On April 17, 1960, on the eve of the new baseball season, the Detroit Tigers and the Cleveland Indians executed a blockbuster trade. The Tigers’ Harvey Kuenn [pronounced “KEEN”] went to Cleveland in exchange for Rocky Colavito. On the surface, it was a normal exchange of outfielders, but the reality is that the league’s batting champ was traded for the league’s home run leader. Kuenn had hit a hefty .353 and Colavito had scored forty-one home runs. Both had good fielding skills, but Colavito could nearly penetrate a brick wall with his rocket for an arm while Kuenn had the range of a former shortstop along with an accurate, if not overpowering, arm.
Both players had spent their entire careers to date with one organization and Colavito had garnered extraordinarily strong fan support among the youngsters along Lake Erie. Cleveland general manager Frank Lane was hanged in effigy after the trade. Detroit fans were not all that happy either, as they had come to appreciate the solid consistency of Harvey Kuenn, a quality he carried until his death in 1988.
Harvey Kuenn was born in Milwaukee on December 4, 1930, the only child of Harvey and Dorothy Kuenn. He began playing baseball at a very early age as his father, a shipping clerk for a local lithographing ﬁrm, had some success with the sport and managed to play at a high amateur level. The elder Kuenn led the Milwaukee City League in batting in 1945 with a mark of .387.
Harvey, the son, graduated from Lutheran High School in June 1949 and had earned ten athletic letters, four in baseball. He played the inﬁeld and batted and threw right-handed. Scouts from six major league clubs had watched him during his schoolboy days but none offered much encouragement or money, so the Kuenn family made a decision and Harvey went off to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.
Kuenn had concentrated on baseball every summer during his high school career, playing with the West Allis Highway Beer Depot squad. He had grown to six-feet, two inches and weighed a solid 185. He was built more like a football lineman than a baseball player, with the strong square frame that represented the Midwest and its unique mid-century ethnic groups. Steve Balish managed the Depot team and Ron Unke pitched. Harvey and Unke went on to Luther College, but both became disenchanted and left before completing a year. Together, they enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in February 1950. Kuenn moved in to the university baseball team’s shortstop position and Unke pitched. Ron Unke eventually spent time as a St. Louis Cardinals farmhand but never made it to the big leagues.
Kuenn immediately hit college pitching hard in the spring of 1951 but had trouble in the ﬁeld, committing fifteen errors in twenty-three games. He tied a Big Ten record for ineptitude with four miscues in one contest. By his second year, he had become much steadier in the ﬁeld and his bat was red-hot. In 1952, he hit .436 for the college season and led the Big Ten in virtually all categories except home runs.
Scouts lurked around every corner and this time they brought with them various contracts and loads of money. Harvey and Wisconsin baseball coach Art (Dynie) Mansﬁeld had frequent conversations and Mansﬁeld agreed with Kuenn that the big-league offers were too good for him to play that last year of eligibility. Amateurs at best at this sort of thing, the Kuenns asked Mansﬁeld to help in negotiating with the major leagues. Mansﬁeld performed his duties in a very fair, unselﬁsh, and professional way. He realized that his best player would be departing but he also realized that if Harvey had the skills to play professional baseball, he might as well start as soon as he could.
Kuenn reported to Davenport, Iowa, in the Three-I League and batted .340 in sixty-three games. He struck out only sixteen times in 256 at-bats, a skill he brought with him to the major leagues. While at Davenport, his manager, Marv Owen, who played short for the powerhouse Tiger teams of the 1930s, took him under his wing and they worked to smooth the rough edges in the ﬁeld. Harvey improved his weaknesses and by the time he arrived at Briggs Stadium, on September 6, 1952, he had made considerable progress. In his ﬁrst game, he mishandled an eleventh-inning grounder to give the Chicago White Sox a 4-3 victory. Ironically, that was his twelfth chance of the game and his only miscue. He hit .325 in nineteen games for the hapless last-place Tigers and committed three more errors for a fielding average of .962.
