Have Bat, Will Thrill

 

Homer Happy: Willie Kirkland

The career of Willie Kirkland lived and died by the home run. During his nine-year major league career, Kirkland was a much-in-demand (and frequently traded) slugger who batted only a combined .248 from 1959-1962 … when he averaged 23 home runs and 75 RBIs per season.

Willie Kirkland’s best season came in 1961 with the Cleveland Indians. He batted .259 with 27 home runs and 95 RBIs.

Kirkland was signed by the New York Giants in 1953. He made his major league debut with San Francisco in 1958, batting .258 with 14 home runs and 56 RBIs.

He hit 22 home runs in 1959 and 21 homers in 1960, and finished fifth in the National League with 10 triples. Following the 1960 season, Kirkland and pitcher Johnny Antonelli were traded to the Cleveland Indians for Harvey Kuenn.

Kirkland had a career-best season with the Tribe in 1961. He batted .259 with 27 home runs and 95 RBIs (ninth most in the American League). Kirkland hit 21 home runs with 70 runs batted in for 1962 despite hitting only .200, and was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for Al Smith after the 1963 season.

Over the next three seasons, Kirkland became a part-time player and pinch-hitter for the Orioles and the Washington Senators, hitting 14 home runs with 54 RBIs for Washington in 1965. He retired after nine major league seasons with a career batting average of .240 and with 148 home runs.

 

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Trust the Law

 

Career Year: Vern Law – 1960

Vern Law was a lanky right-hander whose fortunes as a pitcher improved steadily throughout the 1950s … just as his team, the Pittsburgh Pirates (his only major league team over a 16-year career), clawed its way out of the bottom of the National League standings by the close of the 1950s.

Pitching for weak Pirate teams in the early 1950s, Vern Law struggled to a 40-57 record in his first five seasons.

By 1960, the Pirates had improved all the way to World Series champions. And in 1960, the best season in Law’s distinguished career, he was acknowledged as baseball’s best pitcher.

After two seasons in the minors, Law joined the Pirates in 1950. In his first five seasons, he was 40-57 with a 4.56 ERA. He registered his first winning season at 10-8 in 1957, with a seventh-place team. When the Pirates finished second in 1958, Law was 14-12 with a 3.96 ERA. When the Pirates finished fourth in 1959, Law emerged as the team’s ace at 18-9 with a 2.98 ERA. It was the best season of his career, so far …

Law’s first start of the 1960 season came in the season’s second game. At Cincinnati, he shut out the Reds on seven hits, backed by five RBIs from Roberto Clemente and four RBIs from Bill Mazeroski, for a 13-0 waltz. He made only two more starts in June, winning both with complete games.

Vern Law’s 1960 season was the best of his career: 20-9 with a 3.08 ERA. He also won two World Series games and was the winning pitcher in the second All-Star game.

Law made seven starts in May, winning four and losing one with three more complete games. He was 4-2 in June with another three complete games. At the All-Star break, Law was 11-4 with a 2.52 ERA. He retired Brooks Robinson and Harvey Kuenn in the bottom of the ninth inning to preserve a 5-3 win for the National League and teammate Bob Friend. In the second All-Star game four days later, Law was the starter (and winner), allowing no runs and one hit in two innings as the National League won 6-0.

Law won his last two starts in July, and then won six straight decisions in August. He finished August at 19-5 with a 2.84 ERA. The Pirates led the rest of the National League by 5.5 games.

After being so strong, so consistent, Law faltered in September. In six starts, he was 1-4 with a 4.43 ERA. The Pirates finished five games ahead of the second-place Milwaukee Braves. And Law had a new best season: 20-9 with a 3.08 ERA. Law led the National League with 18 complete games. His 271.2 innings pitched were fourth most in the league.

Law capped off a fine 1960 season by winning a pair of World Series games with a 3.44 ERA. And though he finished third in the league in victories (Warren Spahn and Ernie Broglio each won 21 games.), Law won the Cy Young voting handily over Spahn, Broglio and Lindy McDaniel.

Despite leading the National League in only one pitching category – with 18 complete games – Vern Law won the Cy Young Award as baseball’s best pitcher in 1960.

Law wouldn’t have another season like that in the seven seasons he had remaining. He would win 17 games in 1965, and finish with a career record of 162-147 with a 3.77 ERA.

