The American League’s 1959 home run champion wanted a $5,000 raise for 1960. His team’s general manager forced him to haggle yet again, signed him to a 1960 contract with the raise . . . and traded him out of town for the American League’s 1959 “batting champion” on the final day of spring training.
“We’ve given up forty homers for forty doubles,” said that general manager, Frank Lane of the Indians. Actually, it was 42 home runs for 42 doubles in 1959, but let’s not get technical.
To this day, Rocky Colavito (the 42 homers) thinks Frank Lane is a seven-letter euphemism for a male sexual prophylactic. Cleveland citizens probably call Lane far worse. To them, Colavito for Tigers veteran Harvey Kuenn (the 42 doubles) was even worse than Chicago would come to see Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio.
As Cleveland Plain-Dealer columnist Terry Pluto observes, Colavito was an Indian on his first Opening Day 65 years ago though he didn’t play in that game. The Indians wanted to return him to the minors for a spell, but Colavito balked until the team’s then-GM, Hank Greenberg, a Hall of Famer Colavito admired, assured him: let us fix this little roster problem we have and you’ll be back in three weeks.
Greenberg proved as good as his word and then some, which meant the world to the straight-shooting Colavito, like Greenberg a native of the Bronx. Colavito appeared in only five 1955 games, but in 1956 he hit 21 home runs to crown a full, fine rookie season and he asked Greenberg for a $3,000 raise. Greenberg gave it to him: $1,500 immediately, with a promise of a second $1,500 if he played 100 or more 1957 games. He did.
“I went right up to his office,” Colavito told Pluto. “Hank looked at me and said, ‘I know why you’re here.’ He then told (Indians traveling secretary) Bob Gill, ‘Get Rocky his check for $1,500.’ Hank Greenberg was the greatest general manager I ever had. He always was a man of his word.”
Not so Lane, whom Pluto once recorded in The Curse of Rocky Colavito as having reneged once too often on this or that assurance for Colavito’s taste. Right down to Lane’s late spring training 1960 assurance that the last thing on his mind was trading his right field star. Until he made the deal.
Colavito, the matinee idol with the big swing, the fine throwing arm, and the reputation for fan friendliness that went so far as to insist children clamoring for his autograph line up properly and say “please” and “thank you.” (What a surprise that Indian fans lived by the watchword, “Don’t knock the Rock.”) For Kuenn, the grizzled shortstop-turned-outfielder with the persistent clump of chewing tobacco in his cheek, the increasingly persistent leg issues, and a similar contract haggle approaching the 1960 season.
Lane had another issue with Colavito, which Pluto also recorded in the aforementioned book. Lane preferred baseball players who lived and drank hard. Like his best friend and ill-fated Indians roommate, pitcher Herb Score, Colavito was anything but the hard-living, hard-drinking type.
Even before taking the Indians’ GM job, Lane was infamous around baseball for treating trading as the most persistent itch that required a scratch. As the Cardinals’ GM previously, Lane was notorious for building a trade involving Hall of Famer Stan Musial that was stopped only by the intercession of owner Gussie Busch, who knew St. Louis would send him and anyone else associated with the team to the rack if it went through.
“Some of [Lane’s] trades were nuts, and some were good,” said longtime Cardinals GM Bing Devine. “Frank Lane was a great trader,” said longtime Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi. “But when I say that, I don’t mean the trades he made were great.”
Indians manager Joe Gordon walked out to first base after Colavito arrived in the team’s final exhibition game to tell him he’d just been dealt to the Tigers. “I’ve just traded hamburger for steak,” crowed Lane, who’d been trying to pry Kuenn out of the Tigers for several years.
Lane was also a typical baseball man of the time in that he tended heavily to rate players according to their “batting averages” alone. For all we know, Lane shrugged it off if he didn’t laugh his head off when Branch Rickey published a Life essay that said among other things that “[b]atting average is only a partial means of determining a man’s effectiveness on offense”—in 1954.
