At Least He Didn’t Say The Rock Had No Heart . . .

Red Sox Nation may be stung somewhat by the Kevin Youkilis trade to the White Sox, especially considering the demeaning his manager inflicted on him earlier in the season. But they can take heart that this may not quite prove to be the absolute worst trade of all time involving a fan and clubhouse favourite.

For that dishonour you’d have to hark to Cleveland, where they still can’t forget the capricious trade of a run-producing machine, with a modest batting average, for a singles-hitting outfielder whose often-gaudy batting averages masked that he wasn’t worth too many runs on the scoreboard. A trade about which the Indians general manager who made the deal crowed, “What’s the fuss all about? I just traded hamburger for steak.”

The run-producing machine was Rocky Colavito. The singles hitter was Harvey Kuenn. The GM who made the deal was Frank Lane. The Red Sox would unload Kevin Youkilis after injuries had drained his production and his own, new manager questioned not just his production but his heart. But why on earth did Lane unload an extremely productive player, who’d barely approached his playing prime, and was probably the most popular player in an Indian uniform in the bargain?

Colavito—Cleveland’s matinee idol and run-producing machine . . .

The Bronx-born Colavito became an Indian in the first place because the Yankees, whom he’d grown up worshipping (Joe DiMaggio was his particular favourite), showed little interest in signing the kid. (Colavito had dropped out of high school to play semi-pro ball; he had to get a waiver to be allowed to turn pro a year after he would have graduated.) The Philadelphia Athletics were interested but cash strapped. The Indians signed him in 1950, deferring his bonus to spread out over his progress through their farm system.

Colavito made the Indians to stay in July 1956; his 21 homers and 65 runs batted in in 101 games got him a couple of Rookie of the Year votes. Had sabermetrics been invented at the time, his .372 on-base percentage might have gotten him the award over White Sox shortstop and speed merchant Luis Aparicio. He hit a few more bombs and drove in a few more runs in 1957, though his OBP dipped.

In 1958, Colavito exploded—he led the American League in slugging, hit 41 over the fence, drove home 113, yanked his OBP up to .405, and threw in the highest single-season batting average of his life: .303. He hit higher than that late in close games; he was deadly with men on base; he actually did his best hitting when the games were within a single run. (Herb Score, his teammate and roommate, has said Colavito was one of those players who hungered to be at the plate when it was late and close.) He was better in the second half of the season than the first.

Frank Lane, who became the Indians’ general manager before the 1958 season, and earned the nickname Trader Lane because he seemed never to see a player trade he couldn’t make, was anything but impressed. For openers, he and Colavito tangled over the latter’s 1958 contract. Colavito was bucking for a $3,500 raise; Lane offered only $1,500, with the usual undermining GMs in those years liked to lay on players when trying to hold the salaries down. Finally, Lane told Colavito to take the $1,500 now and, if he played well in 1958, “don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.” Sure enough, Colavito in September took Lane up on that, at a point where he had 35 bombs and 102 RBI on the ledger. Lane told Colavito he had no idea what the right fielder was talking about. Colavito fumed.

I will take a man at his word until I found out that he can’t be trusted . . . He said he never promised me the other $1,500. I called him a ‘no-good liar.’ He lied to me and he knew it, and I lost all respect for him at that moment.

But Lane couldn’t deny Colavito after 1958. He doubled Colavito’s 1959 salary after another round of contentious haggling—to $28,000. With the Indians in a pennant race for much of the season, Colavito ended up tied (with Harmon Killebrew) for the American League lead with 42 homers, knocking in only two fewer runs than 1958, and leading the league in total bases, not to mention finishing fourth in the league’s Most Valuable Player voting and earning his first trip to the All-Star Game in a peer vote. (The fans lost the All-Star vote after the Cincinnati ballot-box-stuffing scandal.) Unfortunately, his batting average fell to .257. Which was just about all Frank Lane needed to know.

In the interim, Colavito also made a reputation as a fan-friendly player who rarely if ever denied fans. (Score once swore Colavito would sign until the absolute last fan had been accounted for, while spontaneously impressing their parents by insisting the kids mind their manners.) On 10 June 1959, Colavito smashed his way into cult status once and for all in Cleveland, when–with a trade rumour hanging over his head—he tore out of a 4-for-30 slump by hitting four over the fences against the Orioles in old Memorial Stadium, only the third player at the time to hit four bombs in consecutive at-bats, including a ninth-inning blast against Ernie Johnson, who hadn’t surrendered a homer yet on the season.

