Is Cleveland Cursed by Colavito or Just Unlucky?

This past week marked the 94th anniversary of the sale of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees, starting a period of Boston history known to sports fans as the “Curse of the Bambino”.

The Yankees would appear in seven World Series contests in Ruth’s 15 years in the Big Apple, winning four. The Red Sox would not win another championship until the Terry Francona-led Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals in 2004. It was their first since the Ruth-led Sox won three titles in four years, culminating in their 1918 victory in six games over the Chicago Cubs.

The city of Cleveland has been marred in a slump of its own for the last 49 years. With the Cleveland Browns and Cleveland Cavaliers performing at a level further away from the playoffs than their respective fans may have desired, all hopes may be falling upon the Cleveland Indians.

Boston has fully resolved its losing ways, securing its third World Series title in the last ten years with their championship this year, again over the Cardinals. But the city as a whole did not suffer the lengthy championship void that Cleveland has, thanks to the success of their other big four sports franchises.

The old Boston Patriots debuted in 1960 in the American Football League. With just one playoff birth in ten years in the AFL, they moved into the National Football League and in 1971 became the New England Patriots. Through their first 41 years of existence, they appeared just twice in the Super Bowl and lost both contests. In the last 13 years, they have missed the playoffs just twice, appeared in five Super Bowls, and won three titles.

For comparison’s sake, the Patriots have had just one losing season since the Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL in 1999.

The Boston Celtics were once the kings of the National Basketball Association. Under the legendary Red Auerbach, they never missed the playoffs. They appeared in the NBA Finals in ten consecutive years beginning with the 1956-1957 season and lost just one of those series. Bill Russell then took over the club and won two more titles in three years. They added two more championships in the 1970’s, three more in the 1980’s, and one in the 2007-2008 season after they knocked LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Even the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins gave the city a trophy to hoist on more than one occasion. The Bruins reached the Stanley Cup Finals in their third year of existence (1926-1927 season) and won the title two years later. Ten years after that, they would win another and would do similar in another two years. They would reach the Stanley Cup another five times over the next 29 years until winning two in a three year span, with a scattering of other championship game appearances throughout their history until they again lifted the cup after the 2010-2011 season.

Cleveland is not Boston, in size or luck, and cannot truly be compared to them. But the city has had its own stretch of bad luck and even a purported curse of its own.

It has been 65 long years since the Indians claimed a World Series title. Their six game triumph over the Boston Braves in 1948 was the final time Cleveland has been the world champions of Major League Baseball. The Indians have won just five World Series games since, strewn across three Series appearances, and missed their best chance of bringing a title home to Cleveland on October 26th, 1997, when Jose Mesa surrendered the tying run at Pro Player Stadium with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Florida Marlins.

Craig Counsell, who drove in the tying run in the ninth inning and scored the winning run in the eleventh off of Charles Nagy, is presumably still not welcomed on the shores of Lake Erie.

The Browns brought home the city’s last sports glory in 1964. At one time one of the best teams in professional football, the team has fallen into a downward spiral of mediocrity and shame. Since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Browns have posted winning records in just two of 15 seasons and just three times managed to not lose ten or more games in a year. It is a far cry for the storied franchise that played in championship games in each of its first ten years of existence – four titles in the All-American Football Conference from 1946 to 1949, and three championships in six opportunities as a member of the NFL. Since 1964, but prior to the franchise’s move to Baltimore, the club reached the postseason 14 more times, but was never able to reach the glory of a Super Bowl appearance, let alone a victory.

Fans still have nightmares of “Red Right 88”, “The Drive”, and “The Fumble”. Those will continue long past the days the Browns lift their first Vince Lombardi Trophy into the sky.

The Cavaliers, in their 44th season since joining the NBA for the 1970-1971 season, have reached the postseason 18 times and the NBA Finals just once. Had it not been for the presence of Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls during the 1980’s and 1990’s (a team who eliminated two separate 57-win Cavs teams from the postseason, a franchise best win total at the time) and James’ elbow in 2008, the number of Finals’ trips may have been much larger.

“The Shot”, like the aforementioned plays, is still etched into the Cleveland psyche.

Cleveland’s curse, unlike Boston’s, may have spread across the entire city and all of its sports franchises. It all started with a young man by the name of Rocco Colavito.

Colavito came up with the Tribe late in the 1955 season as a 21-year-old outfielder. He appeared in five games with limited plate appearances in the final month of the season. He logged all four of his hits on the season in one game against the Detroit Tigers after pinch running for Al Smith in the first inning. He doubled in each of his first two at bats and singled in his next two. The Indians won 93 games on the season and finished in second place, three games behind the New York Yankees, one year after winning 111 and being swept in the World Series by the New York Giants.

