March 29, 2023

The Curse of Rocky Colavito 2.0

November 13, 2022 by · Leave a Comment 

Rocky ColavitoMake a list of the all-time strangest – not necessarily the worst – trades and Frank “Trader” Lane’s 1960 deal involving Rocky Colavito and Harvey Kuenn will probably be on that list. At the time Rocky and Harvey were as intertwined in the sports pages as Rocky and Bullwinkle were on the tube.

Colavito, age 26, was in his prime. He debuted at age 21 with the Indians in 1955, the year after they won 111 games and the AL pennant. In five seasons (1955-1959) with the Indians he had hit 109 home runs. At the outset of spring training 1960, he was the defending AL home run king with 42 and had driven in 111. The year before he had 41 dingers and 113 RBIs, so he had set the bar for himself power-wise.

So why did Frank Lane trade him?  Maybe it was that 1958-1959 drop in the batting average, from .303 to .257. As a result, his slugging percentage declined from a league-leading .620 to “merely” .512.

So how to make up for that .046 drop in BA?  Trade for a guy whose BA had gone from .319 to .353, thus enabling him to win the 1959AL batting title. The player in question was Detroit’s Harvey Kuenn and he was two years older than Colavito. His power numbers were nowhere close to Colavito’s; perhaps more important, he wasn’t as good-looking.

Cleveland Bobby-soxers had a collective crush on Colavito and that certainly didn’t hurt attendance at Municipal Stadium (which dropped to 950,985 after the trade, down from 1,497,796 in 1959). Rocky the C looked as though he should have been lip-syncing his latest Top 10 hit on American Bandstand. Like Hank Greenberg, he was a Bronx-born bomber who eluded the hometown Yankees.

Harvey KuennHarvey Kuenn, on the other hand, looked like he should have been wearing a John Deere cap instead of an MLB cap. A far cry from rock star Rocky, Kuenn looked like somebody you’d see working the counter at your local feed store.

This image was deceptive, however. A basketball star in high school, Kuenn was an All-American at the University of Wisconsin and married a former Miss Wisconsin (of 1954). He won the AL Rookie of the Year award in 1953 and never looked back. He just didn’t look the part.

The Indians had finished 2nd (89-65) in 1959, 5 games behind the White Sox, after a couple of mediocre seasons. The Tigers had finished at 76-78, so their needs were more than a power hitter. Nevertheless, Tiger GM Rick Ferrell went through with the deal, leaving Frank Lane to take the heat. Ferrell’s election to the Hall of Fame (in 1984) was based on his career as a player, not as a GM. 1959 was his first year in that post.

As controversial as the trade was, it proved to be of little consequence, as both teams finished the 1960 season below .500, the Indians at 76-78, and the Tigers at 71-83. Kuenn’s average dropped to .308, and the Tigers peddled to the Giants after one season. He also played for the Cubs and the Phillies. When he retired after the 1966 season, he had 2,092 hits and a .303 average.

Colavito stuck with the Tigers for several years. When he was 27, it was a very good year (1961), as he hit 45 HRs and garnered 140 RBIs, thanks to diluted pitching staffs in the wake of expansion. When he retired after the 1968 season, he had 374 HRs and 1,159 RBIs. Like Kuenn, he had an outstanding career, though not quite HOF-worthy.

It’s hard to pinpoint when the Curse of Rocky Colavito first gained currency, but it might have been day one. The trade was announced during an Easter Sunday (April 17) Memphis exhibition contest between the Indians and the White Sox. After hitting a home run, Colavito was informed of the trade. At the end of the game (Indians 2 – White Sox 1), the 7,279 fans filed out of the venerable old wooden ballpark built in 1896. That evening the ballpark burned down and the cause was never determined. Clearly that was a problem for the Memphis Chicks on the verge of beginning the Southern Association season, but what did it auger for the Indians?

