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The Colavito-Kuenn Trade

by David Fleitz

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Random points:

"Every time the Indians find someone who can play, they trade him for three guys who can't" - Graig Nettles, former Indian

Colavito hit only .249 for Detroit in 1960, while Kuenn batted .308 for Cleveland.  However, Colavito's slugging average was 58 points higher than Kuenn's (.474 to .416).

The Indians rebounded in the trade department in the 1970s.  They got Gaylord Perry from the Giants for a worn-out Sam McDowell, and also got Frank Duffy as a throw-in.  Perry won the 1972 Cy Young Award, and Duffy was their starting shortstop for several years.  However, they soon sent Chris Chambliss and Graig Nettles to the Yankees for not much in return.

Terry Pluto's book, The Curse of Rocky Colavito, explains all this and more.  I highly recommend it, and you should buy Pluto's book immediately after you buy one of mine.

 

 

On April 17, 1960, the Cleveland Indians traded Rocky Colavito to the Detroit Tigers for Harvey Kuenn.

It looked interesting on paper - the 1959 home run champ (Colavito) and the 1959 batting champ (Kuenn) traded for each other even up - but it turned out to be the worst trade the Indians ever made. From Cleveland's standpoint, it was even worse than the Lou Brock-for-Ernie Broglio trade or the Frank Robinson-for-Milt Pappas trade or the Amos Rusie-for-Christy Mathewson trade.

Rocky Colavito's 1961 Post Cereals card.  The year of birth is wrong; he was actually born in 1933.

It was bad, all right. If you're a baseball fan, I probably don't have to rehash why the trade was so awful, but I will, just for the record:

1) Colavito was a power hitter (41 and 42 homers in the previous two years). Kuenn was a singles hitter.

Even though Kuenn out-hit Colavito by 96 points in 1959 (.353 to .257) Colavito's slugging percentage was eleven points higher (.512 to .501). Colavito led the AL in slugging in 1958 with a .620 mark, while Kuenn's .501 in 1959 was by far the highest of his career.

2) Colavito was three years younger than Kuenn.  

Colavito, at 26, was on the way up. Kuenn, at 29, was already slowing down. 

3) Colavito was far superior defensively. 

Kuenn began his career at shortstop, but by 1957 the Tigers had moved him into the outfield. He wasn't fast enough to play center, so the Tigers had to move Al Kaline, the best right fielder in the game, to center in the late 1950s. Colavito wasn't fast either - in fact, he was downright slow - but his arm was one of the best in the game.  Many say it was even better than Kaline's.

4) Colavito was Cleveland's most popular player, and perhaps the most popular player in their history.

The Indians traded two other popular guys before the 1960 season. They finally gave up on Herb Score, who had been trying for three years to overcome his near-fatal on-field injury, and sent Score to the White Sox for Barry Latman. They also sent Minnie Minoso back to the White Sox. Minoso was 37, but still a solid .300 hitter and good defensive left fielder, as well as a hit with the fans as he had been in Chicago.

Harvey Kuenn's 1961 Post Cereals card.  He was traded to the Giants for Johnny Antonelli and Willie Kirkland after the 1960 season.

Anyway, I decided to see what the Colavito trade did to Cleveland's attendance figures for the 1950-1970 period. It has often been said that the Colavito trade "destroyed the franchise", and I wanted to see if the attendance numbers bear this out.

Let's look at Cleveland's per-game attendance, beginning in 1948:

1948    33,598
1949    29,010
1950    22,290
1951    22,000
1952    18,640
1953    13,796
1954    17,121
1955    15,867
1956    11,167
1957     9,441
1958     8,677

The Indians won the World Series in 1948, but the attendance fell steadily after that, despite the fact that they had a contending team. It spiked up slightly with their 1954 pennant, but fell again when Al Lopez resigned as manager in 1956 and the Tribe dropped out of contention. By 1957 the Indians were seriously thinking about moving the team to Minneapolis-St. Paul.

However, the attendance more than doubled in 1959 when the Indians contended for the pennant again. Rocky Colavito energized the team with 42 homers that year, and also tied the major league record with four in a game in June.

1959    19,454

So what did the Indians do? They traded their most popular player across the lake to Detroit!  See what it did to the attendance for 1960:

1960    12,350

The Tribe committed another blunder when they sent first baseman Norm Cash to Detroit for infielder Steve Demeter, who played in only a few games for them. Cash wound up hitting 377 homers in his career, but the Indians had Vic Power on first, and they thought Power was a better player (though, to be fair, Cash was 25 and had not done much yet). Colavito, Cash, and Minoso (who hit .311 for the White Sox in 1960, with 105 RBIs) could have kept the Tribe in the pennant race.

1961     9,013

Harvey Kuenn hit .308 with little power for Cleveland, and after the 1960 season he was traded to the Giants. In 1961, Norm Cash hit .361 with 41 homers and 132 runs batted in for Detroit, while Rocky Colavito hit 45 homers and drove in 140 runs for the Tigers.  No Cleveland batter hit more than 27 homers or drove in more than 95 runs, and the Indians fell to fifth place.

1962     8,840
1963     6,945
1964     7,967
1965    11,541
1966    11,153
1967     8,185
1968    10,593
1969     7,701
1970     9,009

You can see that the attendance rose again in 1965, because the Tribe got Colavito back in January of that year.  He led the league in runs batted in in 1965, but he was well past 30 by this time, and he left again in 1967.  The Indians finished a surprising third in 1968, but fell to the bottom of the standings again in 1969, and in the early 1970s the team made inquiries about moving to New Orleans.

Some say that the Colavito trade "destroyed the Indians," and although that may be a generalization, it seems to be true.  However, the Indians made a lot of boneheaded moves in the 1956-65 period. 

  • They thought pitcher Early Wynn was over the hill, so they let him go to the White Sox, where he won a Cy Young Award in 1959.
  • They forced Al Lopez to resign as manager in 1956, after six straight first or second place finishes.
  • They brought up Roger Maris in 1957, but gave up on him and sent him to the Athletics in 1958.  He won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1960 and 1961 for the Yankees.
  • They kept Vic Power and traded Norm Cash.
  • They got the 32-year-old Colavito back in 1965, but traded Tommy John and Tommie Agee to do so.  Colavito lasted only three more years, while Agee became the Rookie of the Year and John won 287 major league games after the trade.
  • They traded pitcher Jim Perry to Minnesota for pitcher Jack Kralick.  Perry became a 20-game winner and won the 1970 Cy Young Award with the Twins.
  • They traded managers with Detroit in 1960, a move remarkable only for its sheer desperation.

Roger Maris, former Indian, on a 1958 Topps card.

You could make quite an All-Star team of ex-Indians.  It almost appears as if the Tribe management was committed to wrecking the team as completely as possible in the shortest period of time.

The Colavito-Kuenn trade wasn't the only bad move made by the Tribe, but it was certainly the worst of its era.  Now the Tribe plays in a new stadium, with sellout crowds and playoff appearances galore (note - I wrote this in early 2000).  Here's hoping they don't revert back to their idiotic ways of the 1950s and early 1960s.