Hall of Fame Travel Companion

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Al Smith

Outfielder Al Smith was traded three times during his 12-year major league career. In the first two of those trades, to Chicago and to Baltimore, Smith had the distinction of being traded with a future Hall of Famer. He also distinguished himself as a good hitter whose legs and bat produced plenty of runs. Continue reading

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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Spraying Rockets Around the National League

 

Homer Happy: Willie McCovey

What was most impressive about slugger Willie McCovey – beyond the career hitting statistics that earned him a place in the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility – was his consistency as a power hitter throughout his 22-season career, even though he battled injuries in nearly half of them. Twelve times he hit 20 or more home runs in a season, and in the six seasons from 1965 through 1970, he hit no fewer than 31.

From 1965-1969, Willie McCovey led the National League in home runs twice. He averaged 37 home runs and 102 RBIs during those five seasons.

From 1965-1969, Willie McCovey led the National League in home runs twice. He averaged 37 home runs and 102 RBIs during those five seasons.

His total of 521 career home runs – clearly Hall of Fame worthy – was limited by his opportunities to play during the first five years of his major league career. McCovey was signed by the New York Giants in 1955 and made his debut with the San Francisco Giants on July 30, 1959. In the remaining two months of that season, McCovey batted .354 with 13 homes runs and 38 RBIs – all in what was essentially a third of a season. He also posted a .656 slugging average, and was named National League Rookie of the Year.

As good as he was, McCovey wasn’t good enough to find a place in the Giants’ everyday lineup, a lineup that included Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Felipe Alou and Willie Kirkland. By the end of the 1960 season, McCovey had earned a starting spot at first base.

With only 260 official at-bats in 1960, McCovey finished the season with 13 home runs and 51 RBIs. But the first base job went back to Cepeda in 1961, and McCovey returned to the role of part-time outfielder for the next two seasons. He hit 18 home runs in 1961 and 20 in 1962.

In 1963, McCovey was tabbed to be the team’s regular left fielder, and he responded with a league-leading 44 home runs and 102 runs batted in. A foot injury limited his playing time and productivity in 1964, when he batted .220 with 18 home runs and 54 RBIs. He rebounded in 1965 with 39 home runs, and hit more than 30 homers in each of the next three seasons, leading the National League in home runs (36) and RBIs (105) in 1968.

McCovey’s best season came in 1969, when he batted .320 and led the National League in home runs (45), RBIs (126) and slugging average (.656). He was selected as the National League Most Valuable Player that season.

McCovey bashed 39 home runs in 1970, the most he would hit in a single season over the rest of his career. Dogged by injuries over the next few years, he managed 29 home runs and 75 RBIs in 1973. He was traded to the San Diego Padres, and after two years split the 1976 season between the Padres and the Oakland Athletics. He returned to San Francisco in 1977 and had a strong comeback season at age 39, batting .280 with 28 home runs and 86 RBIs. He hit only 28 more home runs as a part-time player over the next three seasons, and retired in 1980. He finished with a career batting average of .270.

McCovey was a six-time All-Star, and was the Most Valuable player in the 1969 All-Star game. He hit 231 home runs in Candlestick Park, the most by any player. And McCovey was the first major league player to twice hit two home runs in a single inning.

He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986.

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