Colavito was the regular right fielder for the Indians in 1956 and was runner up for the American League Rookie of the Year Award, behind Chicago’s Luis Aparicio and tied with Baltimore’s Tito Francona. He hit .276 on the season with 21 home runs and 65 runs batted in in 101 games. The Indians again finished in second place in the AL, nine games in back of the eventual World Series winning Yankees.

The young Colavito continued to show improvements in 1957, when he finished second on the team behind first baseman Vic Wertz in both home runs (25) and RBI (84). The Indians struggled in their first season without manager Al Lopez after his resignation prior to the season and the team finished in sixth place. The sudden bad season and stark drop in attendance sparked changes for new owner William Daley’s franchise. Exit General Manager Hank Greenberg, orchestrator of the successful teams of the 1950’s. Enter Frank Lane on November 12, 1957, a man known for his penchant for change and 242 trades in a seven-year span.

The 1958 Indians had another new manager, but Colavito had the attention of those around the league. He batted a career-best .303 and established new career highs in homers (41) and RBI (113) while being repeatedly mentioned in trade rumors. He led all of baseball with a .620 slugging percentage and finished third in the Most Valuable Player voting. His home run production trailed only Ernie Banks and Mickey Mantle, both future Hall of Famers. His Indians were better too, helped by the acquisition of former Indian Minnie Minoso for star pitcher Early Wynn, but the team improved just one game in the standings to finish in fourth in the AL.

Former Indians second baseman Joe Gordon had taken over the club midseason in ’58 and maintained the role as the Indians played their 1959 season. Colavito played his part, appearing in 154 games, slugging an AL-best 42 home runs, and making his first All-Star team despite contractual disagreements prior to the start of the season. On one magical night in Baltimore, June 10th, 1959, he became the eighth player in MLB history to hit four home runs in one game. His efforts again earned him recognition in the MVP voting. The second place Indians increased their win total by twelve, but fell short of the league-leading Chicago White Sox by five games.

Lowball contract offers from Lane to Colavito clouded the offseason for the Indians, but Colavito signed on the dotted line early in the spring despite trade rumors swirling again. Just one day prior to the start of the 1960 season, the beloved Colavito was dealt to the division rival Tigers for outfielder Harvey Kuenn. Cleveland’s hero was no more.

Kuenn had played eight seasons in Motown, winning the Rookie of the Year Award in 1953 and starting a string of seven consecutive All-Star nods. He had just won the AL batting title with a .353 average in 1959 and had four times led the league in hits. He would play one year in Cleveland before being dealt after the season to the San Francisco Giants.

The Indians spent each of the next four seasons in the middle of the AL divisional race and below the .500 mark. Their home run production the first year without Colavito dropped by 40. The Rock would hammer 139 home runs and drive in 430 runs in four years in Detroit while batting .271. Detroit would finish five games in back of Cleveland in 1960, but would win 101 games in 1961 and did not end a season below Cleveland in the standings during Colavito’s stay in Michigan.

The Indians would not see their name above third place in the final standings again until the Jacobs Field era. In the meantime, a series of fluke injuries, battles with personal demons, and failed expectations haunted the club, even after the team reacquired Colavito from the Kansas City Athletics in January of 1965. Two of the three players dealt (pitcher Tommy John and outfielder Tommie Agee) would have success at the Major League level – John pitched for 26 years and won 288 games; Agee was Rookie of the Year in 1966 for Chicago, a two-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner, and a World Series hero.

Colavito celebrated his 80th birthday last season at Progressive Field. Less than two months later, the Indians returned to the postseason for the first time since 2007 in an AL Wild Card loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.

Cleveland fans can hope that his return to the city in a positive and revered light will can the curse permanently. While the Browns and Cavs look to be treading water at best in their respective leagues, the Indians contended in a difficult AL race in both the Central Division and in the Wild Card. While they have been relatively inactive after a significant spending spree last offseason, they return a strong starting nine and a rebuilt bullpen and will bank on bigger returns from their internal options in the rotation.

With 2014 just around the corner and the anniversary of the last championship in Cleveland approaching the half-century mark in years, can the Indians break the curse that has left so many of the city’s residents and fans without a championship parade through the downtown streets in their lifetimes?

Photo: Thomas Ondrey/Cleveland Plain Dealer

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