The Cleveland Indians spent much of the second half of the 20th century as a punchline, but they were a good and sometimes great team from the late 40s through the 1950s.
They won the 1954 pennant with 111 wins in a 154-game season. After a couple of down years they bounced back up to 89 wins in 1959, thanks to fantastic seasons from Minnie Minoso and a young slugger named Rocky Colavito, who led the American League in homers with 42. As Colavito had just turned 26 and was in his prime, it seemed like after those couple of down seasons, the Tribe would be back to challenging the Yankees for preeminence in the American League as the 1960s dawned.
But then the unthinkable happened: on April 17, 1960 — two days before Opening Day — Indians general manager Frank “Trader” Lane dealt Colavito to the Tigers for outfielder Harvey Keunn. To be fair, Keunn was no slouch — he had won the AL batting title in 1959 with a .353 average — but no one was under any delusions that this was a good deal for Cleveland.
We often lazily characterize pre-sabermetic baseball as fetishizing batting average and underselling power and plate patience, but even in 1960 everyone knew this was a ripoff. As Terry Pluto, the Cleveland baseball writer who penned the classic book, “The Curse of Rocky Colavito” wrote recently, the Detroit Free Press headlined the deal as “42 HOME RUNS FOR 135 SINGLES,” and the article itself made it abundantly clear that the homers were better. Tigers fans were absolutely giddy. Meanwhile, Pluto notes, the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a poll which found that 90 percent of Indians fans disapproved of the deal. The paper wrote that “[Colavito’s] departure for Detroit is about as popular as the Indians leaving town.” Comedian Bob Hope, who was an Indians minority owner, joked “I thought about going to Cleveland, but I’m afraid Frank Lane will trade me.”
Why did Lane trade the younger, better, fan favorite in Colavito? According to Pluto, it was partially stupidity and partially greed. That stupidity, ironically, ended up costing Lane money.
On the stupidity side Lane, unlike the Detroit Free Press and most fans, fetishized batting average. Pluto notes that in 1959 Colavito made $28,000 and he wanted a raise to $45,000 for the 1960 season. “Yeah, but Rocky hit only .257,” Lane told the media. “He hit .303 the year before. I’m not even sure he deserved a raise.” While that may have been bluster to make Colavito look bad in the press, Pluto says that during contract negotiations, Lane actually offered Colavito a $1,000 bonus if he hit fewer than 40 HR. Why? Because he thought Colavito struck out too much. Lane wanted to see more singles.
The greed played a big part too. Lane was wary of Colavito’s ascendant popularity among Cleveland fans and, his preference for singles aside, he was concerned that Colavito’s back-to-back 40+ homer seasons at such a young age would lead to exorbitant salary demands down the road. As it was, Colavito had asked for $45,000 for 1960 — which ended up in a settlement at $35,000 for the season — and Lane worried that at that rate Colavito would be commanding Mickey Mantle money within a couple of years.
If saving money was his aim, however, Lane failed in that regard as well.
Keunn had agreed to a $42,000 salary with Detroit before the trade and Lane willingly paid Keunn his $7,000 more than Colavito was going to get because, Lane presumed, that was the top end he’d ever have to pay the older Keunn while Colavito’s salary demands would only go up and up. But the extraordinarily unpopular trade ended up costing both the Indians and Lane personally a heck of a lot more money than that. Why? Here’s Pluto:
When I researched my book “The Curse of Rocky Colavito,” I discovered Lane was making $60,000 a year. He would receive 5 cents per person for every fan the team drew over 800,000. In 1959, the Indians drew 1,497,976, worth a $34,898 bonus for Lane. In 1960 after the trade? The attendance fell to 950,985. That dropped Lane’s bonus to $7,549. So he paid Kuenn ($42,000) more than Colavito ($35,000) in 1960. And his attendance bonus dropped $27,349.
Again: not the best move Trader Lane ever made. It was clearly the worst, in fact.