To Lane, trading the AL’s 1959 home run king for the league’s 1959 “batting” champion trading as he also said “forty home runs for forty doubles” made all the sense in the world:
We’ve added fifty singles and taken away fifty strikeouts . . . I’ll probably make bobby-soxers mad at me, but they’ve been mad at me before . . . I realise Colavito is very popular. There were many people who came to the park to see him hit a home run, whereas they wouldn’t come to the park just to see Kuenn hit a single. But those singles and doubles win just as many games as home runs . . . Rocky’s best year was 1958 when he batted over .300 and hit 41 homers, but our attendance was only 650,000 because we didn’t have a contending club.
“Where do you begin to shovel through this pile of public relations pap spewed out by Lane?” Pluto asked in his book. “Last time I checked,” said Sporting News writer Hal Lebovitz, whom Pluto also cited, “a single doesn’t count as much as a home run.” The last time I checked, the 1959 Indians were second in American League home attendance (1.50 million fans) to the Yankees (1.6 million).
Let me show you Hamburger vs. Steak in 1959 according to my Real Batting Average metric. (Total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches / total plate appearances.)
Now, let me show you Hamburger vs. Steak from Colavito’s first full major league season through the end of 1959:
Both players dealt with nagging injuries in those four seasons, though Kuenn probably had the harder time of it. He depended as much on his legs as anything else to succeed and those were his most often injured parts. He’d pounded them, too, playing shortstop in his first few years, though it did him little good: as a shortstop, Kuenn was worth 27 defensive runs below his league average.
Colavito was also a superior defender; as a corner outfielder, his lifetime numbers show him worth 61 defensive runs above his league average.
What Lane also didn’t either think about or comprehend if he did think was that Colavito was hurt somewhat by Municipal Stadium, that pitching paradise and hitting challenge. Colavito hit far better on the road. Kuenn had the opposite issue: Tiger Stadium was a hitting haven. He hit far better at home, but coming to Municipal Stadium was likely to be a nightmare.
Well, now. Kuenn missed quite a number of 1960 games thanks to further nagging injuries and, yes, when he could and did play he did hit better on the road than at home. The split isn’t glaring since he was essentially a singles-and-doubles hitter with about as much power as a push mower, but “batting average” Nazis should note that thanks to age and injuries Kuenn would never hit as high as .308 again (his 1960 “batting average”) the rest of his career.
According to Pluto’s book, Colavito was given another stab in the back by Gordon, who seems to have told those who would listen that Colavito’s immediate reaction to the trade was, “For Kuenn and who else?” Colavito denounced the remark as the biggest. lie. ever.
I never said anything negative about Harvey Kuenn. After that, I never had any stomach for Gordon or Lane . . . I feel bad for Harvey because he caught some of the public backlash from the deal. Harvey was a helluva player, and he could really run when he was younger. He once got five infield hits in one game. I don’t know if I got five infield hits in my career. If I could run like Harvey I would have been a lifetime .300 hitter. But Detroit wanted to trade Harvey for me because they weren’t sure how much longer his legs would hold up. That was a big factor in the trade, and no one talked about it until long after the deal had been made.
Devastated as he was by the trade and by the betrayals he felt, Colavito’s 1960 opening with the Tigers had to make him feel worse: the Tigers opened against the Indians. He had to fly with the Indians from spring training to Cleveland and then change sides. He went hitless in the first of the two games but smashed a three-run homer in the top of the fourth off Jim Perry in the second game.
“The first year in Detroit was rough for me because I had left a place and a team that I loved and the fans in Cleveland loved me,” Colavito told the Detroit Free Press in 2020. “I am sure it was the same for Harvey, who was a really good man. Even my neighbor at the home I rented in Detroit said to me: ‘I don’t care who you are, I was a Harvey Kuenn fan.’ That was the last time we ever spoke. In the home opener in Detroit, I remember it was a very warm day and that I hit a two-run homer and we won.”
