50 Years Ago: Rocky Colavito for Harvey Kuenn

Fifty years ago this past Saturday, one of baseball’s all time biggest trades was engineered when Indian’s GM Frank “Trader” Lane dealt Rocky Colavito, the 1959 co-home run champion and idol of Cleveland to Detroit for Harvey Kuenn, the ’59 batting champion.

Lane said he had traded “hamburger for steak”, but in the end Tiger fans feasted on filet mignon while the Indian faithful were left with a very bitter taste.

Although Kuenn finished his career with a .303 lifetime batting average in 1966, he did not come close to the run production numbers of Rocco Domenico Colavito.

During his four years in the Motor City as the clean up hitter sandwiched between Al Kaline and Norm Cash, Colavito slugged 129 home runs and 373 RBI’s while averaging 35 dingers and 107 RBIs a season.

From 1956 to 1966, Colavito was one of the most consistent power hitters in the game’s history becoming the 5th player to hit over 20 homers a season over an 11 year period while averaging 32 homers and 99 RBI’s each campaign.)

But then on Easter Sunday, April 17th 1960, Colavito received the devastating news that even today he still has trouble accepting.

While standing on first base in Memphis after hitting into a force out during the last exhibition game of the spring, manager Joe Gordon walked out of the dugout, and said to Colavito, “Rocky, that’s the last time you’ll bat in a Cleveland uniform.”

“It was an odd place to tell me and I will admit more now than I ever did then because I didn’t want anybody to think I couldn’t handle it, but I was in total shock and very disappointed,” Colavito told me in a recent interview.

Indian fans were so outraged at Indian GM Frank Lane that they hung him in effigy. But they really showed their disappointment at the turnstiles as attendance dropped by over a half million fans in 1960 from the previous year.

After just one year in Cleveland, Kuenn was traded to the Giants while for four seasons Colavito became a fan favorite in Detroit.

Along with Al Kaline and Norm Cash, the powerful trio nearly led the Tigers to the ’61 pennant only to fall to the Yankees in the last month.

For his part, Colavito had his most productive season in ’61 as he belted 45 home runs with 140 RBI’s. (Remarkably, Colavito and Cash, the ’61 batting champ, had more combined RBI’s (272) than the Yankee’s Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris (270) even though the M & M boys hit 29 more homers) (Just one week prior to the Colavito trade, Lane had traded Cash to Detroit for Steve Demeter who would appear in just fifteen major league games his entire career.)

Despite his popularity in Detroit and an impressive four year production of 129 homers and 373 RBI’s, Colavito, who had been embroiled in a bitter contract dispute with Tiger GM Jim Campbell, was traded after the 1963 season to Kansas City for Jerry Lumpe, and pitchers Dave Wickersham and Ed Rakow.

To this day, baby boomers who saw Rocky play at Tiger Stadium still fondly recall playing on the sandlots and imitating the slugger’s colorful on deck ritual. Colavito would hold the bat over his head and then pull it back behind his shoulders before stepping into the batter’s box and slowly pointing his war club at the pitcher.

Rocky played only four years in Detroit, but he was truly one of the most popular sluggers in Tiger history.

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