The Tigers went to spring training in 1953 with few expectations. Virgil Trucks, a 5-19 pitcher, had been traded to the St. Louis Browns for hard-hitting Bob Nieman, but besides the addition of Kuenn, no one anticipated much improvement in the team’s fortunes. Kuenn arrived with the reputation of being shaky in the field. Johnny Pesky, in the last stages of an excellent career spent on the infields of the Boston Red Sox and the Tigers, began to work with Harvey on the finer aspects of work around second base. He complemented the lessons taught by Owen at Davenport, and Kuenn began to develop into a good major league shortstop.
The baseball players who attended the training camp that spring did not truly represent the history of the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers entered the American League in 1901 and won three consecutive pennants in the 1907-09 period. They fielded respectable teams over the next quarter century, led by the indomitable Ty Cobb. They took flags in both 1934 and 1935, winning their first world championship over the Chicago Cubs in the latter year. The Tigers made it to the World Series in both 1940 and 1945, taking the title in 1945. The immediate postwar years resulted in three second-place finishes, highlighted by a 95-59 record in 1950. Third baseman George Kell and pitcher Hal Newhouser, both Hall of Famers, paced the squad.
Newhouser, who had enlisted in the military during the war, was found to have a heart murmur, and that kept him from active duty. His pride forced him to report for night work in a local defense plant as his share in the war effort. Burning both ends of the candle might have helped “Prince Hal,” as he went 29-9 during the 1944 season. Dizzy Trout contributed another twenty-seven wins. The remainder of the staff could manage only thirty-two victories. The Tigers settled for second place behind the surprising St. Louis Browns, who captured their only modern flag. Detroit took the pennant the following year as Newhouser added another twenty-five wins. They were aided by the late-season return of veterans Hank Greenberg and Virgil Trucks and took the seven-game World Series over the Cubs. Newhouser became the only pitcher to win two consecutive Most Valuable Player awards as he copped both the 1944-45 honors.
The Tigers entered the 1946 season bolstered by the full-time status of Greenberg and Trucks, but fell twelve games short of the Red Sox. Newhouser picked up another twenty-six wins, giving him a three-year record of 80-27 and ERAs under 2.00 runs per game in both 1945 and 1946. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992 amid the controversy of being a wartime pitching ace. However, in the five immediate postwar seasons, Hal Newhouser notched ninety-seven victories.
The Tigers followed up with another second place in 1947 but slumped to fifth the next year. They rebounded to a strong fourth in 1949. Vic Wertz and Walter “Hoot” Evers both hit over .300 and roamed the left and right sides of the outfield. Wertz developed into an RBI machine and drove home 133 tallies. Newhouser and Trucks won eighteen and nineteen games, respectively, and Fred Hutchinson went 17-8. The Tigers played the best baseball in the American League over the last two months of the season.
The team ran up to second in 1950, falling just three games shy of the Yankees. Kell, Wertz, and Evers each contributed more than one hundred RBI and the Tigers batted .282, led by Kell’s .340. This marked the end of an eight-year stretch of .500-plus finishes. After a fifth in 1951 and a 23-49 start in 1952, both under Red Rolfe, Hutchinson took over as skipper. Hutch, at thirty-three, was pretty well finished up as a pitcher, but he had had no managerial experience. He was immediately placed in charge of his former peers. The Tigers plummeted to the cellar with a resounding thud, winning only fifty games and winding up fourteen games behind the Browns. For the first time in the club’s history, the Detroit Tigers finished last. Virgil Trucks became the third pitcher in major league history to throw two no-hitters in a single season. He won only three other games, however, going 5-19 in 1952 with a 3.97 ERA.
Three of his five victories were shutouts. In his five wins, he gave up a total of nine hits. Besides his no-hitters he threw a one-hitter, a two-hitter, and a six-hitter. The following year he turned a 20-10 mark with an ERA of 2.93 in a season spent with the Browns and the White Sox.
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Team owner Walter Briggs had passed away just before the start of the 1952 campaign. His son, Spike, took over the team and by June had begun to replace some of the stalwarts who had served the Detroit franchise so well over the years. Kell, Evers, and Trout went to the Red Sox and Briggs began to concentrate on fresh prospects to ﬁll the pipeline. Late that season a twenty-one-year-old “bonus-baby” shortstop named Harvey Kuenn came up from the Three-I League for a look. He played in nineteen games and batted .325.
