January 20th, 1965, exactly 30 years before I was born (Jan. 20, 1995) the Indians completed a 3 team trade with Kansas City and the Chicago White Sox. The Indians would trade away OF Tommie Agee, SP Tommy John, and C John Romano, but that’s not the part that matters. What matters is who they got in return. Rocky Colavito was coming home!
We won’t discuss the fact that the pieces they traded away would go on to combine for 88.8 WAR the rest of their careers, or that Agee would win a world series MVP, or that John would win nearly 300 games in his 26 year big league career (after a famous experimental elbow surgery). It didn’t matter that Colovito was already 31 and aging rapidly. It doesn’t matter that 1966 would be his last effective year as a big leaguer. Rocky Colavito was back baby!! In terms of legacy and mythos the original trade of Colavito for Kuenn is the worst in Cleveland baseball history. In terms of the career production of the players involved, the trade to bring him back might be the true worst trade in franchise history.
Despite that, Colavito was truly excellent in 1965, slashing .287/.383/.468 with 26 home runs, he also led the league in both walks and RBI. The sheer emotional impact of bringing home Colavito added value that goes far beyond WAR. The Indians would draw nearly 300,000 more fans than they did in ‘64 largely on the back of Colavito’s local stardom. Suffice it to say, he meant a lot to the city.
The Indians entered the month of June with a 21-20 record, their pitching was excellent to that point but their offense wasn’t producing enough to break thru. They lost 5 games in that stretch in which they allowed 3 runs or fewer, they were held under 3 runs 18 times in the same timeframe. Still, .500 ball wasn’t bad, they were an offensive outburst away from really taking off.
Thankfully things started to click in June as they raced to a 22-7 record for the month. Their pitching was truly dominant during that stretch, allowing 2 runs or fewer 16!! times, including 5 shutouts. The Indians would even briefly hold first place on July 4th, unfortunately they skidded to a mediocre 39-41 record the rest of the way to finish with a respectable record of 87-75, 15 games out of first place.
While pitching numbers in the mid 60’s were inflated (deflated?) across the league, eventually leading to rule changes following the “year of the pitcher” in 1968. Regardless the Indians were one of the best pitching staffs in baseball during the mid-late 60’s. Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, and Sonny Siebert made for a 3 headed giant that would terrorize American league hitters for the rest of the decade. McDowell, still only 22 years old, pitched to an 17-11 record with a miniscule 2.18 ERA and an astonishingly low FIP of 2.08. He added an absurd 325 strikeouts in 273 innings for what would be one of the most dominating seasons in Cleveland baseball history.
The Rock was back, the pitching was coming into it’s own, and the Indians finally had a team worth the fanbase’s time. Unfortunately the offensive woes that plagued them during the 1965 season would worsen as the decade went on and they’d be unable to capitalize on their dominant pitching staff, but we’ll discuss that in more detail tomorrow.