 

 

 

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Giant Behind the Plate

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Ed Bailey

Ed Bailey was a solid defensive catcher who was also dangerous with a bat in his hands. He lasted 14 years in the major leagues, playing for five different teams.

Ed Bailey had his best season with the Giants in 1963, batting .263 with 21 home runs and 68 RBIs.

Bailey was signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 1950. After two years in the minors plus two years of military service, he made his debut with the Reds at the end of the 1953 season and earned a place on the team’s roster for 1954, batting .197 with nine home runs and 20 RBIs in his rookie season. He spent part of 1955 back in the minors, working on his hitting, and came back in 1956 to hit .300 with 28 home runs and 75 RBIs.

From 1956 through 1960, as the Reds’ everyday catcher, Bailey hit a combined .267 while averaging 17 home runs and 58 runs batted in per season. He was a member of the National League All-Star team in 1956, 1957 and 1960.

In 1961 Bailey was traded to the San Francisco Giants for Don Blasingame and Bob Schmidt. He batted .245 in 1961 and then, in 1962, he batted .232 with 17 home runs and 45 RBIs while splitting the Giants’ catching duties with Tom Haller. In 1963, Bailey had his best season with the Giants, batting .263 with 21 home runs and 68 RBIs.

After the 1963 season, he was traded with Felipe Alou and Billy Hoeft to the Milwaukee Braves for Del Crandall, Bob Hendley and Bob Shaw. In Milwaukee, Bailey spent the 1964 season as a backup to Joe Torre, batting .262 with five home runs and 34 RBIs. Then he was traded back to the Giants for Billy O’Dell. Two months into the 1965 season, he was traded again, this time with Hendley and Harvey Kuenn to the Chicago Cubs for Dick Bertell and Len Gabrielson.

Bailey hit .253 for the Cubs in 1965. He signed with the California Angels in 1966, but played only five games before retiring.

In 14 major league seasons, Bailey posted a career batting average of .256 with 915 hits and 155 home runs. He was an All-Star five times altogether, being named to the team twice as a member of the Giants as well as his three earlier appearances with the Reds.

 

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Rocky Takes the Fast Lane Out of Cleveland

 

Swap Shop: Rocky Colavito for Harvey Kuenn

It was a deal that stunned fans in two cities, as well as the American League as a whole. The trade of the reigning batting champion for the reigning home run champion defined the careers of the players involved, as well as the man who engineered it.

And baseball in Cleveland has never been the same.

Leading the American League in home runs in 1959 wasn’t enough to keep Rocky Colavito in Cleveland. He was traded to the Detroit Tigers on the eve of Opening Day in 1960.

Leading the American League in home runs in 1959 wasn’t enough to keep Rocky Colavito in Cleveland. He was traded to the Detroit Tigers on the eve of Opening Day in 1960.

Rocky Colavito was already a legend in Cleveland at the start of the 1960s. He hit 21 home runs as a rookie in 1956, and banged out 41 homers in 1958 while leading the American League with a .620 slugging percentage. To prove that performance was no fluke, Colavito led the league with 42 home runs in 1959 and finished second with 111 RBIs.

Only one man could keep Colavito from being one of the Indians’ all-time slugging greats, and that man was Frank Lane. Lane had become the Indians’ general manager in November of 1957, after spending two years in that position with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was known as “Trader” Lane for his propensity to trade any player, including an attempt to send Stan Musial to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Robin Roberts … a deal nixed by Cardinals’ owner August Busch.

Lane dealt Colavito to the Detroit Tigers for outfielder (and reigning American League batting champion) Harvey Kuenn two days before the opening of the 1960 season. The Indians were never the same. After finishing second to the Chicago White Sox in 1959, the team stumbled to a fourth-place finish in 1960, the first of five consecutive losing records for the Tribe in the 1960s. In those five seasons, Cleveland ended up no higher than its fourth-place finish in 1960, and twice finished as low as sixth place. The franchise languished in the middle of the American League pack, and didn’t see a winning season until 1965, when Colavito’s bat had been reclaimed.

(Lane was long gone by that point, as were all of the players he inherited in 1957. By the end of the 1960 season, none of the players on that team had been with the Indians when Lane arrived.)

In exchange for Colavito, the Indians got outfielder Harvey Kuenn, who had led the American League with a .353 batting average in 1959. Kuenn lasted one year in Cleveland, batting .308.

