Harvey Kuenn was one of the best hitters of the 1950s despite playing for some bad Tigers teams. He won the 1953 Rookie of the Year award and appeared in seven All-Star games in each of his seven full seasons with the Tigers. He could rank even higher on the Tigers' career leaderboards had he spent his entire career in Detroit, but Kuenn was the player traded for slugger Rocky Colavito, who provided four very productive seasons in the early 1960s. Above all, Kuenn is now the #28 player on our countdown.
*Played for the Cleveland Indians in 1960.
**Played for the San Francisco Giants from 1961 to May 1965.
***Played for the Chicago Cubs from May 1965 to April 1966.
****Played for the Philadelphia Phillies from April 1966 to September 1966.
Harvey Kuenn Jr. was born on December 4th, 1930 in West Allis, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. He attended the University of Wisconsin and was the school's first ever All-American in baseball. After his junior year, Kuenn fielded offers from major league teams, though it was rumored that some teams were leery of him after a knee injury from his high school days. John McHale, the Tigers' farm director at the time, said he hoped Kuenn would be "half as good as the last guy who came into this league with a bad knee -- Joe DiMaggio."
Kuenn signed with the Tigers as an amateur free agent in 1952 and made his big league debut later that year, hitting .325/.349/.400 in 84 plate appearances with only one strikeout. He became the team's starting shortstop in 1953, pushing veteran Johnny Pesky over to second base. Kuenn hit .308/.356/.386 with 33 doubles, 48 RBI, and 94 runs scored. He led the league with 209 hits, made the first of eight consecutive All-Star teams, and won the Rookie of the Year award by a landslide.
In 1954, Kuenn put up nearly identical numbers, hitting .306/.335/.390 with only 13 strikeouts in 696 plate appearances. He finished eighth in the MVP voting, one of two young Tigers players to finish in the top 25 that year. The other was a 19 year old rookie named Al Kaline. Kaline and Kuenn would become known as the "K & K Boys." Though their gaudy numbers didn't lead to any playoff appearances, Kaline and Kuenn are two of only three Tigers to make seven career All-Star appearances with the team.
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Over the next five years, Kuenn would continue to be one of the best hitters in baseball. He hit .317/.366/.443 from 1955 to 1959 and won the only batting title of his career in 1959 with a .353 average. He led the league in hits twice (his third and fourth times overall) and in doubles three times. He also made the All-Star team and finished in the top 25 of MVP voting every year. His 16.4 WAR ranked fourth among all shortstops* during that stretch, while his .359 wOBA and 117 wRC+ were second only to Hall of Famer Ernie Banks.
*Kuenn was moved to third base in 1957 and then the outfield in 1958, but the ranks are still impressive.
Before the 1960 season, Kuenn used his success in 1959 to leverage a pay raise. His initial demand of $50,000 irked the Tigers, leading them to trade him to the Cleveland Indians for reigning home run champion Rocky Colavito. Though many Indians fans were upset with the deal, Kuenn dulled their outcries by hitting .308/.379/.416 in 537 plate appearances. He made the eighth and final All-Star appearance of his career. The Indians traded him to the San Francisco Giants during the offseason.
Kuenn initially struggled in the National League and only hit .300 in one of his four seasons out west. The 1962 season would be the last time he would factor in MVP voting. His playing time diminished over each of the next three seasons, bottoming out at just 77 games played for the Giants and Chicago Cubs in 1965. He would retire just prior to the 1967 season.
After retirement, Kuenn served as a coach in the Milwaukee Brewers' organization from 1972 to 1983. He served as the team's interim manager in 1975, then again in 1982. Kuenn's presence lit a fire under the '82 squad, earning the team the nickname "Harvey's Wallbangers." The Brewers went on to win the AL pennant, eventually losing in the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals. He managed the 1983 Brewers to an 87-75 record, but was fired after the season. Even more impressive is that Kuenn was able to successfully navigate this run one one good leg; in 1980, Kuenn's right leg was amputated due to circulation problems.
Among Tigers shortstops with at least 500 games played, Kuenn ranks fifth in WAR, second in wOBA, and third in wRC+. He is also the only Tigers shortstop with a career .300 batting average in more than 50 plate appearances. Overall, his .314 batting average is tied for 12th in team history with Victor Martinez.