Talkin’ Baseball- The Trade That Nearly Destroyed A Franchise: The Cleveland Indians trade Rocky Colavito to the Detroit Tigers for Harvey Kuenn- April 17, 1960.
There have over the years been worse trades than this one but I can’t think of any which nearly destroyed a franchise as when the Cleveland Indians sent the defending American League home run champion Rocky Colavito the the Detroit Tigers for the defending batting champion Harvey Kuenn.
It was two days before the start of the 1960 season when the deal was made. To understand why this trade was made you have to realize that the man who made the trade was Cleveland Indians GM Frank Lane. Frank Lane was nicknamed Trader Frank. Over the years Lane served as the GM of the Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Athletics and Milwaukee Brewers. Lane liked to make trades. Trades must have been this man’s crack or heroin. During his career he made more than 400 trades including 241 with the White Sox alone. Trader Frank liked to make trades- just to make trades. He is the guy in your fantasy league who after the draft is over is sending trade offers to everyone else in the league. Trader Frank wasn’t satisfied with just trading players- he once traded his manager in Cleveland Joe Gordon to Detroit for their manager Jimmy Dykes.
Rocky Colavito was the most popular player on the Cleveland Indians. He was not only an outstanding young outfielder with a rifle for an arm- but a power hitter who was coming into his prime. In 1958 he hit 41 home runs, he followed that up in 1959 at the age of 25 with his first of nine All Star Game appearances- and 42 home runs which lead the league. He was loved in Cleveland by the fans- he was a good looking guy who always had time to sign autographs for the fans. Also remember this was 1960- not today. A team could keep a player for as long as they wanted them there was no free agency and salaries were rather low. There was no reason to trade this young star.
Trader Frank though was always looking to swing a deal. I don’t even know if his goal was to made a better team or make headlines. He thought it would be a great story- trading the reigning home run champion for the reigning battling champion. When he called Tiger GM Bill DeWitt proposing the deal DeWitt probably couldn’t believe his ears. Sure let’s made that deal. The trade was made.
I worked for years with an older fella who was a lifetime Indians fan. He was a teenager when this deal was made. We would talk baseball a lot and more than once I heard him talk about this trade. Decades later he was still bitter over it. He still hated Trader Frank Lane. His feelings were also the feelings Indian fans had at the time. I don’t know how Cleveland ownership let this deal happen. They should have stepped in- stopped the trade and fired Lane.
The trade turned out to be a disaster for the Indians. Kuenn as an Indian- was soon hurt and at the end of the season Trader Frank traded him. Rocky Colavito had four fine seasons with the Tigers. He would eventually make his way back to Cleveland in 1965 [ he led the league in RBI’s his first year back with the Tribe.] but the damage was done.
Frank Lane didn’t understand what all the fuss was about- the negative reaction to the trade. He commented that he traded ‘hamburger for steak’- to which Tigers GM DeWitt replied “I like hamburger.’
Cleveland Indian attendance in 1959 second best in the American League at 1, 497,976. In 1960 after trading Rocky it fell drastically to 950,985- 6th out of 8 teams in the American League. In the next 19 seasons the Indians would top 1,000,000 in attendance only one- in 1974. They were the worst franchise in baseball from 1960 until the mid 1990’s. I look back on it and its a wonder that the franchise stayed in Cleveland especially back in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
There is an excellent book on the Cleveland Indians of that era- titled- The Curse Of Rocky Colavito by Terry Pluto. It gives all the ugly details of how that franchise was mismanaged for decades.
Frank Lane died at the age of 86 in 1981. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn called up former baseball manager and executive Bobby Bragan and asked him to represent Major League Baseball at Lane’s funeral. As it turned out there was no one else from the world of baseball past or present that went to Lane’s funeral.