September 28, 2021

Back to the Future: SPORT’s “Five Hottest Questions” of 1961

August 12, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Last month I delved into SPORT’s predictions for the 1969 All-Stars made five years before in 1964.  This time around, I’m looking at five questions writer Tom Meany asked prior to the 1961 season.  In the May 1961 issue of SPORT, which actually hit newsstands in March, Meany penned an article titled, “The Big Leagues’ Five Hottest Questions,” in which he wondered aloud about the Braves’ middle infield, Rocky Colavito, Harvey Kuenn, Harmon Killebrew and Johnny Antonelli.

Of course, Meany wouldn’t have the answers until the end of the season and I doubt he took the time to revisit his questions, although I could be wrong.  So here are the questions followed by the answers, almost 50 years later.

Q: CAN BOLLING AND McMILLAN BRING MILWAUKEE THE PENNANT?

“Bolling” was six-year veteran second baseman Frank Bolling, who’d come to the Braves from the Tigers in a December 1960 deal that sent catcher Dick Brown, outfielder Bill Bruton, second baseman Chuck Cottier and pitcher Terry Fox to Detroit for Bolling and a player to be named later (Neil Chrisley).  “McMillan” was Roy McMillan, a 10-year veteran shortstop, who’d come to the Braves from Cincinnati in a deal that sent pitchers Joey Jay and Juan Pizarro to the Reds.

The Braves were coming off a run beginning in 1953 that saw them win two pennants and a World Series title, and finish no lower than third for eight straight seasons, racking up five second-place finishes, including in 1959-’60.

Going into the ’60 season, Braves manager Chuck Dressen insisted that his 24-year-old second baseman Chuck Cottier only needed to hit “just a little bit” to earn the starting nod at the keystone position.  “There’s nothing wrong with his fielding,” Dressen told reporters during spring training.  “Defensively he’s a big-league second-baseman right now.”  Well, Cottier not only hit just a little bit but he took his manager’s words literally and batted only .227 with little power in 95 games.  Bolling was a better hitter, batting .261 and averaging 11 homers and 52 RBIs a season from 1954-1960 with the Tigers, and he was a very good second baseman who’d copped a Gold Glove in 1958.

In 1960, Johnny Logan was the Braves’ shortstop and he’d been a good one, earning four All-Star berths from 1955-1959 and collecting MVP votes every year from 1952-1957, but the 33-year-old was nearing the end of his career and he hit only .245 in ’60 and was slightly below-average defensively.  McMillan was only two years younger than Logan, but he was a three-time Gold Glover and two-time All-Star, who’d received MVP votes four times from 1952-1957, finishing sixth in 1956.  “He’s the toughest, nicest little man I know,” said Braves general manager Birdie Tebbetts.  “He’s a shortstop who can break up more rallies with his glove than most hitters can start with their bats.”

A: No.

Not only did Bolling and McMillan not bring the Braves a pennant, but the team finished in fourth place, their worst showing since 1952 when the team was still in Boston and came in seventh.  To Meany’s credit, he predicted that the acquisitions of the middle infielders wouldn’t be “enough to bring Milwaukee a pennant” and that “the Braves traded away too much outfield and pitching strength.  In helping their infield, they seem to have shifted their weaknesses, not solved them.”

Meany proved prescient.  Although Bolling was arguably the league’s best second baseman in ’61, leading the loop in fielding percentage (.988) and Total Fielding Runs Above Average (14), while batting .262 with 15 homers and 56 RBIs, and McMillan was the league’s best shortstop, at least defensively—he too paced the senior circuit in fielding and Rtot but batted only .220 with a .293 slugging percentage—the Braves could have used the pitchers they surrendered to get Bolling and McMillan.

The loss of Bruton didn’t affect the outfield much at all—Frank Thomas, Hank Aaron and Lee Maye combined to hit 73 home runs with 228 RBIs and posted OPS+’s of 126, 161 and 110, respectively.  But losing Jay and Pizarro proved lethal.  Warren Spahn posted typical Warren Spahn numbers, going 21-13 with a 3.02 ERA, and Lew Burdette went 18-11, but the rest of the rotation went 27-31 with a 4.17 ERA.  Meanwhile Jay broke out in a big way with Cincinnati, going 21-10 with a 3.53 ERA and leading the league in wins and shutouts (4), and Pizarro went 14-7 with a 3.05 ERA for the White Sox after the Reds dealt him to Chicago on the same day they’d acquired him from the Braves.

