On June 29, 1936, Harmon Killebrew was born. Richard looks back on his Hall of Fame career.
For entirely inexplicable reasons, sometime around my freshman or sophomore year of high school, I got it into my head that Harmon Killebrew was Puerto Rican. I cannot imagine where that idea came from—not a lot of Puerto Ricans named “Harmon,” I’m guessing—but it wasn’t until an embarrassingly long time later that my impression was corrected.
I point this out to show not only that people sometimes end up with bizarre notions, but also to point out that Killebrew is an excellent choice for me to learn more about this week. While it may true that I have now gotten his background correct, there is doubtless much of his life about which I could be enriched.
Born in Idaho in 1936—he is one of twenty-six major leaguers to come from the state and easily the best—Killebrew worked on a farm as a youth, where he built strength lifting ten gallon milk cans. His Gem State heritage led to one of the more improbable, if possibly apocryphal, discovery stories of all time.
Supposedly impressed with seeing Killebrew play in a semi-professional league, Idaho Senator Herman Welker told Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith about the future slugger. Griffith dispensed farm director Ossie Bluege, who signed Killebrew to a $50,000 contract in 1954.
The contract put Killebrew on the team’s major league roster under the so-called “Bonus Baby” rule, where he played sporadically for the next few years. Killebrew appeared in fewer than 25 games per season through 1958, hitting just .224 while manning second base primarily.
In 1959, Killebrew had his first season as a full-time player. It was a terrific season, as Killebrew—who hit only 11 home runs in his 280 trips to the plates the previous five years—burst onto the scene to lead the American League with 42 home runs. Killebrew put himself in the top ten in most offensive categories and earned both a trip to the All-Star game and a fifteenth-place finish in the MVP voting.
The next year, Killebrew held his power numbers steady while boosting his batting average more than thirty points but played in fewer than 125 games.
|Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew, two great Twins (Icon/SMI)|
This also began the period of his wanderings around the diamond; after playing 150 games at third base the year prior, Killebrew split his time between first and third in 1960.
The next year, he played primarily first but moved to left field in ’62. By the end of his career, he played more than 450 games at first, third and left.
Wherever Killebrew was playing on the diamond, the one constant was his hitting.
Cruelly, after watching Killebrew develop, fans in Washington only got to watch him up close for two more years, as the team moved to Minnesota before the 1961 season. There, Killebrew became the Twins’ first true star.
His first season in Minnesota, “Killer” posted a 1.012 OPS—a career high—and slugged 46 home runs. That impressive total was topped, of course, by Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle that season, but Killebrew continued to establish his dominance as a slugger.
After 1961, Killebrew went on a tear with the home runs and began a hugely impressive three-year stretch.
Starting in 1962, he averaged 47 home runs, leading the league three years in a row. In fact, Killebrew led the league in home runs five times during the sixties, so it should be no surprise that he easily led the American League.
So dominant was Killebrew that he hit 115 home runs more than any other player in the AL during that decade. (He also led all players in the 60s, though his lead over the likes of Hank Aaron and Willie Mays was nowhere near as wide.)
But while he was a prolific home run hitter—to this day, there is a single seat from Metropolitan Stadium in its new space, the Mall of America, marking Killebrew’s longest home run—he was hardly a one-trick pony. He had a fine batting eye, leading the league in walks four times, and topping 90 walks ten times. This aided him in posting a lifetime .376 OBP, which is all the more impressive when you consider that he was the owner of a middling .256 career batting average.
Along with his homers, Killebrew was also known for his modesty and quiet demeanor. A convert to Mormonism during his career, he neither drank nor smoked. Famously, when asked what he did for fun, Killebrew responded that he liked to wash dishes.
(Maybe Killebrew’s longest-lasting legacy is the rumor that he is the model for the Major League Baseball logo. This is apparently untrue, though he was used to model the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association logo.)
Killebrew retired after the 1975 season, having played all but one season of his career with the Senators/Twins franchise. He finished with nearly 600 home runs; at the time of his retirement he was behind only Aaron, Babe Ruth, Mays and Frank Robinson. He remains third all-time in home runs in American League history. For good measure, his 1,584 career RBI put him in the top 15 in that statistic as well.
After his retirement, Killebrew had to wait four years before earning his election to the Hall of Fame, admitting—in a rare publicly-aired complaint—that he felt he deserved induction earlier. (He was right.) Ten years earlier, incredibly while still an active player, Killebrew had his number retired by the Twins; he was the first player to receive that honor in Minnesota’s history, a fact also true of his election to the Hall of Fame.
Killebrew served as a broadcaster in his post-playing career, primarily for the Twins but also for the A’s and Angels. He died earlier this year after a releasing a statement announcing he was entering hospice care and planned to spend his remaining days “in comfort and peace.” One could hardly imagine him having it any other way.