In exchange for Colavito, the Indians got outfielder Harvey Kuenn, who had led the American League with a .353 batting average in 1959. Kuenn lasted one year in Cleveland, batting .308.

Kuenn was no slouch with the lumber, and his league-leading .353 batting average in 1959 was no fluke. Over seven seasons with the Tigers, Kuenn batted .314 and averaged 192 hits per season. From 1953-1959, his batting average slipped below .300 only once (.277 in 1957), and he led the league in doubles three times over that period.

But Kuenn wasn’t the run producer that Colavito had been for the Tribe, or would be for the Tigers. Kuenn averaged only 59 RBIs for the Tigers, and scored at an average of 88 runs per season. In his only season with Cleveland, Kuenn batted .308 with nine home runs and 54 RBIs. Those weren’t the kinds of numbers that would inspire Cleveland fans to forget their beloved Colavito, or forgive Lane for letting Rocky get away. Following the 1960 season, Kuenn was traded to the San Francisco Giants for pitcher Johnny Antonelli and outfielder Willie Kirkland.

Rocky Colavito played for four years with the Tigers, averaging 35 home runs and 108 RBIs per season. Starting in 1960, the Indians didn’t post a winning record until 1965, when Colavito was back in their lineup (and leading the American League with 108 RBIs).

Colavito had several outstanding seasons for the Tigers. In 1960, he hit “only” 35 home runs and drove in 87 runs. His runs scored dropped from 90 in 1959 to 67 in 1960 … but that was still two runs more than Kuenn scored that same season. Colavito rebounded in 1961 to bat .290 with 45 home runs and 140 RBIs. He scored 129 runs in 1961, third most in the American League.

From 1958-1962, no one in major league baseball hit as many home runs as Rocky Colavito. And no one in the American League drove more runs home during that five-year stretch.

 

 

 

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He Brought His Heart to San Francisco

 

Swap Shop: How Billy Pierce Became a Giant … Who Saved a Pennant

In more than one way, Billy Pierce was the difference that got the San Francisco Giants into the 1962 World Series, and he accomplished this when he was generally considered washed up and a shell of what he had been a decade before.

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Billy Pierce was regarded by many as the best pitcher in the American League. In his prime during the 1950s, Billy Pierce was regarded by many as the best pitcher in the American League.

The glory years for Pierce came in the 1950s when, as the ace of the Chicago White Sox staff, he rivaled New York Yankees southpaw Whitey Ford for recognition as the best left-hander in the American League, if not the American League’s best pitcher, period.

Pierce was signed by the Detroit Tigers and traded to the White Sox in 1949. He was a combined 27-30 in his first two seasons with the White Sox, and then won 15 games in both 1951 and 1952, followed by an 18-12 campaign in 1953. After slipping to 9-10 in 1954, he won 15 games again in 1956 (while leading the major leagues with a 1.97 ERA) and was a 20-game winner for the White Sox in 1956 and in 1957. He led the league in complete games from 1956 through 1958, and overall posted a 186-152 record in 13 seasons with the White Sox.

In November of 1961, San Francisco sent Bob Farley, Eddie Fisher and Dom Zanni to the White Sox for Pierce and Don Larsen. It was one of the most important moves made by the Giants’ front office over that winter, as Pierce, who was 10-9 in his last season with Chicago, won his first eight decisions for the Giants. He moved to the bullpen through the heat of the summer, and returned to the starting rotation in August, winning five out of six decisions.

After going 10-9 in 1961, his final season with the White Sox, Billy Pierce was 16-6 for the Giants in 1962 – including a victory in the first game of the playoff with the Dodgers.

After going 10-9 in 1961, his final season with the White Sox, Billy Pierce was 16-6 for the Giants in 1962 – including a victory in the first game of the playoff with the Dodgers.

The 1962 National League regular season ended in a dead heat between the Giants and their West Coast rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Finishing the regular season at 15-6, Pierce was selected by Giants manager Al Dark to pitch the opener of the three-game playoff and responded with a three-hit, 8-0 shutout. Game Two in Los Angeles saw the Dodgers tie the playoffs with an 8-7 victory.

On October 3, 1962, the playoff and the pennant race came down to a single game. In the top of the third, an RBI single by Harvey Kuenn and a sacrifice fly by second baseman Chuck Hiller gave the Giants a 2-0 lead. The Dodgers scored one run against Juan Marichal in the fourth inning and took the lead in the sixth inning on Tommy Davis’ two-run homer.