The Indians fell out of the race and finished five behind the pennant-winning White Sox, the Indians’ owners gave Lane a new three-year contract, and Colavito and Lane went through their annual contract dance. Lane acknowledged Colavito had equaled his counting power numbers from the previous season but pointed out it took him a hundred more at-bats to do it. He even used Mickey Mantle as a lever, noting the Yankees were actually cutting Mantle’s salary for 1960, ignoring that Colavito a) had out-homered Mantle and every other power hitter in baseball in 1958-59; and, b) may have had a better 1959 than Mantle did. Lane was probably also ignorant of Colavito’s clutch statistics. He tailed off overall in late and close games, but he hit almost half his home runs and drove in more than half his runs when the Indians were within a run either way.

Kuenn—his gaudy batting averages belied his body beginning to break down . . .

At the same time, however, Detroit outfielder Harvey Kuenn was haggling over his 1960 salary after winning the 1959 American League batting title with a .353 average. Kuenn’s on-base percentage was an impressive .402 that season as well. But over the first eight years of his career Kuenn wasn’t good for much else. He wasn’t half as run productive as Colavito had been through 1959; he wasn’t driving in a lot of runs, even though he did hit lots of doubles (he led the league three times); he wasn’t particularly fast afoot to begin with, and he’d been prone to pulled muscles that kept him out of games to the tune of twelve or more a year from 1955-1959.

Colavito ended his holdout by signing for $35,000. Kuenn ended his by signing for $42,000. Both men got a $7,000 raise. A trade rumour wafted involving the two outfielders. Lane denied it. “Jimmie Dykes (then the Tigers’ manager) wanted to make the deal. That scared me. He’s pretty smart.”

The day before the 1960 season, with the Indians playing an exhibition game in Memphis against the White Sox, Colavito stood on first base, safe on a fielder’s choice, after having hit one out his first time up. While standing on first base, Indians manager Joe Gordon walked out to first base to tell him he’d been traded to the Tigers for Kuenn. Gordon pulled Colavito for a pinch hitter post haste, then, according to Colavito, spread a false tale that Colavito had asked, “Kuenn and who else?” Implying that Colavito didn’t think all that much of Kuenn.

Herb Score—still trying to salvage his career, after blowing out his elbow tendon on a damp day and wrecking his mechanics trying to compensate after he recovered—remembered Colavito going to the bullpen to talk to him after being pulled from the game. (Score would be traded to the White Sox a day later, reunited with his former manager Al Lopez, in a deal Lane may have made under pressure from Indians’ ownership, since many believed Lopez could help the still-ailing Score while Lane was adamant against sending him to Chicago at first.) He also remembered Lane bent on unloading Colavito no matter what.

He just didn’t like Rocky as a person. Part of it was that Lane believed ballplayers should be rowdy, hard-living, hard-drinking guys. But that wasn’t Rocky or myself. I believe that Lane resented the fact that no matter how many trades he made, or how much the Indians improved while he was the general manager, Rocky would still be the most popular Indian.

Lane had a public explanation for the deal.

We’ve given up 40 homers for 40 doubles. We’ve added 50 singles and taken away 50 strikeouts. . . Those singles and doubles win just as many games as home runs.

Well, that’s a helluva lot less insulting than telling people he couldn’t understand the fuss over trading hamburger for steak.

Harvey Kuenn would finish his career averaging 143 runs produced per 162 games. Rocky Colavito would finish his averaging 187 runs produced per 162 games. As Allen Barra once posited, take a lineup of Harvey Kuenns and square it off against a lineup of Rocky Colavitos and then ask yourself which lineup’s going to put more runs on the scoreboard. Yes, Colavito was an easier strikeout than Kuenn—it isn’t even close—but Colavito wasn’t exactly Reggie Jackson or Dave Kingman or Adam Dunn when it came to the whiff. He wasn’t even Mickey Mantle: Mantle finished his career averaging 115 strikeouts per 162 games. Colavito finished his averaging 38 less.

And the most popular Indian of his time got swapped to the Tigers the day before the Indians and Tigers were to face each other to open . . . in Cleveland. Gracious about the deal in public, clearly Colavito was stung by the deal. He opened 1960 going 0-for-6 with four strikeouts. Kuenn opened going 2-for-7 with a double and no runs scored or driven in himself. The Tigers won in fifteen innings, 4-2. From there?