Kuenn arrived at spring training in 1953 and quickly convinced Hutchinson that he was in the majors to stay. Kuenn led the league’s shortstops in putouts and all hitters with 209 base hits. He batted .308 in the process and won the Rookie of the Year honors. The Tigers reached sixth place, winning ten games more than in their previous effort.
Kuenn hammered out another 206 hits in 1954 and averaged .306. Ray Boone provided some offense with his second straight twenty-home-run season. Steve Gromek went 18-16 and Ned Garver contributed a 14-11 record, as Detroit climbed another notch into ﬁfth. Bucky Harris replaced Hutchinson as manager when Hutch insisted on a two-year contract.
In 1955, Al Kaline, a twenty-year-old outﬁelder, who had hit .276 in 1954 for the Tigers, startled the baseball world by capturing the American League bat crown with a .340 average. Both he and Boone drove in more than a hundred runs, with Boone tying for the league lead with 116. Kuenn poked another .306 (he was nothing if not consistent) with 190 base hits, lefty Bill Hoeft went 16-7 with a 2.99 ERA, and the Tigers edged above .500 at 79-75.
They improved to 82-72 in 1956 but had to settle for another ﬁfth. Kuenn soared to .332, banging out 196 hits in the process. He led the circuit in hits for the third time in his four-year career. Kaline settled in at .314 with 128 RBI while Boone and newcomer Charlie Maxwell combined for ﬁfty-three home runs. Frank Lary and Billy Hoeft gave Detroit two twenty-game winners for the ﬁrst time since Newhouser and Trout turned the trick in 1944.
Kuenn had torn ligaments in his knee during the 1956 season and the injury failed to heal properly. In the off-season he began to learn the intricacies of banking in the event that his legs gave out prematurely. In 1957, his average plummeted to .277 and he led all shortstops in errors. Despite his shortcomings, the team managed to make it to fourth place under rookie manager Jack Tighe. Jim Bunning, in his ﬁrst full season, won twenty games for the only time in his Hall of Fame career. The next year Harvey rebounded to .319 and was switched to center ﬁeld, where he led the league in putouts. The Tigers maintained their status as a .500 team with a consistent ﬁfth-place, 77-77 result. The next year would be more of the same except that Harvey Kuenn enjoyed the best year of his playing career.
1959: The Batting Title
Despite their ﬁfth-place ﬁnish in 1958, the Tigers were well regarded going into 1959. Indeed, they had two of the league’s best right-handed batters in Kuenn and Kaline. Charlie Maxwell had proved to be a consistent power threat from the left side and Frank Bolling, a classy-ﬁelding second baseman, helped tighten up the middle. Kaline and Kuenn switched positions and Harvey soon settled in right ﬁeld. Detroit was picked by the sportswriters as the team most likely to challenge the Yankees. How right they would be. The battle would not be for the American League flag, however, but instead for third place.
After thirteen games, the Tigers had won only one game and had the cellar all to themselves. Kuenn and Kaline were hitting well but the team continued to falter. The bottom hit at 2-15 and while Herb Score of the Indians was beating the Yankees 5-2, the inimitable Jimmy Dykes replaced the beleaguered Bill Norman. Norman had succeeded Tighe in June 1958. Dykes, whose baseball career spanned forty-three years, had been a favorite of Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack. In 1950, he replaced Mr. Mack as only the second manager of the Philadelphia Americans. Before that he had skippered the White Sox for thirteen seasons, serving as player-manager for six.
Dykes immediately set about to light a ﬁre under the team. They took on the faltering Yankees before a home crowd that exceeded 43,000 fans and swept the New Yorkers. Kuenn had been injured in a 9-1 loss to the Senators on April 30, and returned on May 8 to drive in a run and go two for three in a 5-4 win over Kansas City. The next day Kuenn contributed two hits in another triumph over the A’s. On May 10, Dykes pushed his record to 7-1 since taking over, and Kuenn continued his streak of two-hit games in a 7-6 conquest of the ever-handy A’s.
