Published October 28, 2016
Would you trade a defending batting champion to get a defending home run champion, straight up? How about vice versa?
The days of the blockbuster trade seem to be a thing of the past in big league baseball. Waking up to the news of Superstar A being dealt for Superstar B—a trade that shakes the sport to its core—is practically a fantasy nowadays. Literally, really. Only in fantasy baseball does such a transaction occur.
But in the sleepy days leading up to the 1960 baseball season, the Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers launched a Roman candle that lit up the entire sports world’s sky.
It was a right fielder for right fielder swap. But that’s pretty much where the similarity ended.
Going to the Tigers would be slugger Rocky Colavito—the league’s defending home run champ—and headed to Cleveland would be defending batting champion Harvey Kuenn. No other players were involved—to be named later or otherwise.
On the Richter scale of sports trades, this one was a 10.
Never before had a HR champ been traded for a batting champ. And it hasn’t happened since.
To orchestrate such a maneuver, you need two wheeler dealers, and that’s what the Indians and the Tigers had in 1960.
Cleveland’s GM was Frank Lane, and Lane never met a trade he didn’t like. He had a fetish for swapping his players like kids did with bubble gum cards.
Lane, in two years at the helm in Cleveland, managed to make the roster he inherited look virtually unrecognizable.
His intentions were good; the Indians were a mediocre, .500 team when Lane was hired during the 1957-58 off-season.
Between the time he took over and the end of the 1959 season, Lane engineered no less than 20 deals, plus several waiver claims and cuts.
All the shuffling worked, sort of. The 1959 Indians finished in second place with an 89-65 record, which was a 12-win improvement from the year prior.
But it was Lane’s Earth-shaking move on April 17, 1960 that angered Indians fans the most, by far.
Like I said, you need two to tango, and Lane’s counterpart in Detroit, Bill DeWitt, wasn’t afraid to go to market.
DeWitt served as assistant GM for the Yankees from 1954-58 before being hired as president and GM of the Tigers before the 1959 season.
DeWitt came to Motown with a reputation for not being afraid to make moves. He propagated that belief when he first met the media in Detroit, declaring that pretty much everyone except Al Kaline was a potential trade component. And even Kaline, some believed, might not be safe.
The Tigers were 79-75 in 1959 and were ready for a shakeup as well.
And boy, did Lane and DeWitt shake things up!
Just five days prior to the mega-deal involving Colavito and Kuenn, Lane and DeWitt conspired to make one of the best trades in Tigers history—which was also one of the Indians’ worst.
The trade of April 12, 1960 barely made the agate type in the nation’s newspapers.
Indians GM Lane, in December 1959, had traded for little-known outfielder/first baseman Norman Cash, getting him along with John Romano and Bubba Phillips from the defending league champion Chicago White Sox in a trade that sent, among others, Minnie Minoso to Chicago.
But just as teams broke training camp in 1960, Lane shipped Cash to the Tigers for someone even more little-known—infielder Steve Demeter.
Cash went on to slam the second most home runs in Tigers history (373), while Demeter was out of the big leagues by May 6, 1960—less than a month after the trade.
But the Colavito for Kuenn trade was the story of the baseball world for most of the 1960 season.
Lane, never one to mince words, crowed to the media that he “traded hamburger for steak.”
DeWitt, for his part, countered by saying, “I like hamburger.”
Tigers fans had little problem with the trade. They liked Kuenn, but newly-named Tiger Stadium—that was DeWitt’s idea, too—was built for home run hitters, and Colavito was certainly that.
On the other side of Lake Erie, the enthusiasm was decidedly less.
Colavito was Hollywood handsome. He was in his prime—26 at the time of the trade. He possessed a howitzer for an arm in right field. And he could clobber the heck out of the baseball.
Over the 1958 and 1959 seasons combined, Colavito smacked 83 homers and drove in 224 runs.
So when “the Rock” was traded, they howled in Cleveland. Some say it even led to a so-called “Colavito Curse” on the franchise.
Whether you believe in that sort of thing, what is indisputable was Indians fans’ dislike of the Colavito-for-Kuenn trade.
Kuenn, for his part, was 29 and had been a Tiger since 1952. Only once did he not hit .300. He topped out in ’59 with a league-leading .353 mark.
But to get a slugger of Colavito’s stature for Tiger Stadium was too tempting for DeWitt to pass up.
Little did DeWitt—or anyone, for that matter—know that within five days, he’d obtained two-thirds of the Tigers’ version of Murderers Row.
Cash and Colavito combined with Kaline to make the Tigers’ middle of the order as formidable as any in baseball.
So who won the trade?
Advantage, Tigers—and it wasn’t even close.
Kuenn played one season in Cleveland—one—and though he hit. 308, he only played in 126 games due to injuries. After the season, Lane flipped Kuenn to the San Francisco Giants for lefty Johnny Antonelli and outfielder Willie Kirkland.
Neither Antonelli or Kirkland did much as Indians.
Colavito, meanwhile, continued to smack home runs and gun base runners out with his rocket arm as a Tiger.
The Rock played four seasons in Detroit (1960-63) and in that time he racked up 139 home runs and 430 RBI.
But he squawked about his contract and wanted to be the highest paid Tiger, which didn’t sit well with new GM Jim Campbell.
“As long as I’m the general manager in Detroit, no player will be paid more than Al Kaline,” Campbell declared.
Colavito and Campbell staged a blinking contest over money prior to the 1963 season, which led to Campbell trading Rocky in November ’63 to Kansas City, which at the time was baseball’s Siberia. Campbell won this contest and thus laid the groundwork for his legacy in Detroit, which was that of a tight-fisted steward of owner John Fetzer’s cash.
Colavito spent one year in purgatory in KC before being traded again—-back to Cleveland, in a three-team trade so convoluted, I refuse to try to describe it. But you can read about it here.
As if Colavito-for-Kuenn wasn’t enough, Lane and DeWitt again turned baseball on its ear less than four months later.
On August 3, 1960, the two impetuous GMs got together and traded managers.
The Indians got Jimmy Dykes from the Tigers, who received Joe Gordon from Cleveland.
That didn’t work out for either team.
Both clubs were floundering at the time of the managerial swap and both teams stayed in the doldrums afterward.
Gordon couldn’t abide DeWitt and resigned immediately after the 1960 season. Dykes managed the Indians up until the final game of the 1961 campaign.
The Tigers and Indians haven’t gotten together for any major trades since.