Kuenn a Bad Deal Coming and Going for Indians

When Indians general manager Frank Lane dealt Rocky Colavito to the Tigers for Harvey Kuenn two days before the 1960 season started, he likened it to trading hamburger for steak.

But eight months later, apparently Lane had grown tired of steak.

The deal that sent Colavito to Detroit remains so reviled by Indians fans that there’s supposed to be a curse associated with it. But the deal 57 years ago this week that sent away the player they got – Kuenn – might be just as bad.

Kuenn was serviceable in 1960, his only year in Cleveland, batting .308 – down markedly from the .353 he hit the year before to win the batting title – and making his eighth (and final) All-Star team. However, he only played in 126 games, losing nearly a month to injuries as the Indians went 76-78 to finish fourth in the American League after a second-place finish the year before. The team also shed attendance, which dropped from nearly 1.5 million to less than a million.

Even years later, Lane denied that he got the Colavito deal wrong. But the deal he made December 3, 1960, was a tacit admission of that fact. Lane sent Kuenn to the San Francisco Giants for pitcher Johnny Antonelli and outfielder Willie Kirkland.

“As much as I hated to let Kuenn go,” Lane said in the next day’s Plain Dealer, “I felt this trade would help us because it gives us a starting pitcher and an outfielder who hits with power.”

This is where we pause to remind you that the Indians HAD a power-hitting outfielder … that was traded for Kuenn.

Antonelli was a throw-in. He had actually broken in with the Boston Braves in 1948, and was deprived of meeting the Indians that fall in the World Series when he was left off the roster. But he got his chance six years later, when he was the ace of the pitching staff for the Giants, who swept the Indians in the World Series.

Although Antonelli flourished in Harlem, he faded in San Francisco. The Yankees were actively pursuing him as well, and Lane made the deal just to keep him out of the Bronx. There was also a school of thought that believed Antonelli might benefit from a change of scenery.

It didn’t help. Antonelli went 0-4 for the Indians and was promptly dealt to the Braves, by then in Milwaukee. He made nine appearances for them before retiring.

Lane, who never met a trade he didn’t like, talked up Kirkland.

“Kirkland is three years younger than Kuenn and has a great deal more power,” Lane said. “He runs very well, has a strong arm and is a pretty good outfielder. In fact, they tell me he played those tricky winds out in San Francisco last season better than Willie Mays.

“I think he’ll hit as many as 30 home runs for us.”

Kirkland hit 27 in 1961 and his power numbers declined after that. After the 1963 season, the Indians traded him to Baltimore. His major league career ended in 1966 – the same year Kuenn retired.

But Kirkland had outlasted Lane in Cleveland. Lane quit the Indians a month after the deal and went to Kansas City to work with Charlie Finley and the Athletics. His damage had been done.

Photo: Cleveland Memory Project

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