The Gentle Killerby Chris Jaffe
May 16, 2011
The Killer was one of the most feared sluggers in baseball history, but he was also one of the nicest people ever to play the game. He was one of the few players who would go out of his way to compliment umpires on a good job, even if their calls went against him. I'd call a tough strike on him and he would turn around and say approvingly, "Good call." And he was the same way in the field. And he never did this to get help on close plays, as some players do. The man hit 573 major league home runs and no umpire ever swung a bat for him.
Ron Luciano, The Umpire Strikes Back, page 59.
On Friday, the baseball world heard some sad news when Twins Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew announced he's entering hospice care for his final days as he dies from esophageal cancer. It's always a damn shame when someone passes on, but Killebrew always had a reputation as one of the nicest players out there, as the Luciano quote attests.
Killebrew's imminent demise is first and foremost a human tragedy, as it always is when someone passes, and doubly so when it's someone who by all accounts was such a nice person. However, as one of them there mom's basement-dwelling stat-nerd blogger-writer types, there really isn't much I can say about Killebrew the man. Nice guy.
I can say some things about Killbrew as a player, though. On the field, he was one of the transitional players in baseball history. And he was transitional in a few different ways.
Transitional third baseman
First, he was one of the first great slugging third basemen. When Killebrew first arrived in the majors in 1954, no third baseman had ever slugged 200 home runs. Harlond Clift had the most of anyone from the hot corner, with 178 (that includes any homers hit while playing any other positions). While 200 and 300 homers were less common then, 178 barely put Clift in the top 50 sluggers to date. Nowadays, the top 50 includes full-time third basemen Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, and Chipper Jones as well as several guys who spent considerable time at third, including Darrell Evans, Alex Rodriguez, and Killebrew himself.
Until the 1950s, no third baseman had ever hit more than 36 homers in a season. In 1959, in his first full season, third baseman Killebrew swatted a league-leading 42 homers. It was the first of six times he led the league, and eight times he swatted 40 homers. They didn't all come when he played at third as the Twins kept moving him around the diamond and he spent more time at first than third in his career, but he still spent much of his time at third.
Killebrew wasn't the first modern slugging third baseman—Eddie Mathews and Al Rosen both predated him by a few years—but he was part of the first wave.
But that's not the only way Killebrew broke with tradition. He also helped set up a distinction in hitters that was very prevalent when I was a kid. Growing up in the 1980s, you had two kinds of great batters: hitters and sluggers. The former would lead the league in batting but be lucky to crank out 10 home runs a year—guys like Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn. The sluggers would hit 40 homers but fall well under .300: see Schmidt, Mike or Jackson, Reggie for more information.
Killebrew was one of the first great sluggers who didn't hit .300. He rarely even came close. Killebrew's career average of .256 is still second lowest among any Hall of Fame position player. Only Ray Schalk's is lower.
Think of your best sluggers before Killebrew. In the 1920s it was Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby. Ruth won a batting title and Hornsby won a pair of Triple Crowns. In the 1930s, it's Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig and Mel Ott, all of whom were lifetime .300 hitters. (Adjust for era all you want, that's still a lot better than Killebrew. In the 1940s you have legendary pure hitter Ted Williams and seven-time batting average champion Stan Musial. In the 1950s, prior to Killebrew's emergence at the decade's end, you had Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays—all of whom won batting titles.
Eddie Mathews also hit well under .300 for his career and arrived a little before Killebrew, but he at least could hit .300 in his prime. In both seasons Mathews led the league in homers, he was on the good side of .300 (barely, in both occasions), and he frequently batted around .290 in his glory years. A lousy second act to his career drove his lifetime batting average down to .271.
Killebrew was a more extreme version of Mathews. Not only did he never hit .300, but he never topped .276 in any of the six years he topped the circuit in long balls. From 1920 to 1958, every single AL leader in home runs batted at least .268, and with a handful of exceptions were all over .285. When Killebrew's 42 homers paced the league in 1958, he batted .242. Three years later when his 48 homers topped the AL, he batted .243. Killebrew's .242 and .243 remained the two lowest batting averages for a home run king until 2009, when Carlos Pena's .227 average with 46 homers "topped" Killebrew.
Killebrew was part of a broader trend in sluggers posting lower averages. This trend predated him, but he was the most extreme version of this trend during his lifetime.
Because he was so slug-centric, he set a MLB record in his career: longest career without ever getting a sacrifice hit. In 9,831 PA in his career, he had not a single dang sacrifice bunt. Again, this was not the way things had gone in the pre-Killebrew era. From 1894 (when baseball first tracked SH) to Killebrew rookie year of 1954, all players with at least 700 PA had a sacrifice hit. That's 700, not 7,000. Killebrew really broke a mold there. (Frank Thomas recently topped Killebrew's record.)
Brilliant with the bat
The above seemingly does a disservice to Killebrew though in making him seem like a one-dimensional player: all power. However, despite his low batting average, he was pretty good at getting on base. Instead of poking out singles, he drew a lot of walks. He retired with 1,559 bases on balls, which was seventh most all-time when he retired. In part that's because pitchers feared him and threw around him, but you don't draw 100+ walks seven different times (as Killebrew did) without having a good batting eye. He once drew 145 walks in a season, something only a dozen men have ever done.
And lord could he ever hit the ball a mile. As recently as 2000 he was fifth all-time in home runs. Killebrew has since fallen to "only" 11th place, but he slugged out more home runs than his peers Mickey Mantle, Willie McCovey, Eddie Mathews, and Ernie Banks.