There’s no certainty that Jay and Pizarro would have done as well with the Braves nor that they would have made up a 10-game deficit all by themselves, but they would have been better options than Bob Buhl, Carl Willey, Bob Hendley and Tony Cloninger.  It’s also interesting to note that Dressen was fired on September 2 due to dissension on the club after leading the team to a 71-58 record and a third-place berth.  He was replaced by Tebbetts, the man who made the deals to bring Bolling and McMillan to the Braves.  Tebbetts led the team to a 12-13 finish.  It was another 30 years before the Braves won another pennant.

Q: CAN COLAVITO COME BACK?

From 1956-1959 Indians slugger Rocky Colavito batted .271 and averaged 32 homers and 93 RBIs a year, finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, had two top-four finishes in MVP voting and won a home run crown at only 25 when he blasted 42 round-trippers in 1959.  Still, on April 17, 1960, Colavito was traded to the Detroit Tigers for A.L. batting champ Harvey Kuenn, who’d paced the circuit with a .353 mark.  The reason Colavito was unceremoniously jettisoned out of Cleveland was that general manager Frank Lane and skipper Joe Gordon felt the home run was overrated.

“Look at the Washington club last year. They almost led the league in home runs and finished last,” Lane said.  And Gordon was happy to have Kuenn rather than Colavito, calling the former “an all-around player,” who could run and throw and was “probably the toughest hitter in the league.”

In his first season with Detroit, Colavito belted 35 homers and drove in 87 runs but, according to Meany “…everybody agreed that Colavito had been disappointing.”  Indeed, he batted only .249 and posted an OPS+ of “only” 109, his lowest to that point in his career and lowest until 1967.  Meany blamed Colavito’s performance on the trade and his unwillingness to lay off good change-ups.  “How did Rocky react?  With an outward smile but an inner hurt.”  Colavito admitted after the season that he’d pressed and wasn’t able to “take it easy.”

A: Yes.

Colavito bounced back in 1961 in a big way, batting .290 with 45 home runs, 140 RBIs and 129 runs scored, and only the bating average wasn’t a career-best.  He finished eighth in MVP voting and made his second All-Star team.  “If you put Rocky Colavito in a room with the most artful brainwashers and hypnotists in the world, and charged them with breaking down his confidence in his ability to play major league baseball, they would fail,” wrote Hal Lebovitz.  Colavito finished his 14-year career with 374 homers, 1,159 RBIs and a career OPS+ of 132.

Note: The Colavito-for-Kuenn deal reminds me of an article Bill James wrote in his 1982 Baseball Abstract in which he recounts how Red Sox teammates Johnny Pesky and Dick Stuart would argue at length about who was more valuable: a .320 hitter with little power or a .260 hitter with 35 home runs?  James determined that in their three best seasons the two created almost the same number of runs, Pesky 299 and Stuart 300.  “They were arguing about nothing,” James insisted.  “There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them.”

But I was a little taken aback to see that Pesky was worth a lot more in terms of Win Shares Above Replacement and total Win Shares.  In 1942, ’46 and ’47, Pesky recorded 28.2, 34.9 and 25.5 WS and WAR marks of 6.0, 7.4 and 4.3.  In 1961, ’63 and ’64, Stuart recorded 18.8, 16.5 and 18.o WS and WAR marks of 3.9, 2.2 and 1.8.  In his three best seasons, Pesky batted .330 with only four home runs and 145 RBIs, an average of one homer and 48 RBIs a season.  In his three best seasons, Stuart batted .279 with 110 homers and 349 RBIs, an average of 37 and 116 per season.

Kuenn had more power than Pesky and Colavito was somewhat similar to Stuart, so after studying the comparison between Pesky and Stuart, it’s no surprise that in hindsight, the Indians acquired the better player in terms of WAR when they snagged Kuenn from the Tigers—Harvey had a WAR of 5.1 to Rocky’s 5.0 in 1960.  Unfortunately for Cleveland, Kuenn spent only one season with the team before ending up in San Francisco, and he never came close to hitting .353 again.  In fact, after he left Detroit, Kuenn batted .283 over his last 784 games.  Meanwhile Colavito averaged 33 homers and 102 RBIs over the same span and recorded higher WAR scores than Kuenn in six of the next seven seasons.