In 1960, though, it seemed at least close to a wash. The trade took place two days before the season started with — get this — the Tigers playing the Indians in Cleveland, which meant that Colavito flew back from spring training with his now former teammates, walked across the field and suited up for thee visiting Tigers. Colavito called it “the worst game of my life.” The Tigers won in 15 innings but Colavito went 0-for-6, striking out four times and hitting into a double play. The Cleveland fans cheered him heartily, though, and held up anti-Lane signs. Keunn went 2-for-7 that day for the Tribe.
Colavito’s season would be a downer for him. His worst to date, in fact, as he hit .249/.317/.454 (108 OPS+) with 35 homers. Keunn took a big step back from his 1959 as well, but he was better than Colavito overall, hitting .308/.379/.416 and besting Colavito in WAR, 2.4 to 1.1.
Things would change the following season, though, as Colavito put up arguably his best year in the bigs, hitting .290/.402/.580 with 45 homers and 140 RBI. The Tigers, with Colavito, would win 101 games that year. The Indians, without Keunn, who Lane had traded to the Giants after a single season in Cleveland, would go 78-83. Colavito would go on to put together two more good seasons in Detroit and one good season with the Kansas City Athletics between 1962-64.
The Curse of Colavito would continue, however, even as the Indians — after years of fan pressure — reacquired Colavito before the 1965 season, at which point Lane was long gone.
Colavito had an excellent season in his return to the Tribe that year and the club would win 87 games — it’s most since 1959 and its most until 1995 — but it was still only good enough for fifth place in the AL. Even worse, it was a costly, costly trade for Cleveland. To get him, they dealt pitcher Tommy John and outfielder Tommie Agee to the Chicago White Sox in part of a three-team deal with Kansas City. John would go on to win 288 big league games, 286 of which came after the trade. Agee would win the American League’s Rookie of the Year award in 1966, get traded to the New York Mets and would be a key part of their 1969 World Series championship. The price of dealing Colavito was high but the price of bringing him back was, arguably, even higher.
After San Francisco — where, in 1963 he put together his last above-average year at the plate — Keunn would do time with the Cubs and the Phillies. The most notable thing about his post-Cleveland playing career was kind of neat, though more for us than for him: he’d make the final out in not just one but two of Sandy Koufax’s four no-hitters. One in 1963 and one in 1965. Keunn would retire after the 1966 season. He’d be briefly reactivated by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970, but that was just to give him service time in order to game the pension system. He’d not play another game. He would, of course, go on to a distinguished coaching and managing career with the Brewers, leading Milwaukee to its only World Series appearance to date and winning the AL Manger of the Year Award in 1982. He’d pass away in 1988.
Colavito stayed with Cleveland through the 1966 season and for part of 1967 before being traded to the White Sox that July. The following spring the Dodgers would purchase his contract, only to dump him that July. The Yankees picked him up a few days later. He played out the 1968 season in New York and then he retired. From 1972 through 1983 Colavito would serve as a sometimes broadcaster, sometimes coach, sometimes both for the Indians through 1981. In 1982 and 1983 he would serve as the Kansas City Royals’ hitting coach. He was ejected in the George Brett Pine Tar game.
Weirdly and coincidentally, both Keunn and Colavito had to have one of their lower legs amputated due to medical problems. Colavito is still kicking with the other leg, though, at age 86.
As for the Indians: they eventually got over the Curse of Colavito, winning pennants in 1995, 1997 and 2016, and making 11 postseason appearances in all in the past 25 years. The curse of Francisco Lindor is still pending.
Also today in baseball history:
1892: The first Sunday game in National League history is played, with Cincinnati defeating St. Louis 5-1. Blue law-inspired Sunday baseball bans would persist in many big league cities well into the 20th century.
1934: Casey Stengel makes his managerial debut, leading the Dodgers to an 8-7 loss to the Braves. It would take a decade and a half, but his managerial career would eventually turn around.
1953: Mickey Mantle hits the longest home run in Griffith Stadium history, a 565-feet shot off of Chuck Stobbs of the Washington Senators. There was no Statcast in 1953, so we’ll take everyone’s word for it.
1968: The A’s, having just moved from Kansas City to Oakland, make their Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum debut. They still play there somehow.
1979: Only 653 fans show up to watch the A’s beat the Mariners at the Coliseum. Really, I cannot impress on you how weird it is that they still play there.