By In Baseball, RIP

Harmon Killebrew

The gentleman the sportswriters somewhat desperately called “Killer” was just 23 years old in 1959 — but by then Harmon Killebrew already had played parts of six seasons in the major leagues. Six seasons. He was of that peculiar bonus baby time, when owners (as owners tend to do) went looking for convoluted and spectacularly destructive methods to control their own spending. Certainly, they might have controlled spending by not spending as much money. But that was deemed unrealistic.

And so, in those days, if a team signed a player for too much money, it had to carry the player on the big league team for two years. This of course, was to discourage owners from paying players too much money — it would be like corporations deciding, as a cost-cutting measure, that if they spent too much money on a college graduate, they would be forced by law to make him or her a vice president.

Harmon Killebrew had been recommended to the Washington Senators by an actual senator, Idaho Republican Herman Welker, who would mainly be known to history for two unrelated things:

1. Being so closely allied with the reckless demagogue Joe McCarthy that he became known as “Little Joe from Idaho.”

2. Recommending Harmon Killebrew.

The Washington Senators, the baseball team, took Welker’s advice and sent out former third baseman Ossie Bluege to see Killebrew play in a few Idaho sandlot games. Killebrew, as legend goes, responded by getting 12 hits in 12 at-bats, including four homers and three triples. The Senators owner Clark Griffith giddily signed Killebrew for $30,000 — the team’s first bonus baby.

And so Killebrew was a part of the team. He made his major league debut six days before his 18th birthday. Here is a fun little baseball trivia question that might win you a bar bet: What position did Killebrew play in his major league debut?

Answer: The great but not particularly swift Harmon Killebrew debuted as a pinch-runner.

He got just 15 plate appearances that first year, and 89 plate appearances in his second. He hit his first big league home run five days before he turned 19. He hit the home run at Griffith Stadium off Billy Hoeft, with his Senators down 13-0. He hit another one two days later off of George Zuverink, but that pretty much summed up his achievements that second year. In 89 plate appearances, Killebrew hit an even .200 and was promptly sent to Charlotte for more seasoning.

The point is that by 1959, Harmon Killebrew was no phenom. He had been up and down so many times that his name was achingly familiar to Senators fans (and this was right in the prime of the Senators’ “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League” glory). Killebrew had hit .224 in 280 plate appearances scattered over his first five seasons. He is the only Hall of Fame player to get fewer than 500 total plate appearances in his first five years. This is not to say that anyone in the game had given up on Killebrew’s future. It’s more that his promise had dulled. Albie Pearson won Rookie of the Year in 1958; people were more excited about him.

But the truth is that Killebrew was just 23 years old, and he had not been given that gift that every great player, without exception, needs: a chance to play. In 1959, the Senators gave him that chance. Why not? They put Killebrew at third base and kept him there. At the end of April, his average was hovering in the low .200s. He had crushed a long homer off Jack Harshman on Opening Day, but he only had three homers by the end of the month. He had also committed the first of what would be 30 errors.

Then, the blossoming of Harmon Killebrew happened. It was not gradual. It was instant. On May 1, 1959, Harmon Killebrew hit two home runs at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. There were fewer than 2,000 people in the stands — the Tigers were dreadful; they had lost 13 of their first 15 games. Killebrew homered in the second inning off a good young pitcher named Jim Bunning. In the 10th inning, with the score tied, Killebrew hit another homer off Bunning.

The next day, still in Detroit, Killebrew hit two more homers. He hit the first in the first inning off Jerry Davie. He hit the second off George Susce with the Senators up 12-3.

Two days after that, he homered in Chicago off Claude Raymond. After two more dry days, he again hit two home runs, this time at Yankee Stadium. He hit the first off Bob Turley, the other off Johnny Kucks. People were beginning to notice a bit now. On May 12, back at home, he had his fourth two-homer game in less than two weeks — off of Detroit’s Frank Lary and Ray Narleski.

On May 17, in the second game of a doubleheader, he had his fifth two-homer game, one off Bob Shaw, the other off Turk Lown.

That made 11 homers in 17 games — including five two-homer games — and suddenly Harmon Killebrew was a sensation. Well, it wasn’t really sudden. It was like Mel Brooks said: “It only took me 20 years to become an overnight sensation.”

Still, it felt sudden. Reporters started to look more closely at Killebrew. They found that he had a little bit of the Heartland folk hero in him. His grandfather, Culver Killebrew, was said to be wrestling champion of the Union Army and, according to his great granddaughter Diane Killebrew Holt, he was able to stand flatfooted and jump over a horse. Harmon’s father, Harmon Sr., whom everyone called Clay, was a college football star who played professionally with the Wheeling Steelers. Teammates, coaches and reporters told countless stories about Harmon’s amazing feats of strength. They saw him hit home runs while breaking bats. They saw him lift up teammates like they were large pillows.