The two most important things a hitter needs to do is get on base and drive runners in. Killebrew did both.
Because Killebrew was so good, he had a nice, long 22-year career. He homered off Early Wynn, whose career began in 1939, and both Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana, who each lasted until 1993.
Killebrew is one of the five who can claim he played against the Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Oakland A's. Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, Camilio Pascual and Woodie Held—that's it. Store that trivia question away to bother your friends with at a later date.
Along the way in a 22-year career, a player will experience many great moments, oddities, and memorable games. The following are some of Killebrew's more interesting moments. This is not meant to be any sort of Ultimate, Perfect List of great moments in his career, but just some of the points in his career I found most interesting while looking at his times.
May 29, 1959: a very special request
Killebrew got a special request before this day's game began. Attending that game with his staff was President Dwight Eisenhower and his staff—and Ike called over Killebrew to his box before the game began. He had a simple request: would Killebrew be willing to sign a bat for the president's grandson, David? Even if Killebrew wasn't an incredibly nice person, it's hard to think he wouldn't do something like that.
July 28, 1960: good performance in an unlikely role
Harmon Killebrew did something in this game he never did again: hit a leadoff home run. That's leading off the entire game mind you.
When I think "leadoff hitter" Harmon Killebrew isn't the image that comes to mind. I think of a speedy guy who will be a danger on the bases, not a lumbering slugger like Killebrew. Yet the Senators had him lead off in this game. He only led off twice, and as it happens got a hit both times: this single and a homer.
September 15, 1964: the brief career of a right fielder
In Killebrew's 2,435 games, he only played right field once, and it was only for one at-bat. It came in the eighth inning of a game tied 1-1 against Baltimore. When Sam Bowens came to the plate with one out and runners on first and second, Twins manager Sam Mele flipped his corner outfielders: normal right fielder Tony Oliva went to left and Killebrew moved from left to right. After Bowens fanned, they moved back.
OK, but why? I'm not really sure. Bowens was a righty, so he was more likely to hit it to left. Oliva must've been the better defensive option. (Back in those days he still had knees.) Mele didn't want Killebrew's glove in action, but he didn't want to take out his bat in a tie game.
Oh, the Twins won, 2-1.
May 18, 1969: Killebrew's strangest at-bat
I told this story in my award-winning book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers, and it's such a great one I can't pass it up.
In the third inning, Killebrew came to the plate with Cesar Tovar on third and Rod Carew on first with no outs. With such a feared slugger at the plate you'd figure the smart move would be to sit back and let him drive the runner in, right? Rookie manager Billy Martin disagreed.
Carew broke for second and when the catcher threw in an unsuccessful attempt to nail him, Tovar went for home. Both were safe with Tovar achieving the rare steal of home. But Martin wasn't done yet.
A few minutes later, Carew broke for third, and made it in there safely. And the at-bat still wasn't over.
Detroit lefthander Mickey Lolich was on the mound, and as a lefty his back was to third. That gave Carew a bit of an edge, and he broke for home, safely beating the tag for the second steal of home in one at-bat.
I'd love to know how many pitches that at-bat took. Two steals of home is a lot for a year for most teams—but in one game, in one inning, in one at-bat? With one of the greatest home run hitters of all time at the plate? The mind boggles.
September 21, 1970: Killebrew ruins perfection
Vida Blue faced 28 batters on this day, and retired 27. The only exception was a two-out walk to Killebrew in the fourth inning. Otherwise, it was a perfect game. He had to settle for the no-hitter.
As it happens, it would've been the second time in three years an Oakland A's pitcher tossed a perfect game against the Twins, as Catfish Hunter did just that in 1968. Killebrew struck out three times in that game.
September 23, 1975: Ron Luciano tracer
One last story: the Ron Luciano book noted at the top tells a story of Luciano picking Killebrew off second base. It's too long to reprint verbatim, but in short: Killebrew, now a Royal at the end of his career, belted a double and could barely lumber into second. Luciano complimented the ever-likable Killebrew, and the two starting talking. Unfortunately, Killebrew moved off the bag to talk to Luciano, and he got nailed.
Many of the stories in Luciano's book don't hold up under scrutiny. Like many great storytellers, Luciano didn't let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.
But while many of Luciano's stories don't hold true at all, this one bears resemblance to one event. With Luciano umpiring second base on September 23, Killebrew singled to left leading off the second inning, and then advanced to second when the batter singled. Then, according to the record, Killebrew immediately got picked off by the pitcher. (Officially he was caught stealing third, as he was on that side of the bag, but it was P-SS for the out.)
It wasn't quite how Luciano described it, but at this point in Killebrew's career he would be hard pressed to leg out a double regardless of how far it went. Luciano's full story notes he saw the pitcher toss the ball to the shortstop to nail Killebrew, just as happened here. And it's virtually impossible to imagine Killebrew would try to steal a base on his own—especially not third base.
There's a sad final bit to this story: that was Killebrew's final major league hit. He only played two more games, and his last hit ended with him getting picked off second because he was such a nice guy he couldn't help get into a friendly conversation with the umpire.
That's not the way you want to end a career, but in some ways it was appropriate for Killebrew: he went out the consummate nice guy. Talent fades and speed goes away, but his personality remained the same. And even more than slugging the ball, being a nice guy was always Killebrew's strongest trait.
References and Resources
The Umpire Strikes Back, by Ron Luciano has the pick-off story on pages 59-61.
>Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index<> was invaluable, and the Bullpen provided the story about Ike.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.