No. 67: Harmon Killebrew

This is a fuller version of the column I wrote in the last hours of Harmon Killebrew’s life in 2011. I called it, “The Gentleman Called Killer.”

The gentleman the sportswriters somewhat desperately called “Killer” was just 23 years old in 1959 — but by then Harmon Killebrew 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 destructive methods to control their own spending. Certainly, they might have controlled spending by not spending as much money. But that was deemed unrealistic.

In those days if a team signed a player for too much money, the team had to carry the player on the big league roster for two years. This was meant to discourage owners from paying players too much and it was impossibly dumb. It would be like corporations getting together deciding, as a cost-cutting measure, to insist that anyone who spent over a certain amount on a college graduate would be forced by law to make him or her a partner or at least vice president.

Here’s something: Harmon Killebrew was recommended to the Washington Senators by an actual senator, Herman Welker, an Idaho Republican. Welker is now known — if known at all — for two unrelated things:

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

2. Recommending Harmon Killebrew.

*Welker’s baseball sense was perhaps much better than his political one. His association with McCarthy was so close and so damaging, Welker lost to to a Democrat, Frank Church, something that has not happened in Idaho in the last 30-plus years.

The Baseball Senators took Welker’s advice and sent out former third-baseman Ossie Bluege to see Killebrew play in some 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.

Ao Killebrew was a part of the Senators. 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: Pinch runner.

He got just 15 plate appearances that first year, and 89 plate appearances his second. Killebrew did manage a few firsts. 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 the Senators down 13-0. Killebrew hit another homer two days later off of George Zuverink. That pretty much summed up his achievements that second year. In those 89 plate appearances, Killebrew hit an even .200. These were all but completely wasted seasons. He was sent to Charlotte for seasoning.

So, by 1959, Harmon Killebrew certainly was no phenom. He had been up and down so many times that his name was painfully 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). He was 23 years old and a had a lifetime .224 batting average in just 280 plate appearances. He is the only Hall of Fame player to get fewer than 500 plate appearances total in his first five years. His promise had dulled.

Killebrew’s astounding talent for hitting baseballs had been bungled by the Senators n every possible way those first six years. But one of the wonders of baseball is this: It’s awfully hard to snuff out extraordinary baseball players. In 1959, the Senators finally ran out of ways to crush Killebrew’s spirit and just gave him the third baseman’s job. He struggled. He was a dreadful third baseman. After the month or so, he was hitting in the low .200s with limited power.

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 young pitcher named Jim Bunning. In the 10th inning, with the score still 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 second 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 — hitting his homers off Detroit’s Frank Lary and Ray Narleski.

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

That made 11 homers in 17 games — with five two-homer games — and suddenly Harmon Killebrew was an overnight sensation. Mel Brooks used to say: “It only took me 20 years to become an overnight sensation.”

Reporters raced to the scene. Who was this Heartland folk hero? They found some irresistible facts. Harmon’s 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., who everyone called Clay, was a college football star who played for a while professionally with the Wheeling Steelers. Harmon himself was said to be so strong that X … X equaled a hundred different stories told by teammates and coaches and reporters about his amazing feats of strength. They saw him hit home runs while breaking bats. They saw him lift up teammates like they were large pillows. And so on.

The reporters began to call him Killer. The nickname, in many ways,was an absurdity. “Killer” fit Killebrew the way “Jazz” fits Utah or “Tiny” fits the hulking big guy in every other gangster movie. Killebrew 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, they were raising a family, violence was not in his existence. 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.”

They called him killer anyway. Sure, the reporters, perhaps overeagerly, also tried “Charmin’ Harmon,” “Harmin’ Harmon,” “Bombin’ Harmon,” “Hammerin’ Harmon,” and so on. But when you have a man whose name begins with “kill” and he hits massive, absurd home runs, “Killer” is inescapable. Plus, it fits into headlines.

Killebrew’s amazing home runs 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 to 1970* — 12 years dominated by pitchers — Killebrew hit a home run ever 12.7 at-bats. Up that point, only Babe Ruth had hit home runs so often. Forty-five times in his career he 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. After age 36, he seemed likely to reach 600 total home runs, but he faded in the end an finished with 573. At the time of his retirement, that was fifth in baseball history.

He was a low average hitter — he spent a career fighting to make more solid contact — but he was a ferocious worker, and because of this he developed remarkable plate discipline. “If it isn’t a strike, don’t swing,” he said years later when asked his philosophy of his hitting. He led the league in walks three times, and despite those low averages, from 1966-1971 he led the American League in 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 our time, when various factors — steroids not being the least of these, though weight training and advances in diet are a huge part too — would give many players the superhuman strength of Harmon Killebrew. At the time, though, Killebrew was a different kind of strong from everyone else. He was apart. 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 cancer that has struck him, that he was ready to accept his fate, there was 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. He will live on in baseball’s record books, of course. 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, but on the baseball diamond it really did fit. Harmon Killebrew was intentionally walked more times than any other American League player in the 1960s. Whatever fear means in baseball, Killebrew inspired it. 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. It should be him.