Q: CAN KUENN REALLY HELP THE GIANTS?

After hitting .308 with nine homers and 54 RBIs in his lone season with the Indians, Kuenn, by then an eight-time All-Star, was shipped to the Giants for pitcher Johnny Antonelli and outfielder Willie Kirkland.  It looked like a solid trade for the Indians, who were getting a 31-year-old pitcher who’d gone 114-89 with a 3.09 ERA from 1953-1959, and who’d won an ERA title in 1954, and a 27-year-old outfielder who’d averaged 19 homers and 63 RBIs over his first three big league seasons and was coming off consecutive 20-homer campaigns.

One of the reasons the Giants coveted Kuenn was for his leadership abilities, which the team was sorely lacking.  “One of former manager Bill Rigney’s many moans was that the club lacked a leader,” wrote Meany.  “Kuenn can be that leader.”  Indeed, Kuenn had gained respect as the American League’s player representative.  The problem with the trade was that new manager Alvin Dark had no idea where Kuenn would play.  If Willie McCovey took over at first, moving Orlando Cepeda to the outfield with Wilie Mays and Felipe Alou, Kuenn was slated to replace Jim Davenport at third base.  If Cepeda stayed at first and McCovey struggled, Kuenn was to be moved out to left field.

“The flexibility and depth that Harvey provides for San Francisco is his greatest asset,” wrote Meany.  “Able to play five positions—and hit .300 no matter where he plays—he can be shifted around almost daily to fit his team’s immediate needs.  His team play and leadership, linked with his skill, could give San Francisco a big push toward the pennant.”

A: Yes.

Leadership is impossible to measure, at least statistically, so it’s difficult to say how Kuenn impacted the clubhouse atmosphere, but he started off on the right foot when he told reporters of his respect for new Giants skipper Alvin Dark and insisted he’d play wherever Dark needed him.  Kuenn wasn’t always so willing to move around, preferring the outfield to the infield, but he took the trade to San Francisco to heart, claiming it was a new lease on life and a challenge.

Offensively, Kuenn had his worst season as a big leaguer, batting a career-low .265 and posting an OPS+ of only 86, and failed to make the All-Star team or receive MVP votes for the first time in eight years.  But he gave Dark and the Giants flexibility and Dark used it to his advantage, putting Kuenn in left field, at third base, in right field and at shortstop and using 70 different line-ups.  The Giants went from fifth place to third place in 1961, then won the National league pennant in 1962.  Kuenn’s bat returned to form in ’62 and he hit .304 with 10 homers and 68 RBIs and finished 18th in MVP voting.

Q: CAN KILLEBREW PUT TOGETHER A SEASON?

“The mystery about Harmon Killebrew has been his consistent inconsistency,” wrote Meany.  Indeed, Killebrew took the Anerican League by storm in his first 78 games as a full-time player in 1959 when he belted 28 home runs and drove in 70 teammates in only 277 at-bats.  His home run pace was almost equal to that of Babe Ruth in 1927 when the Bambino set the standard with 60.  But Killebrew slumped over the second half of the season, hitting “only” 14 homers and batting .212 over his last 75 games.  He won his first of six home run crowns, made the All-Star team and finished 15th in MVP voting, but Senators coach Ellis Clary thought the slugger was timid and was having a hard time handling his success.  “Every time he hit a home run he looked so embarrassed you would have thought he was going to go up and apologize to the pitcher,” Clary told Meany.

Killer’s second- half slump rolled over into the 1960 season and he hit only six homers, drove in 19 runs and batted .241 over the first half, but as the weather heated up so did Harmon’s bat.  He hit .298 with 25 homers and 61 RBIs over his last 72 games and actually posted a higher OPS than in ’59.  “In the groove, even for half-season stretches, Harmon can become one of the top power hitters of all time,” wrote Meany.  Meany cited Killebrew’s AB/HR ratio; the fact that he’d be playing in a better hitter’s park in Minnesota instead of spacious Griffith Stadium in Washington; that the schedule had been expanded from 154 to 162 games; and that expansion would provide some “less than formidable pitching staffs” to face.

A: Yes and No.

