Ask an old-time Cleveland Indians fan to name the worst trade the Tribe ever made and he’ll probably name the deal that sent Rocky Colavito to the Detroit Tigers. Ask him to name the second worst and he might say the deal that brought Colavito back to Cleveland.
The Indians famously traded Colavito to the Tigers for Harvey Kuenn in April 1960. It was a blockbuster deal involving the reigning American League batting champion (Kuenn) and the reigning American League home run king (Colavito).
At the time, batting average was a highly overrated measure of offensive performance. But even taking this into account, it’s difficult to understand why the Indians made this trade. In 1959, Kuenn had “produced” 170 runs (runs scored+runs batted in). Colavito had produced 201. Moreover, Colavito was three years younger than Kuenn and just entering his prime.
The deal outraged Cleveland fans. Colavito was a huge local hero, especially among female fans. If anything, though, this may have encouraged Frank (Trader) Lane to offload the Rock. After all, as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, he had tried to trade Stan Musial. However, Lane’s stated reason for the trade was that home runs are overrated!
Colavito went on to belt 139 of them, while driving in more than 400 runs, during his four years in Detroit. Kuenn lasted one year in Cleveland before being traded to San Francisco. In his best post-Colavito-trade season, playing for the Giants, he hit 10 homers and drove in 68 runs.
The trade came to take on epic proportions in the minds of Indians fans. There’s even a book, The Curse of Rocky Colavito, that attributes Cleveland’s decades of baseball woes to the original sin of the Colavito-Kuenn deal.
The Tigers traded to Colavito to Kansas City after the 1963 season in a deal I discussed here. Cleveland inquired about obtaining the slugger at that time, but general manager Gabe Paul deemed the price — up-and-coming third baseman Max Alvis — too high.
Colavito had a fine season for Kansas City in 1964 (.270 batting average with 34 home runs and 102 RBIs). However, he reportedly clashed with the team’s owner, Charlie Finley.
Whether for that reason or some other, the A’s traded Colavito to Cleveland on January 20, 1965. It was a sound idea in principle. Colavito was now 30 and his trade value would never be higher. The A’s were several years away from respectability, and Colavito would likely be washed-up by the time the club was a serious contender (this turned out to be the case).
Finally, the Indians were desperate to reacquire Colavito. The club had been struggling both on and off the field. There were even suggestions that it might leave town. General manager Gabe Paul was ready to pay a big price to bring back the idol.
Paul did, in fact, pay a big price. However, Kansas City didn’t receive it. Instead, Colavito returned to Cleveland via a three team deal in which the Chicago White Sox received the “Rocky premium.”
In exchange for Colavito, the Kansas City received Jim Landis and Mike Hershberger (a pair of outfielders) and pitcher Fred Talbot from the White Sox (Talbot came over in February, when the deal was completed). The White Sox received pitcher Tommy John, center fielder Tommie Agee, and catcher John Romano from Cleveland. The Indians, in addition to getting Colavito from K.C., received catcher Camilio Carreon from Chicago. Thus, the deal included a catcher swap between Cleveland and Chicago.
Even taking Colavito’s age into account, Kansas City got a poor return. Landis was an average player and Hershberger was below average. Talbot was a good prospect, but he never produced (he’s best remembered as Jim Bouton’s foil in Ball Four).
Colavito, meanwhile, had two productive years in Cleveland, during which he slugged 56 homers and drove in 180 runs. In fact, his first year back was stellar. He led the League in RBIs and walks. And he produced thrills worthy of his matinee idol status when, on opening day, he belted two home runs.
But to get Colavito, the Tribe gave up two sparkling prospects in Agee and John. Agee was American League Rookie of the Year in 1966. and in 1969, by which time Colavito had retired, Agee helped lead the New York Mets to the world championship.
As for John, with the help of the surgery that bears his name, he pitched for 24 seasons after the 1965 trade, winning 286 games. Twelve years after the Colavito deal, he was an ace on a Dodgers staff that won the NL pennant. John was even better when the Dodgers made it back to the World Series the following season. And he participate it his third Series in 1981 with the New York Yankees. By this time Colavito was 48 years old.
Notice, however, that the White Sox were not the beneficiaries of the major accomplishments of Agee and John. Both did play important roles on the 1967 club that made a strong run for the pennant. But at the end of that season, Chicago traded Agee to the Mets (with Al Weis, another hero for the 1969 Miracle Mets) for Tommie Davis, Jack Fisher, and two players of little note. Davis had a very disappointing 1968, and the White Sox fell to 9th place (out of 10 teams).
John continued to pitch well for the White Sox through the 1971 season, after which he was traded to the Dodgers for Dick Allen. Allen was great value in the short-run, producing an MVP season in 1972 and nearly leading the resurgent White Sox to the AL West crown.
The White Sox, then, made out brilliantly on the Colavito deal, just not as brilliantly as they would have had they had retained John and Agee.
By the same token, the Indians suffered by virtue of giving up Agee and John. To make things even worse, they got the short end of the catcher swap. Carreon was mediocre for Cleveland (as he had been for Chicago), while Romano, true to form, hit 33 home runs in 1965-66.
The trade might have made sense from Cleveland’s point of view had it been less obvious how good Agee and John were likely to become. But both were “can’t miss” prospects.
In 1964, at the age of 21, Agee hit .270 and blasted 20 home runs in the tough Pacific Coast League, playing against opponents who typically were around 25 years old. John, also only 21 that year, had pitched to a 3.91 ERA in the American League.
For a non-pennant contending team to trade two such prospects for a 30 year-old slugger in decline seems unconscionable, even in the name of trying to avoid a curse. And it seems daft for a last place team like Kansas City not to have snapped up prize prospects like Agee and John in exchange for their veteran star.
UPDATE: The Kansas City franchise won three straight championships in Oakland (1972-74). Would they have win more with Agee and John?
Not consecutively, it appears. The Baltimore Orioles defeated the A’s comprehensively in the 1971 AL playoff. I doubt that Agee and John would have made a difference.
Neither Agee (retired) nor John (injured) played in 1975.
John had a good year in 1976, when the A’s fell only 2.5 games short of the Kansas City Royals. He might have made the difference in that race. It’s highly speculative to suppose that Oakland would have won the 1976 World Series with John, but they might well have won their sixth consecutive Division crown.