On May 8, Ray Norton, a San Jose State football halfback, tied the world record for the 100-yard dash by clocking out at 9.3 seconds in a semi-ﬁnal heat. He then proceeded to win the ﬁnale with a 9.4 time over Bobby Morrow, who had been the 1956 Olympic sprint champion. On May 15, Glenn Davis of Ohio State ran the 440-yard race in a record 46.5 seconds at the Coliseum Relays in Los Angeles.
On Friday, May 15, Harvey Kuenn banged out two more hits in a 2-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles to boost his batting average to a league-leading .402. He followed that up with a two-for-four performance against Hoyt Wilhelm but his team dropped another to the Birds, 6-1. He had reached a mark of .407. He then suffered a knee injury against the Red Sox in Boston and was forced to skip a few games. When Kuenn returned to play, it appeared that he had lost his batting touch. He endured a number of nothing-for-four games and watched his league-leading batting average drop to .387 by May 25.
The U.S. Supreme Court drove another spike into the heart of segregation when it decided that Louisiana laws prohibiting interracial boxing violated the Constitution.
On June 3, the United States sent up a ﬁfty-four-ton rocket to propel four one-ounce mice into space. The object was to retrieve living objects from orbit for scientiﬁc analysis.
Kuenn snapped out of his batting doldrums and promptly went on a six-for-fourteen tear, helping to push the Tigers to .500, at 25-25, on June 7, increasing Dykes’s run to 23-10.
Detroit moved into fourth and trailed the White Sox by a mere two and a half games after a 6-3 win in Boston. Kuenn contributed a two-for-three game on June 8. Two days later, Harvey poked a double in four tries and drove in a run while scoring three in a come-from-behind win over the Red Sox. That same day, Rocky Colavito hit four home runs, driving in six scores to lead the Indians to a victory over Baltimore. He became the eighth player to slam four round-trippers in one game.
The Tigers moved on to New York and advanced to third place with a 3-1 win over the Yankees. The loss dropped the defending champs to a game below .500. The two teams played three more contests, with Detroit taking two. Kuenn went seven for seventeen in the series, including a home run. He trailed teammate Al Kaline in the batting race, .354 to .356. In the meantime, Ted Williams, the 1958 batting champ, was benched when his average dropped to an anemic .175 with one home run. Williams would struggle through the worst season of his illustrious career, missing .300 for the only time.
In Mamaroneck, New York, golfer Billy Casper took the U.S. Open at the Winged Foot Golf Club. He recorded a two-over-par 282 and beat the likes of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead as well as a young Arnold Palmer, who carded a 286. Casper took home the $12,000 first prize.
While Ingemar Johansson upset Floyd Patterson at Yankee Stadium for the world heavyweight crown on June 26, President Dwight Eisenhower teamed with England’s Queen Elizabeth to dedicate the St. Lawrence Seaway at the St. Lambert, Quebec, locks. St. Lambert locks, located just outside of Montreal, were the first steps in a journey that would exceed two thousand miles to the Atlantic Ocean through the Great Lakes.
By the end of lune, the Tigers sported a 38-36 record, a mere four games behind the front-running Indians. Kuenn still led the ﬁeld, now with a .356 mark.
At Wimbledon, in Great Britain, Alex Olmedo of Peru gained the final in the men’s tennis singles by beating Roy Emerson of Australia. Olmedo, playing for the United States, eventually justified his top seed by defeating Rod Laver for the title.
As the league approached the All-Star break, the Tigers continued with their 1950s trademark .500 play. They ended the ﬁrst part of the season at 40-40 in ﬁfth place, a mere six games behind the front-running Indians. Kuenn, at the top of the American League batting chart at .356, was chosen as a substitute for the midseason classic and went hitless in one at bat.
The U.S. Senate debated a rise in the minimum wage to $1.25 per hour.
On Sunday, July 12, Kuenn went two for seven in a doubleheader split with the Indians. He drove across two runs in the ﬁrst game, 6-2 victory and poked a two-bagger in the second-game loss. The Tigers did not fare well over the next week: They continued to ﬂounder against the lowly Senators and Orioles. By July 17, a loss to Baltimore gave them their ﬁfth straight defeat. They had compiled a woeful 2-13 over their last fifteen contests. That same day, a seventeen-year-old youngster named Darold Knowles struck out thirty-two batters in a thirteen-inning game in the Ban Johnson League, based in Missouri. Knowles later played in the majors over a ﬁfteen-year period and appeared in 765 games, only eight of which he started. He retired after the 1980 campaign with a career 3.12 ERA and 143 saves.
