Rocky Colavito of the Cleveland Indians “lets out a howl” (as the Sporting News put it) as he crosses home plate after crashing a grand slam in the bottom of the 6th inning off the Yankees ace (and eventual ’58 Cy Young winner) Bob Turley, putting the Tribe up 6-0 in the second game of a doubleheader at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, en route to a sweep of the defending AL champs, one of the highlights of an otherwise mediocre season on the shores of Lake Erie. Congratulating him are L-R Mickey Vernon, Russ Nixon with the handshake and Minnie Miñoso, who all scored on the blast, as pinch-hitter Bill Hunter (#7) steps up to bat next. While 1958 offered little promise at this point, could something be stirring for a Tribe insurgence in the years to come?
While the Indians were flying high through the 1950’s, finishing at or near the top of the league for most of the decade, culminating in the 1954 AL pennant, 1957 saw a return to the second division, and more of the same in 1958, resulting in new manager Bobby Bragan being fired before the All-Star break. But things were looking up for Cleveland, as the 24-year-old Colavito was emerging as a superstar, with a stellar ’58 campaign that resulted in 41 home runs (1 behind HR champ Mickey Mantle) and leading the league with a .620 slugging percentage, finishing third in AL MVP voting (ironically, just behind Bob Turley).
And he continued his success in 1959, clouting 42 HRs (including 4 in 4 ABs in a row in Baltimore June 10, below), good enough to tie Harmon Killebrew for the AL crown, and was voted to his first All-Star game, as the Indians returned to the higher reaches of the American League, finishing only 5 games behind the destined Go-Go (White) Sox for the pennant.
Led by their young slugger, the 1960’s looked like high times for the Indians. But Cleveland’s GM Frank Lane had other ideas.
While Lane had built a reputation by bringing the moribund White Sox from pretenders in the 40’s to contenders in the ’50’s, his was also an aggressive approach, averaging over 35 trades per season while with Chicago. And no star was safe; after joining the front office of St Louis after leaving the White Sox in 1955, he attempted to trade the Cardinals’ perennial superstar Stan Musial to the Philadelphia Phillies for Robin Roberts (an interesting trade in theory to say the least), but was quickly halted by Cards’ owner August Busch once it became public.
Lane always favored consistent hitters over streaky sluggers, and while Colavito had had a great year, his late season slump (.207 in September) didn’t sit well with the GM, and despite his folk hero status in Cleveland, was dealt to Detroit in April 1960 for Harvey Kuenn, who won the AL batting crown in ’59. Tribe fans were irate, some swearing never to return to the ballpark, and to make matters worse, Kuenn was nagged by injuries that year; while having a fine season, his batting average fell over 40 points, and he was traded again at season’s end as the Indians stumbled to a mediocre finish under .500, 21 games behind the Yankees.
Colavito had some All-Star seasons with Detroit but was often derided for his inconsistency, even being benched on occasion. He did have an outstanding 1961 campaign with 45 HRs and 140 RBIs, both career highs, and helped the Tigers to 101 wins, although falling short (again) to the Yankees. He was strong but streaky in 1962, and after his power numbers fell further in 1963 and the Tigers tumbled to the second division, he was dealt to the Kansas City A’s in ’64. He finally returned “home” to Cleveland in 1965, having two All-Star seasons, but now on the tail end of his career.
As for the rest of the receiving party at home plate in 1958, unlike the HR hitter of honor, their times with the Indians were somewhat fleeting and nondescript. Mickey Vernon, at 40 years old, was enjoying his last starting season in the majors, playing 1B and hitting at a .293 clip, good for his last All-Star appearance. By 1960 he wound up as a 1B coach for the Pirates, being activated at year’s end for a few at-bats, and earning himself a WS ring.
Russ Nixon, a young catcher up from the Indian’s farm system in 1957, had his best year in 1958, catching 101 games for Cleveland and batting .301. He would be somewhat less consistent after that, catching part-time for primarily Boston until retiring in 1968, then on to a managing career in the 1980’s.
And lastly, Minnie Miñoso, who needs no introduction, came up in 1949 with the Cleveland Indians, becoming the first black Cuban player in the major leagues; but with the Tribe’s crowded outfield he was traded to the Chicago White Sox in early 1951, becoming their first black player overall, and socking his first pitch with the Pale Hose for a 2-run HR at Comiskey Park off the Yankees’ Vic Raschi. After many All-Star seasons he returned to the Indians for 1958-1959, missing out on the 1959 White Sox pennant (but coming up 5 games short, above), again returning to the South Side as his career wound down, becoming a legend in Chicago, and a statue in his honor stands at the White Sox’s park (whatever it is named at this time) today. Miñoso, at age 40, also had the interesting honor of playing the final baseball game at the Polo Grounds, the first (and last) Hispanic-American All-Star Game, October 12, 1963 (the NL stars beating the AL stars 5-2, with 14,235 on hand).
But there was one person in that moment who meant a great deal to the city and its fans, and leaves one to lament for what might have been for the Cleveland ball club as they moved into the 1960’s. Could the Tribe have quelled the Yankees’ dominance of that era with their own Bronx-born warrior Colavito leading the way? Hard to say, but I’ll defer to what Indians’ fans would confidently declare back in the late 50’s – “Don’t Knock The Rock.”