Yet when 1960 finished shaking out, Colavito still came out ahead of Kuenn, according to RBA:
No wonder then-Tigers GM Bill DeWitt, who’d partnered with Lane on the Big Trade, crowed back, “I like hamburger.” Even though DeWitt’s 1960 Tigers weren’t exactly world beaters at hitting or reaching base overall, even though four of his top five players by wins above replacement-level player were pitchers. (Hall of Famer Jim Bunning plus Frank Lary, Don Mossi, and Dave Sisler.)
Neither Colavito nor Kuenn would be quite the same player they’d been before the Big Trade, though Colavito hit 139 home runs in four seasons as a Tiger. As a matter of fact, Colavito was anything but a Detroit breakdown:
|Hold That Tiger!||PA||TB||BB||IBB||SF||HBP||RBA|
In due course, Colavito would have an encore in Cleveland, under a far different regime, but also far from his early seasons when the Tribe remained serious American League contenders. Lane had much to do with reducing the team to also-rans, of course.
Kuenn would learn the hard way what it was like when Lane decided you didn’t fit into his plans. After a 1960 in which he finished fifth in the American League with that .308 “batting average,” but missed most of September due to injuries, Kuenn signed a 1961 contract. Lane called him “untouchable”—until he wasn’t, trading him to the Giants for pitcher Johnny Antonelli and outfielder Willie Kirkland.
Antonelli turned up with arm trouble and the coming end of his career. Kirkland would average 25 home runs a season as a three-year Indian but offered not a lot else other than plus defense in the outfield, then tapered away in Baltimore and Washington before going on to play six seasons in Japan.
Kuenn would remain a respected veteran who still knew how to hit when he was healthy. But he’d also finish his career with the strange distinction of having made the final outs in two no-hitters by Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax: in 1963, as a Giant; and, more famously (Two and two to Harvey Kuenn!—Vin Scully), in 1965 as a Cub.
He’d also be one of the four-man committee (with his old teammate Bunning plus Pirates pitcher Bob Friend and Hall of Fame former Phillies pitching great Robin Roberts) who ended up finding and hiring Marvin Miller to run the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Lane had one final dagger to stick into Colavito, in 1965, when the two men bumped into each other by happenstance after the Kansas City Athletics—for whom Colavito played one season, 1964—traded Colavito back to Cleveland. As Colavito told Pluto, Lane told him the A’s traded him because owner Charlie Finley didn’t want to negotiate a contract with him.
“Who knows if that’s true?” Pluto asks. Who knows, given what’s only too well known of Lane, if it’s not true? This was the man who once said his best trade was sending a kid named Roger Maris to the A’s for infielder/outfielder Woodie Held and first baseman Vic Power.
Well, now. Held was a versatile player with some power; Power was a flashy first baseman with a little less power but enough defense and four All-Star teams while he was at it. You’ve probably heard Maris had a little more to come. When he ended up in New York, as a back-to-back American League Most Valuable Player, and smasher of ruthsrecord, Lane’s tune changed faster than a disc jockey’s patter.
“If I’d known Maris would end up a Yankee,” Trader Lane sniffed in due course, “I never would have made that deal.”
By 1964, Lane had this to say about trading Hamburger for Steak: it was “the most unfortunate I ever made—not from a baseball standpoint but from the fans’ standpoint. The gals loved that boy with his boyish grin.” The gals and everyone else might also have loved the forty home runs a season Colavito averaged as an Indian between 1956 and 1959. Chicks dug the long ball even then, but they weren’t the only ones.
When Lane died at 85 in 1981, only one baseball person showed up for the funeral, and that only at the request of then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn: Bobby Bragan, whom Lane fired as the Indians manager in 1958. Bragan denied the long-holding Cleveland legend that he put a curse on the Indians upon his departure.
“I didn’t put a hex on the club,” he said in his memoir, You Can’t Hit the Ball with the Bat On Your Shoulder. “Having Frank Lane as the general manager was curse enough.”
Especially when he really traded prime rib for meat loaf. From a baseball standpoint.