Naturally, the reporters began to call him Killer. The nickname, in many ways, was an absurdity. “Killer” fit Killebrew the way “Jazz” fits Utah or “responsible” fits government. He was so quiet and gentle that, when one reporter asked him if he had any hobbies, Killebrew said, without apparent irony, that he liked washing dishes at home. He had married his high school sweetheart, and they were raising a family, and there was just nothing violent about his nature. As Barbara Heilman wrote in Sports Illustrated: “You can’t look an abstraction of amiability in the eye and call it ‘Killer,’ day after day, no matter how hard it hits.”

But what else could they call him? Sure, the reporters, perhaps overeagerly, also tried “Charmin’ Harmon,” “Harmin’ Harmon,” “Bombin’ Harmon,” “Hammerin’ Harmon,” and so on. But when you have a man named Killebrew who hits home runs, “Killer” is inescapable. Plus, it fit so much better into headlines.

Killebrew’s amazing home run stretch in 1959 more or less carried on for the next dozen years. It was his fate to play baseball in the worst hitting era since Deadball, and yet from 1959 through 1970 — 12 years dominated by pitchers — Killer hit a home run every 12.7 at-bats. Up to that point, only Babe Ruth had hit home runs so often. Forty-five times in his career Killebrew hit two homers in a game. Six times he led the league in home runs. Eight times he hit 40-plus homers in a season.

He was a low-average hitter — he spent a career fighting to make more solid contact — but he was a ferocious worker, and he developed remarkable plate discipline. “If it isn’t a strike, don’t swing,” he said years later when asked his philosophy of hitting. He led the league in walks three times, and despite those low batting averages, from 1966 through 1971 he led the American League in overall on-base percentage (.401). He wasn’t fast or particularly nimble, and so playing defense was always a challenge, but he played five different positions, and he played hard, and observers will say he wrestled first base to a draw.

As a hitter, he was ahead of his time. His high-walk, big-power numbers would anticipate the 1990s, when various factors — steroids not being the least of these, though weight training and advances in diet and so on played their role — would give many players the superhuman strength of Harmon Killebrew. At the time, though, Killebrew was different. He was larger than life.

And, as a person, he was endlessly gracious. When word spread late last week that Harmon Killebrew was no longer going to fight the esophageal cancer that had struck him, that he was ready to accept his fate, there were a thousand stories told of Killebrew’s small kindnesses, bits of advice he gave to players, moments he took to talk with fans, compliments he gave to umpires, smiles he offered to anyone who caught his eye. Killebrew died on Tuesday. He was 74 years old. He will live on in baseball’s record books, of course, for his 573 home runs and a homer hit per 14.22 at-bats (a better ratio than Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Sammy Sosa — this though he played in a pitcher-dominated era) and his place in the Hall of Fame. But wouldn’t we all want to be remembered for making countless people’s days brighter?

The irony of calling him Killer was brought up many times throughout his life, though it is also true that Harmon Killebrew was intentionally walked more times than any other American League player in the 1960s. So the nickname isn’t that crazy. At the plate, he was a killer. His short, quick swing was the very image of power — so much so that for years it was said that the MLB logo was drawn in his image. The man who created the logo said that it was not Killebrew. But it looks like him. And it should be him.

People sometimes throw around the concept of a hitter being feared. Mostly, it’s kind of nonsensical. Baseball players generally don’t fear each other. But in a peculiar way they did fear Harmon Killebrew — or anyway, they feared what he was capable of doing at his best. Which leads, finally, to the story of George Brunet. He had quite a life. He was an American League pitcher, a lefty, who grew up on the Upper Peninsula. He struck out more than three thousand batters in the MINOR LEAGUES, which is a record, and he threw 55 shutouts in the Mexican League, which is a record, and he might be best known for his role in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four as the quirky lefty who did not wear underwear because that way, as he said, he didn’t have to worry about losing them.

Brunet also pitched 15 years for nine different teams in the big leagues. His battles with Harmon Killebrew were particularly interesting. In one game, in 1966, Brunet intentionally walked Killebrew three times — twice with a man on second base, and once with runners on second and third.

Well, it just so happened that the Twins did not score any of the times that Killebrew was walked, which seemed a pretty good deal to Lefty Brunet. That’s especially true because they faced each other four days later … and Killebrew homered. Less than two months later, they again matched up … and Killebrew homered. Four days after that, they faced each other again … and Killebrew homered again.

And that was when Lefty Brunet decided that he had seen quite enough of Harmon Killebrew. For the rest of his career, when George Brunet and Harmon Killebrew crossed paths, Brunet worked very hard to walk the Killer. And then finally there was the last time they faced each other, Aug. 22, 1970. That was Harmon Killebrew’s last 40-homer season, and it was Brunet’s last full season. They had faced each other 62 times — sort of a mini-marriage — and Brunet had won some (Killebrew hit only .250 against him) and Killebrew won some (he walked 22 times and mashed four home runs) and this was the last act. The score was tied 4-4, it was the fifth inning and there was nobody on base.

George Brunet intentionally walked Harmon Killebrew. He then coaxed Rich Reese to hit into a double play to end the inning. When asked about the decision to intentionally walk Killebrew with the bases empty — it was the third time he had done that — Brunet returned with a question of his own: What would you do?

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