For those of you who don't know, my Indians stuff runs on The Cleveland Fan in addition to here on the DT, and my archive of minor league stuff is on there as well. Over on TCF, we decided it would be fun to countdown the top Cleveland athletes to wear each jersey number. I got a little out of the box with my first piece on Kyrie Irving, as while I'm a Cavs fan I know a lot more about the Indians and Browns than the city's hoops team. But the second number I drew was #6, and that was much more in my wheelhouse as one of the greatest players in Indians history wore that digit for his two best seasons in Cleveland. So for your reading pleasure here on a chilly Lazy Sunday, here's my article on Colavito in case you haven't seen it yet.
In 1950, the Indians signed an 18-year old outfielder from the Bronx to a free agent contract. He had dropped out of school as a 16-year old to pursue his professional baseball career, a decision that Rocco Domenico Colavito Jr. would never regret. Colavito grew up a Yankee fan, but his honetown team showed very little interest in the hitting prodigy, so the Indians were able to sign him before his high school class even graduated. Colavito debuted with the Indians for a brief nine-AB audition in 1955 before coming up for good in 1956. In the same summer that Mickey Mantle won the Triple Crown, Colavito tied for 2nd in AL Rookie of the Year voting after a season in which he hit .276/.372/.531 with 22 HR, 65 RBI and more walks (49) than strikeouts (46). With whom did Colavito tie in the vote that year? None other than Baltimore’s Tito Francona, of course. How Colavito and his .903 OPS (and 2.3 WAR) lost out to Chicago’s Luis Aparacio’s .653 OPS (and 1.3 WAR) is beyond me, but that’s neither here nor there. Rookie of the Year or not, a Cleveland legend was born.
All that came crashing down when, prior to the 1960 season in a move that still reverberates in Cleveland history, Indians GM Frank “Trader” Lane dealt the popular slugger to the Detroit Tigers. The move occurred on April 17, just days before Opening Day, and if Twitter were around in 1960 you could bet that the Internet would have melted down in Cleveland that day. In fact, if the Internet existed during at all during Frank Lane’s career, he may have crashed it more than once. Lane made more than 400 trades during his various stints as a GM, including the 1960 trade that sent manager Joe Gordon to Detroit in exchange for Tigers manager Jimmy Dykes. Lane even attempted to trade Stan Musial during the 1956 season until the Cardinals owner stepped in and put a stop to those negotiations. Stan Musial! But I digress…Colavito was dealt straight up for OF Harvey Kuenn, a trade that saw the reigning HR champ swapped for the reigning batting champ. Kuenn was actually coming off of a fairly solid season in Detroit, having hit .353/.402/.501 with 42 doubles and 9 HR. The batting average and doubles both led the AL in 1959, but that season represented the high water mark for Kuenn’s career. Prior to the ’59 season, Kuenn had just a .768 career OPS in 6+ seasons in the major leagues. After the 1959 season, he was even worse, putting up a paltry .729 OPS from 1960 until his retirement after the 1966 season. Say what you will about Chris Antonetti, Mark Shapiro and their use of “advanced statistics” like OPS and WAR, but they’d have never made the Colavito trade. Kuenn lasted just one season in Cleveland before Lane shipped him to San Francisco in exchange for Johnny Antonelli and Willie Kirkland.
Following the 1963 season, Colavito was dealt to Kansas City where he had another solid year, hitting .274/.366/.507 with 34 HR and 102 RBI for the Athletics. By then, “Trader” Lane was out of baseball and was serving as the GM for the Chicago Zephyrs of the fledgling NBA (he would return to baseball later on, but that’s another story). Gabe Paul was the GM of the Indians now, and was determined to right the wrong that was the terrible Rocky Colavito trade. Paul re-acquired Colavito from the Athletics in a complicated 3-team deal that included the Chicago White Sox in January of 1965. When the dust settled, the Indians sent John Romano, Tommie Agee and Tommy John to the Sox for Colavito and Cam Carreon. Agee promptly won the Rookie of the Year Award, a Gold Glove and was named to the AL All-Star team in 1966, and Tommy John of course went on to win 286 games in a uniform other than Cleveland’s, as well as have some fancy surgery named after him. But Colavito was home, and that was all that mattered to Indians fans at the time.
All in all, Colavito appeared in 913 games as a Cleveland Indian. In those games, Colavito hit .267/.361/.495 with 190 HR and 574 RBI. He made the all-star team three times (1959, 1965, 1966) and finished in the top-5 of MVP voting in three times (1958, 1959, 1965). His 190 HR still rank 10th in team history. He helped spawn a book and sequel from noted Cleveland sports author Terry Pluto, who penned “The Curse of Rocky Colavito” in 1994 and followed it quickly with “Burying the Curse” in 1995. Colavito ended up wearing three different numbers as an Indian, starting off his career with #38 before switching to #6 and then finishing up with #21, but his best seasons came while donning the #6 jersey. Colavito was elected into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame in 2006, and when Terry Pluto interviewed Colavito near the 50-year anniversary of the trade that sent him to Detroit, Colavito said, “I loved Cleveland and the Indians. I never wanted to leave.” He was one of the best players in baseball for much of a decade, one of the most popular players in club history, and a guy who was proud to call Cleveland “home.”