The Tigers and Indians completed one of the more unusual trades in baseball history in 1960. Detroit shipped the batting champion to Cleveland for the home run champion. Cleveland fans hated the trade and grew to completely loathe it. Harvey Kuenn lasted one season with the Indians while Rocky Colavito put up career numbers for the Tigers. In the end, the deal was a bust for the Indians and a success for the Tigers.
Harvey Kuenn spent his first eight seasons in Detroit. He won the 1953 Rookie of the Year Award and made seven All Star teams. Kuenn led the league in hits four times, doubles three times, hit .300 or better six times, and won the 1959 batting crown. In 1959, the shortstop-turned-outfielder hit .353 with 9 home runs, 71 RBI, 198 hits, 42 doubles, 7 triples, and .903 OPS. He finished eighth in the MVP voting for the year.
Rocky Colavito did not win the Rookie of the Year award like Kuenn, but finished second in 1956. Colavito led the league in slugging (.620) in 1958 when he finished third in the MVP race. He hit 21, 25, 41, and 42 home runs as an Indian. In 1959, Colavito led the league in home runs and total bases. Overall, he hit .257 with 42 home runs, 111 RBI, 90 runs scored, 151 hits, 24 doubles, 301 total bases, and .849 OPS. The rightfielder finished ahead of Kuenn in the MVP race by placing fourth.
Colavito became a fan favorite in Cleveland. Indians fans openly revolted when he was traded just prior to opening day in 1960. Cleveland general manager Frank Lane was perplexed and argued he traded a “hamburger for a steak.” Tiger GM Bill DeWitt responded by acknowledging his fondness for burgers. The trade was a disaster for the Indians.
Although Kuenn made the 1960 All Star squad, injuries limited his effectiveness. His average dropped to .308 for the Tribe. The Indians traded him to San Francisco after one season. They received an aging Johnny Antonelli and light hitting outfielder Willie Kirkland. Antonelli did not finish 1961 with the Indians and Kirkland batted just .232 in three seasons in Cleveland. Kuenn played six more seasons with three clubs.
Kuenn had no long term impact on the Indians, but Colavito proved invaluable to the Tigers. In four seasons, the outfielder batted .271 with 139 home runs, 430 RBI, slugged .501, and posted a .865 OPS. He played 160 or more games three times and led the league in 1961. Colavito hit 35, 45, 37, and 22 home runs for Detroit. In 1961, the outfielder hit .290 with 45 homers, 140 RBI, and .982 OPS. Detroit had several promising outfielders ready to play including Jim Northrup, Willie Horton, and Gates Brown. Colavito mentored Willie Horton and others and then left the club in a trade to Kansas City.
The batting champ for home run champ trade helped Detroit in both the short and long run. Rocky Colavito provided major offensive production for the Tigers in his four seasons. Players he mentored continued to make contributions to the team over a decade later. In the meantime, Harvey Kuenn lasted one season in Cleveland, made the All Star team, but then moved on. His Cleveland legacy is the trade and nothing more. In the end, the trade was a boon for Detroit and a bust for Cleveland.