The Tigers’ miseries began to rub off on Kuenn as he went one for eight in a Saturday split with the Orioles and watched his batting average drop to .342. Frank Lary bested Hoyt Wilhelm 2-0 in the nightcap.
Shot-putter Parry O’Brien set a world ’s record of sixty-three feet, two and a-half inches in a dual track meet with the USSR at Franklin Field in Philadelphia.
The Tigers happily arrived back home on July 21 and met up with the Senators, taking a quick three games. Kuenn regained his stride, going seven for twelve with a home run and ﬁve RBI. The team appeared to be rejuvenated in time for the arrival of the Yankees. Don Mossi took the mound against New York and picked up his season’s ﬁfth win against the Bombers. The Tigers improved their record to 9-3 over New York with ten games to go in the season series.
Vice President Richard Nixon visited the American National Exhibition in Moscow, where he participated in the famous “kitchen debate” with Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The two high-ranking officials discussed the differences between capitalism and communism, with washing machines as a backdrop.
The Tigers and Yankees split the next two games as Frank Lary won his fourth against the Yanks, 1-0, in a ten-inning game. Kuenn, injured in the Saturday game, fell behind an upstart named Roger Maris of the Kansas City Athletics in the batting race by a point, with Kuenn at .343. Kuenn did not return to the lineup until the seventh of August. The Tigers visited Fenway Park and dropped a pair of 4-3 decisions to Boston on consecutive days. Harvey went ﬁve for ten in the series and drove the go-ahead tally in a four-run outburst in the top of the ninth inning on Sunday to take the ﬁnale 7-3.
The Tigers returned home for a series with the pennant-bound White Sox, and on August 11 Kuenn drove in a run in an 8-1 win over Billy Pierce. The Tigers lost the next day, 11-6, despite Kuenn’s home run and two RBI. Detroit pitching gave up eight free passes to the Pale Hose and ﬁve of these walkers scored. The Indians arrived on August 14 and Detroit struck a mortal blow to their pennant hopes with three wins that weekend. Kuenn rattled six hits including a home run. His ﬁve RBI in the series included the game winner in a 5-4 decision over Gary Bell.
On August 21, the United States accepted its ﬁftieth member state when Hawaii joined the union. Alaska had been admitted earlier in 1959, marking the ﬁrst new member since 1912. Two states, New Mexico and Arizona, had joined that year also.
Kuenn went three for three in Boston and scored the winning run in a 2-0 victory over the Red Sox. During the last ten days of August, Detroit regained its winning ways and finished the month at 65-65, while Kuenn remained atop the league in the batting race with a .351 mark.
September started with a 4-0 win over Bob Shaw and the ﬂag-bound White Sox. Harvey contributed mightily with a four-for-ﬁve day, including a pair of two-baggers. The Pale Hose quickly recovered the next day with a twin sweep, 7-2 and 11-4. All the runs in the nightcap came in the ﬁfth inning.
In Cleveland, on September 7, the Indians took two from Detroit, 15-14 and 6-5, scoring three runs in the bottom of the ninth in each game to come to within four and a half games of the White Sox. Harvey could manage only two hits in eight trips to the plate. On September 12, Don Mossi won his sixth game against New York with a 4-0 shutout as Kuenn led the way with two hits. The season series ended in Detroit’s favor, fourteen games to eight. Mossi went 17-9 that season to post the highest win total in his twelve-year career. Lifetime, he won 101 games against eighty losses. He was used primarily as a reliever during his ﬁrst ﬁve seasons with Cleveland and became a starter after arriving in Detroit in 1959.
The country was once again shocked by the Soviet Union’s early success in the space arena. The Russians hit the moon’s Sea of Tranquility with a rocket estimated to be traveling at about seventy-five hundred miles per hour. The spaceship contained many ﬂags depicting the USSR’s hammer and sickle. U.S. officials quickly rejected the notion that the Soviets held any ownership rights to the moon.