In the seventh inning, the Dodgers went up 4-2. In the top of the ninth, the Giants scored four runs on only two hits, and led 6-4 with the Dodgers coming up for their last at-bats.

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On two days’ rest after pitching a three-hit shutout, Billy Pierce closed out the Dodgers in the ninth inning of the third playoff game, preserving a come-from-behind victory and the National League pennant.

In the bottom of the ninth, Dark turned again to Pierce to wrap up the game and the pennant. After shutting out the Dodgers just two days before, Pierce added one more scoreless inning to his playoff ledger, retiring the Dodgers in order to give the Giants their first National League pennant since 1954.

 

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Keen on Hitting

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Harvey Kuenn

He could seemingly hit in his sleep. And if he had played two decades later, he might well have put up Hall of Fame career numbers as a full-time designated hitter. He was made for it.

After seven seasons with the Detroit Tigers – and a batting title in 1959 – Harvey Kuenn opened the 1960s as an outfielder with the Cleveland Indians, traded on the eve of opening day for slugger Rocky Colavito. Kuenn batted .308 in his only season in Cleveland.

After seven seasons with the Detroit Tigers – and a batting title in 1959 – Harvey Kuenn opened the 1960s as an outfielder with the Cleveland Indians, traded on the eve of opening day for slugger Rocky Colavito. Kuenn batted .308 in his only season in Cleveland.

As it was, Harvey Kuenn put up impressive hitting numbers throughout his major league career. He lacked base path speed and was average at best in the field. But his bat was a threat to every pitcher … in both leagues.

Kuenn was signed by the Detroit Tigers in 1952. He needed only 63 games in the minors (where he hit .340) before he was called up to Detroit at the end of the 1952 season. He opened 1953 as the Tigers’ starting shortstop, hitting .308 his rookie season while leading the major leagues with 209 hits. That season he was both an All-Star and Rookie of the Year.

From 1954 through 1958, Kuenn hit a combined .308 as the Tigers’ shortstop, leading the American League two more times in hits and twice in doubles. In 1959, he again led the league in both hits (198) and doubles (42), as well as leading the league in hitting with a .353 average.

It was his last season as a Tiger. Just before the opening of the 1960 season, the reigning American League batting champion was traded to the Cleveland Indians for the reigning American League home run champion, Rocky Colavito. Colavito had been one of the most popular players ever in Cleveland, and Kuenn was practically vilified by the Cleveland fans for replacing their beloved Colavito in the Indians’ lineup. He hit “only” .308 that season, and then was traded to the San Francisco Giants for pitcher Johnny Antonelli and outfielder Willie Kirkland.

Harvey Kuenn had a career batting average of .303 in 15 major league seasons.

Harvey Kuenn had a career batting average of .303 in 15 major league seasons.

Kuenn’s best years as a hitter were behind him when he joined the Giants. In four-plus seasons, he hit a combined .280, and then he was traded to the Chicago Cubs, where he hit .220 as a part-time player over two seasons. Kuenn’s final season as a player was 1966 with the Philadelphia Phillies, where he hit .296 in only 159 official at-bats. He was released by the Phillies after the 1966 season, and went on to coach and manage in the major leagues following his playing career.

Kuenn’s 15 major league seasons produced 2,092 hits and a lifetime .303 batting average. He was an All-Star eight times, all for the American League.

 

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Leaps Tall Fences with a Single Swing

 

Homer Happy: Rocky Colavito

From 1958-1962, no one in major league baseball hit as many home runs as Rocky Colavito. And no one in the American League drove more runs home during that five-year stretch.

Rocky Colavito averaged 40 home runs and 113 RBIs from 1958-1962.

Rocky Colavito averaged 40 home runs and 113 RBIs from 1958-1962.

In that five-year period, when Colavito was at the peak of his playing career, this outfielder (with a cannon throwing arm) batted for a combined .273 average with 40 home runs and 113 RBIs per season. He won the American League home run title in 1959 with 42, only to find himself traded before the first pitch of the 1960 season.

A New York native, Colavito was signed out of high school in 1951 by the Cleveland Indians and spent five years working his way through the Indians’ farm system. In his two seasons of AAA baseball at Indianapolis in the American Association, Colavito began to display the power he would bring to the major leagues, hitting a combined 68 home runs with 220 runs batted in. And he was still only 21 years old.