Colavito would miss a little injury time, then finish with 35 bombs and 87 runs batted in; Kuenn would hit .308 with a marvelous .379 on-base percentage and make his eighth (and final) All-Star team . . . but only 119 runs produced to Colavito’s 156. Kuenn also missed most of September due to injuries. In 1961, though, Colavito went absolute off the charts: 269 runs produced, 45 bombs, 140 runs batted in, a .402 on-base percentage, another All-Star selection, and he played every Tiger game on the season. He also hit .290.

Kuenn, for his part, was out of Cleveland for 1961–Lane traded him to the San Francisco Giants, for pitcher Johnny Antonelli and outfielder Willie Kirkland—because, all of a sudden, Lane decided the Indians needed more power hitting. There are those to this day who believe that, just as there are compulsive gamblers and compulsive drinkers, Frank Lane was a compulsive deal-maker. It is not an unreasonably theory.

“I’ve just traded hamburger for steak”—Frank Lane, who traded Colavito for Kuenn . . .

Lane had the audacity to ask the Indians for a contract extension with two years left on his most recent deal. You’d like to think the Indians brass busted the proverbial guts laughing. They merely told him his deal would stand. Then he resigned to take the GM position in Kansas City, with the Athletics, for a better deal. Just as he’d done leaving the St. Louis Cardinals for Cleveland.

Lane lasted two years in Kansas City, then ran the Chicago Zephyrs of the NBA (you’ve known them since as the Baltimore Bullets, the Capital Bullets, the Washington Bullets, and the Washington Wizards), before working in the front offices of both the Milwaukee Brewers and the Baltimore Orioles, who kept him strictly to scouting duties. When he died in 1981, only one baseball official attended his funeral, one-time Indians manager Bobby Bragan, and that was only because Commissioner Bowie Kuhn personally asked Bragan to do it.

Colavito had a few more solid seasons left in him—including two as a prodigal son with the Indians, for whom he led the American League in RBI in 1965, and who got him back in a deal with the Kansas City Athletics (to whom the Tigers traded him after 1963—while injuries wore him down and, finally, out. The Indians sent him to the White Sox, to whom they’d surrendered Tommy John and Tommie Agee in the three-way swap that brought him back to Cleveland in the first place. Colavito would finish his career as a Yankee at last, in 1968, after starting the season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, by which time his once-formidable hitting skills were long enough eroded. The injuries may—may—have kept him from a no-questions-asked Hall of Fame career.

Kuenn had one or two more useful seasons left, too, before injuries and age finally retired him after a 1966 as a part-timer for the Philadelphia Phillies. His injury history may have kept him, too, from a no-questions-asked Hall of Fame jacket. Before he retired, Kuenn earned a legend as being the final out—one (as a Giant) a ground out, one (as a Chicago Cub) a swinging strikeout—in two of Sandy Koufax’s no-hitters, including Koufax’s 1965 perfect game. In time, Kuenn even became a pennant-winning manager. Considering some of the backstory behind the most notorious trade in which he was ever involved, there’s no small irony in Kuenn’s 1982 Brewers, with a propensity for the long ball, being nicknamed Harvey’s Wallbangers.

Kuenn died of cancer in 1988. (There was probably a time when people made book on finding any photographs showing Kuenn without a big chaw of tobacco in his cheek.) Colavito lives in Pennsylvania. He emerged briefly enough last month, after Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers blasted four homers against the Orioles, in Camden Yards. Colavito learned of it when, coming home from dinner with his wife, he flipped on ESPN and saw his name flicker across the screen, a reference to his own earlier four-bomb feat. “I’ve seen my name—and I say this in modesty— I’ve seen my name lots of times on TV,” he told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. “But as time goes by, you get older and you don’t hear it as often. When you see it or hear it, it makes you smile a little bit—that they didn’t forget you entirely.”

Red Sox Nation may not come to see 24 June 2012 as the beginning of the Curse of Kevin Youkilis, but to this day in Cleveland they lament the Curse of Rocky Colavito. Six years after the Indians won a pennant with a 111-win season, only to be destroyed in four straight by the New York Giants in the World Series, they traded their most popular and run-productive player. The Indians have won only two pennants, but no World Series, since. In the interim, the Indians, too, have had a history of trans-dimensional catastrophes close enough to rival those the Red Sox endured until the mid-Aughts. Close.

Can we say anything nicer about Frank Lane as regards the Colavito deal? Believe it or not, yes we can. At least, whatever else he said about The Rock, not even Lane’s worst enemy ever charged him with accusing Colavito in turn of lacking heart.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: