I am ashamed to admit that I never really appreciated Harmon Killebrew when he was playing. Growing up in South Dakota, I didn’t buy into the idea that we should become Washington Senators fans just because the team had moved to a neighboring state. But a long-time reader and Senators fan sent us this appreciation of Killebrew. He was, by all accounts, a fine human being, and his achievements as a power hitter loom larger than ever, now that we know the sordid truth about the steroid era:
Harmon Killebrew made his name in Minnesota, but he got his start in Washington, DC with the Senators, around the time I began following baseball. Other than Whitey Herzog, Killebrew is, I believe, the only Hall of Famer who played for the Senators during my 13 years as a fan of the club (in its two incarnations), and Herzog made the Hall for his accomplishments as a manager decades later.
It should therefore be easy for me to write an appreciation of Harmon Killebrew. But the fact is that as a pre-adolescent fan, I did not fully appreciate Killebrew.
My hero was Roy Sievers, who led the American League in home runs and RBIs in 1958. Of the young gun Senators, my favorite was slugger Bob Allison (30 home runs and 85 RBIs as a rookie in 1959), who stampeded around the bases like the former star fullback at Kansas he was, and who had a rifle arm in right field.
Compared to Allison, the more stocky Killebrew seemed non-athletic and one-dimensional, a perception that was reinforced when, in his first full season with the Senators (1959), Killebrew led all Major League third basemen in errors with 30. Compared to Sievers, Killebrew seemed like a one-dimensional hitter. The former had achieved his power numbers while maintaining a .300 batting average; the latter hit only .242 when he slugged his 42 homers in 1959. Previously, no one had hit 40 or more home runs with a batting average of less than the .265 posted by Ralph Kiner in 1948. (Rocky Colavito, who tied Killebrew for the home run lead in 1959, batted .257 that year).
To some sportswriters, and those like me who paid attention to them, Killebrew was seen as at the vanguard of “barbarians at the gates” — sluggers who couldn’t really play the game, but who nonetheless were garnering mass attention through their long ball exploits. At the root of this theme was a mindless prejudice against the home run. Bill James has noted how some sportswriters used to measure offensive production by adding a player’s runs and RBI’s (reasonably enough) and then subtracting his home runs – as if it were somehow cheating to both score and drive in a run with one swing of the bat.
It later became clear that all of my prejudices against Killebrew were misguided. Like Allison, he actually was a good athlete – a star quarterback in high school, who turned down a football scholarship at Oregon to sign with the Senators.
And though he was a poor third baseman, he was more or less adequate at first base. Meanwhile, his defensive versatility was an asset. By playing third base in 1959, he enabled the Senators to include in their line-up both Sievers (at first base) and slugger Jim Lemon (in left field). Later, by playing the outfield, he enabled the Twins to include Don Mincher.
As for batting average, we now understand its lack of statistical importance. And even by the mid-1960s, a slugger with a mediocre batting average no longer seemed like such an affront.
In any event, Killebrew became a more rounded hitter after the team moved to Minnesota in 1961. (On this day in that year, he was second in the American League in slugging percentage, on-base percentage, and batting average, while ranking fourth in home runs). When healthy, he generally hit in the by-now-respectable neighborhood of .270.
Meanwhile, Killebrew was positing epic power numbers. In the Twins’ first nine seasons in Minnesota, he led the American League in home runs five times, giving him a total of six home run crowns. Eight times in Minnesota (and once in Washington) he drove in more than 100 runs, and as a Twin, he never drove in fewer than 96 in a season in which he had at least 500 at-bats. Killebrew also topped 100 walks seven times, leading the American League in four of those seasons.
Killebrew currently ranks eleventh on the all-time home run list. And he is fifth among those who did not play during the steroid era, behind only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Frank Robinson.
But with Killebrew, it wasn’t just about the numbers. For one thing, his home runs usually had a distinctive aesthetic – they were towering parabolas, often of the tape-measure variety.
For another, Killebrew’s personality made him a “civic treasure” (in the words of this obituary) in the Twin Cities. As his teammate Tony Oliva put it, “I tell everybody he’s too nice to be a baseball player. He’s a gentleman.”
We got a glimpse of Killebrew’s gentle personality in Washington when, as a 22 year-old, he politely objected to his new nickname, “Killer.” Some sportswriters started calling him “Hammering Harmon,” but for most writers and fans, and certainly for American League pitchers, he remained Killer Killebrew, as fearsome a right-handed power hitter as I have ever seen.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports on Killebrew’s funeral here:
Current Twins Joe Nathan, Cuddyer and Morneau, as well as manager Ron Gardenhire, were pall bearers, along with ex-Twin Paul Molitor and Killebrew’s former teammates Rod Carew, Tony Oliva and Frank Quilici. Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Frank Robinson also attended the service, which was open to the public. …
“The service was beautiful,” Oliva said afterward. “It touched all the points, because that was the man.”
Ecce homo, indeed. Harmon Killebrew, RIP.