to the Tigers (Colavito only played 4 years there), and received one year of Harvey Kuenn (whom he traded to the San Francisco Giants the following offseason) and 4 games of Steve Demeter in return. Great work Frank!
Lane would quickly wear out his welcome in Cleveland, resigning the following January, clearing the way for the hiring of Gabe Paul, the architect of some of the most pitiful seasons in franchise history. While the frenetic pace of Lane’s constant trading would slow down, the philosophy of constant change would stay in place as the Indians would spend the next 30 years quitting on 5 year plans after the second year.
Join us tomorrow as we dive into the first season under the new 162 game schedule, a year known for power and the famous Yankee home run chase, and one where in spite of power numbers surging around the league, the Indians team leader would hit only 27.