Killebrew was more consistent in 1961 than he’d been in ’59 and ’60 but he was still prone to streaks.  Over the first half of the ’61 campaign, Killer hit .335 with 26 homers and 68 RBIs, but in the second half his average dropped to .245.  He hit 20 homers and drove in 54 runs, though, which were more consistent splits than he’d had in the past.  It wasn’t until 1967 that Killebrew would finally put together a season with two relatively similar halves.

But Meany correctly called that too when he wrote, “Many theories have been offered in explanation of Killebrew’s half-season slumps.  The most likely is that he is a streak hitter.  He may not put together a season at a hectic slugging pace, but even so, he can do well enough to send a lot of baseballs flying over a lot of fences.”

Q: CAN ANTONELLI FIND HIMSELF IN CLEVELAND?

From 1954 to 1959, southpaw Johnny Antonelli was one of the best starting pitchers in the National League, finishing behind only Warren Spahn in ERA at 3.08 and fourth in wins with 102, but nobody saved more runs above average than Antonelli, who was 134 runs better than the average hurler.  He enjoyed his best season in 1954 when he went 21-7 with a league-leading 2.30 ERA, won 20 games again in 1956, and won 16 and 19 games, respectively, in 1958 and ’59 after the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco.

Despite his success on the West Coast, Antonelli was unhappy with the Giants’ home ballparks and the media, and made sure everyone knew it, becoming what Meany described as a “major irritant” on the Giants club.  He hated Seals Stadium where the team played in ’58 and ’59 and wasn’t fond of the climate either.  Interestingly, he pitched just as well at home in those years as he did on the road, going 19-11 in San Francisco with a 3.23 ERA vs. 16-12 with a 3.12 ERA on the road.  But, according to Meany, the final straw came when the Giants moved into Candlestick Park in 1960.  “Not many Giants were happy with the new park and its strange contours and weird wind-currents, but Johnny liked it least of all.  Antonelli’s entire attitude changed.  He was dissatisfied and unhappy…”

Though there was nothing physically wrong with his arm, the lefty started throwing more soft stuff despite having one of the best fastballs in the league.  He spent the first part of the season in the rotation but was moved to the bullpen and finished with six wins, 11 saves and a 3.77 ERA.  Again, he was better at home than on the road, posting an ERA that was 0.63 points lower in San Francisco than away from it, but he demanded to be traded after the season and finally got his wish when the Giants sent him to Cleveland for Harvey Kuenn.  A Cleveland official later swore that Antonelli would have left the game for good had he not been traded away from the Giants.  “Johnny was so disturbed by the internal situation on the Giants, he probably would have quit baseball if they hadn’t traded him.  I could mention names, but I’m sure he’d rather I wouldn’t.”

A: No.

“There is nothing physically wrong with his arm, and if he’ll get back to throwing that hard stuff again, he could be a big winner for Cleveland,” predicted an unnamed Giant official.  And Meany predicted that a happy Antonelli should “find himself” in Cleveland.

Antonelli may have found himself in Cleveland, but he didn’t find himself in Cleveland.  He went 0-4 in 11 appearances with a 6.56 ERA for the Indians before he was sold to the Milwaukee Braves on July 4.  He went 1-0 for the Braves in nine appearances but with a 7.59 ERA and was sold to the expansion New York Mets in October.  Rather than play for the Mets, Antonelli retired.

Ironically, Stan Musial claimed that Antonelli’s troubles weren’t due to throwing too much “soft stuff,” they were due to the fact that he’d lost his best soft stuff.  “Antonelli was a good pitcher with great control for several years,” Musial said in 1964.  “In his 20-game peak he came up with a terrific change of pace that made him outstanding.  But a little later he lost that change…and he never got it back.”

Mike Lynch is the author of Harry Frazee, Ban Johnson and the Feud That Nearly Destroyed the American League and It Ain’t So: A Might-Have-Been History of the White Sox in 1919 and Beyond, and the founder of Seamheads.com.

Comments

One Response to “Back to the Future: SPORT’s “Five Hottest Questions” of 1961”
  1. joe r. says:

    Very interesting essay. Thanks.

    The Braves made the trade for Bolling two years late. Had they had him in ’59 and ’60 (especially ’59) they likely would’ve won their third and fourth pennants in a row.

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