Had the Indians retained Colavito, it is doubtful that they would have risen to new heights. During the early 60’s the Indians were AL also-rans, but they had a lot of company. That was situation normal given the domination of the Yankees. From 1960 to 1964, the Indians had a collective record of 393-408. By 1964 Colavito was with the Kansas City A’s, where he enjoyed an All-Star season (34 HRs, 102 RBIs) at age 30. Then came the opportunity for the Indians to reverse the curse.

In a three-team (the White Sox were the third team), nine-player trade, Rocky returned to the Indians!  Happy days are here again!  Or were they?

The Indians also obtained Camilo Carreon from the White Sox. Carreon was a nonentity, hitting .231 (12 for 52) for the Indians in 1965, his only year as a member of the Tribe.

So what did the Indians give up to re-acquire Colavito?  Short answer: the future.

The Indians gave up John Romano, who had been a solid catcher (an All-Star in 1961 and 1962) for them. By 1965, however, he was 30 years old and his offense had tailed off a bit. Actually, Romano was returning to the White Sox, for whom he had hit .294 in part-time duty during their 1959 pennant year, but he only had two more decent years left in him during his second tour of duty with the White Sox. He ended his career with another pennant-winner, the 1967 Cardinals, but was not on the World Series roster.

Romano was expendable since the Indians had three young catchers in the wings (Joe Azcue, Duke Sims, and Phil Roof). What really hurt the Indians were the two young players they gave up. They were not prominent at the time but soon the baseball world would hear of them.

One of those young players was Tommie Agee. Agee had been up and down between the Indians and the minors from 1962 to 1964. His limited big league performance was unimpressive but he was only 22 when he was traded. In 1965 he was up and down with the White Sox. Then came the breakthrough. He was the 1966 Rookie of the Year, a Gold Glove winner, and an All-Star (22 HR, 86 RBIs, .273). He was also an All-Star in 1967 but he faded badly in the second half. Nevertheless, Senators’ manager Gil Hodges was a fan. So when Hodges took over the Mets in 1968, he went out and got Agee.

Agee’s first year with the Mets was ho-hum, but he turned it up in 1969, hitting 26 homers and driving in 76 from the leadoff spot. He played a key role in the Mets’ shocking World Series victory in 1969 and added another Gold Glove in 1970. His career was notable but brief. He retired at age 30 one hit shy of 1,000.

The third player Cleveland sent to the White Sox in 1965 was the poster boy for longevity. His name was Tommy John.

Given John’s lengthy (26 seasons plus one year off recovering from the surgery that now bears his name) career, it is understandable that people might forget that his career began quietly with a September call-up to Cleveland in 1963. Splitting the 1964 season between Triple-A Portland (Oregon) and the Indians, his stats with the latter were not encouraging, as he went 2-9 with a 3.91 ERA in 94.1 IP. When he finally retired at age 46, John had won 2 games for the Indians and 286 games for other MLB teams.

The Indians disappointed in 1965, finishing in fifth place, but Rocky did his part, playing in all 162 games, making another All-Star squad, and leading the league with 108 RBIs.  Unfortunately, he tailed off in 1966. After a disappointing half-season in 1967, he was traded to the White Sox. He retired after splitting the 1968 season with the Dodgers and the Yankees.

So the Curse of Rocky Colavito was even worse the second time around. Part one of the curse was based on trading him; part two was based on re-acquiring him. The Indians remained uncompetitive until they moved into Jacobs Field in 1994. At that point many Indian fans likely figured a new ballpark would dispel the curse. Though post-season appearances became more common, the Indians have yet to go all the way, losing the World Series three times (1995, 1997, and 2016).

The Colavito curse was born in 1960 but there has not been a World Series title in Cleveland since 1948, seven years before Colavito made his debut. Perhaps rebranding the Indians as the Guardians in 2022 was an attempt to erase the stigma of a franchise that has been title-less for 74 years, currently the longest streak in MLB. The result was a good season in 2022 but no title.

As of this writing, Rocky Colavito is still alive. He is 89 years old. Wonder what the oddsmakers in Vegas would say about his chances of living long enough to see the Guardians win a World Series.

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