The season began its final descent and it became evident that unless a complete collapse occurred, the White Sox would take their ﬁrst ﬂag since the ignominious season of 1919. On September 15, Mossi took win number ﬁfteen as Kuenn contributed three hits and an RBI in a 3-1 decision over the Orioles. Harvey and company then took two from the White Sox, and continued to place obstacles in their road to the title. Chicago had just played its ﬁnal game at home and now faced the task of clinching on the road. Kuenn had gone six for twelve in the ﬁnal three games in the Windy City and now stood at .356. Rocky Colavito, of the second-place Indians, had just belted his forty-ﬁrst home run and battled Boston’s Jackie Jensen for the league lead with 106 RBI.
On September 22, Kuenn picked up two more hits, including a three-run homer in a 6-4 win over the A’s. In the season’s ﬁnal series, he drove in two against the White Sox to pace the Tigers to a 6-5 win. The White Sox, who ﬁnally clinched the ﬂag in Cleveland, took the campaign’s last two games from Detroit and carefully watched events unfold in the National League. There, the Braves and Dodgers tied at season’s end. The playoff was taken by Los Angeles.
Harvey Kuenn won his only batting crown in 1959 with an average of .353, and displayed a remarkable consistency. At the end of each month, his batting averages were: May .354, June .356, July .343, August .351, and, of course, the ﬁnal .353. He pounded out 198 hits despite missing ﬁfteen games because of injuries. He led the league in doubles with forty-two and, though hitting only nine home runs, compiled a .501 slugging percentage. In addition, he scored ninety-nine runs and drove in seventy-one, providing fellow ﬂychasers Kaline and Maxwell with a ﬁne setup man as they knocked in ninety-four and ninety-ﬁve runs, respectively.
Dykes brought in the Tigers at 76-78 with his record a respectable 74-63. Frank Lary and Jim Bunning joined Mossi with seventeen wins each, and all three posted an ERA under 3.90. Detroit ﬁnished with the second worst team ERA, however, at 4.20. To his credit, Jimmy Dykes got a lot from his players in 1959.
Detroit had enjoyed a good deal of success against both the Yankees and the White Sox in 1959, and traveled to spring training with hopes for a better result in 1960. The team’s starting pitching was respectable, and the Tigers enjoyed the consistent bats and gloves of Kuenn and the great Kaline. As noted earlier, everything changed on April 17, 1960, on the eve of the new season. Neither the Tigers nor the Indians fared as well in 1960 as in 1959. Dykes and Cleveland manager Joe Gordon were traded for each other at about the season’s two-thirds point. Both squads suffered losing records: The Tribe fell to fourth and the Tigers dropped to sixth.
Harvey Kuenn journeyed home to Milwaukee, where he joined the Brewers organization shortly after their move from Seattle, in time for the 1970 season. He became the team’s hitting coach and eventually its manager in 1982; that season, after a 23-24 start, Harvey replaced manager Buck Rodgers in June. Kuenn supplied the low-key leadership that led them to the American League title and into the World Series. There they succumbed to the St. Louis Cardinals, in their only series appearance. The players enjoyed a relaxed clubhouse and dubbed themselves ”Harvey’s Wallbangers.”
Kuenn endured open-heart surgery in 1976, a serious kidney ailment in 1979, and the amputation of his right leg in 1980. Still, Harvey plodded along, ever the loyal soldier who gave his all to his team and the game of baseball. He managed the Brewers through 1983 and continued to work for them as a scout. Harvey Kuenn died in 1988 at the young age of ﬁfty-seven, leaving his wife, Audrey, and a son and daughter. His legacy as a favorite son of the city of Milwaukee is further enhanced with the memory of that one glorious season he put together as a member of the Detroit Tigers back in the year 1959.
This is an excerpt from That One Glorious Season: Baseball Players with One Spectacular Year, 1950-1961, published in 2006 by Peter E. Randall. Used by permission of the author and the publisher. All rights reserved.
This is an excerpt from That One Glorious Season: Baseball Players with One Spectacular Year, 1950-1961