Colavito’s rookie season with the Indians came in 1956, when he batted .276 with 21 home runs and 65 RBIs. He finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Luis Aparicio.

Colavito improved steadily as a major league hitter. He punched out 25 home runs with 84 RBIs in 1957, and in 1958 he batted .303 with 41 home runs and 113 RBIs. He also led the American League with a .620 slugging percentage.

The 1959 season was one of firsts and lasts for Colavito. It was his first major league season to collect more than 150 hits and to reach 90 runs scored. It was his first season to finish first among the league’s home runs hitters, with 42 home runs (and he drove in 111 runs).

After one season in Kansas City, Colavito was dealt back to the Indians and led the American League with 108 RBIs in 1965 while hitting 26 home runs.

After one season in Kansas City, Colavito was dealt back to the Indians and led the American League with 108 RBIs in 1965 while hitting 26 home runs.

But 1959 was also Colavito’s last season in Cleveland. Just before Opening Day of the 1960 season, the Indians traded their star slugger to the Detroit Tigers for outfielder Harvey Kuenn, the 1959 American League batting champion. The trade proved to be hard on both players. Kuenn was blamed by the fans for the loss of the popular Colavito and was dispatched to the National League after only one season in Cleveland.

Colavito had good years in Detroit, but would never be the star of a team that already belonged emotionally to outfielder Al Kaline. Colavito hit 35 home runs with 87 RBIs for the Tigers in 1960, a “down” year by his previous standards and a disappointment for Tiger fans and the local press. But even when he was outstanding in Detroit, Colavito was overshadowed and under-appreciated. He had a monster year for the Tigers in 1961, batting .290 while scoring 129 runs and hitting 45 home runs with 140 RBIs. None of those numbers led the league, and Colavito’s accomplishments were overlooked by the season of Tigers first baseman Norm Cash, who led the league with a .363 batting average and hit 41 home runs with 132 RBIs.

Colavito never again matched his 1961 numbers, and never won over the Detroit fans. He hit 37 home runs with 112 RBIs in 1962, and then saw his power numbers slip to 22 home runs and 91 RBIs in 1963. Now 30 years old, he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics in the off-season and responded in 1964 with 34 home runs and 102 RBIs.

After one season in Kansas City, Colavito was dealt back to the Indians and led the American League with 108 RBIs in 1965 while hitting 26 home runs. He hit 30 home runs in 1966, his last full season in Cleveland. Colavito spent the next two season playing for four different teams, and hitting a combined 18 home runs. He retired after the 1968 season.

Colavito spent 14 seasons in the major leagues, batting .266 with 374 home runs and 1,159 RBIs. He was an All-Star six times.

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Robin’s Ultimate Win

 

This Week in 1960s Baseball …

Robin Roberts' 3-2 win over the San Francisco Giants turned out to be his last for the 1961 season. and his last as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Robin Roberts’ 3-2 win over the San Francisco Giants turned out to be his last for the 1961 season. and his last as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.

(June 5, 1961) After opening the 1961 season with seven consecutive losses, Robin Roberts today notched his first victory of the season as the Philadelphia Phillies beat the San Francisco Giants 3-2 at Candlestick Park.

It would be Roberts’ last victory in a Phillies uniform.

Roberts (1-7) pitched a six-hit complete game. He walked two and struck out two batters.

The Giants took a 2-0 lead in the second inning when Harvey Kuenn singled and Chuck Hiller homered. Roberts blanked San Francisco on four hits over the last seven innings.

The Phillies took the lead in the third inning on Pancho Herrera’s 3-run homer off Giants starter Mike McCormick (5-5)

Roberts would finish the 1961 season with a 1-10 record and a career-worst 5.85 ERA. This was his 234th win for Philadelphia, the most by a right-hander in franchise history.

Pancho Herrera's 3-run homer provided the margin of victory for Robin Roberts and the Phillies.

Pancho Herrera’s three-run homer provided the margin of victory for Robin Roberts and the Phillies.

Over the winter, he would be purchased by the New York Yankees, released without appearing for the Yankees, and then signed by the Baltimore Orioles. Roberts would win 42 games in four seasons with the Orioles, and finish his 19-year major league career with 286 victories. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.