Finally: The story George “Lefty” Brunet. He lived quite a life, a book-worthy life. He was an American League pitcher, a lefty obviously, who grew up on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He struck out more than three thousand batters in various MINOR LEAGUES, which is a record. He threw 55 shutouts in the Mexican League, which is a record. 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 somehow also found time to 5 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 Harmon Killebrew three times — once with a man on second base, once with runners on second and third, and a third time with a man on second.

Well, it just so happened that the Twins did not score any of the times that he walked Killebrew, which seemed a pretty good deal to Lefty Brunet. 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. The next year, they faced each other a few times. And, yes, Killebrew homered again.

And that was when Lefty Brunet decided he had seen quite enough of Harmon Killebrew. They would face each other 30 more times, and Brunet walked Killebrew 12 of them. The last time they faced each other — August 22, 1970 — Brunet knew his big league career was coming to an end. The score was tied 4-4, and it was the fifth inning, and there was nobody on base.

So, George Brunet intentionally walked Harmon Killebrew. He then coaxed Rich Reese to hit into a double play to end the inning. A week later, Brunet was traded to Pittsburgh, shortly after that to St. Louis, and shortly after that he was released for good. I always liked what he said when the reporters asked him why he would intentionally walk Killer with the bases empty, Brunet returned with a question of his own: What would you do?

65 thoughts on “No. 67: Harmon Killebrew

  1. Wilbur

    In Ball Four, Bouton said the players all referred to him as The Fat Kid.

    That said, they held him in the highest respect.

    Reply
  2. Hal 10000 (@Hal_RTFLC)

    Killebrew did an internet chat about a decade ago. I remember because he completely suckered me. I asked him how many home runs he’d hit in today’s game and he said, “probably about 40-45″. I said, “Really? I thought it would be more.” and he answered, “Well, keep in mind that I am 65 years old.”

    Oldest joke in the book and I completely feel for it!

    Reply
  3. Jake Bucsko

    I don’t really have much to add, I never saw him play but I will point out that I seem to remember in the Hall Of Fame piece, Rafael Palmeiro was docked for, among other things, never once having a WAR above 7. Killebrew’s highest was 6.5 and he only topped 5 WAR four times. His JAWS averages are all well below the average 1B HOFer. His OPS+ is 58th all time, but Joe is also being kind by saying “Observers would say he fought first base to a draw” about a man who finished his career with a -19 dWAR. I’m not saying he doesn’t belong on this list or in the Hall, just some things I noticed while looking over his Reference page.

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    1. nickolai

      I think Joe’s larger point on Palmeiro was that he didn’t hit that 7 WAR threshold even when several other 1B/DH types were doing it at that same time, often in multiple seasons (Thomas, Bagwell, Pujols, Helton, McGwire, Olerud, Giambi, Thome, etc.). If you at Killebrew’s prime (say, 1959-1975), what other 1B/3B guys were consistently putting up higher WAR totals than Killebrew? Doesn’t seem to be that many — Mathews, McCovey, Santo maybe. Context matters.

      Reply
    2. Brian

      ” but Joe is also being kind by saying “Observers would say he fought first base to a draw” about a man who finished his career with a -19 dWAR.”

      dWAR shows absolute fielding value,not value relative to the player’s position, because it includes a positional adjustment. You can’t look at it to see how a player was at 1B, and then conclude he was bad because he had a negative dWAR, as just about any 1B will have a negative dWAR. I mean, Keith Hernandez has a positive dWAR, but even for him it’s only barely so (.7 for his career). Pujols is a bit better at 2.1 career dWAR, but he’ll probably lose value between now and retirement as he’s clearly past his fielding prime. Roger Connor posted 6.1 dWAR (by far the most for anyone who ever played 50% of their games at 1B), but a) 1B was a more important fielding position in the 19th century and b) I wouldn’t take Total Zone values for fielding before 1950 or so very seriously anyway.

      Since Killebrew debuted in 1954, only 4 1B (who played at least 75% of their games at 1B and played a minimum of 500 games) have posted a positive dWAR for their career: Pujols (2.1), Daric Barton (1.0), Hernandez (0.7) and Mark Teixeira (0.4), and all of those except Hernandez are in danger of losing value as they play past their fielding prime (Pujols has already lost a bunch of fielding value the last couple of years).

      Anyways, for value relative to a player’s position, looking at the fielding runs above average makes more sense, since that doesn’t include a positional adjustment. Killebrew had -78 fielding runs for his career. Which is bad. I mean, it’s not Derek Jeter territory (who, at -236 and climbing is the worst fielder of all time, relative to his position) but it’d put him in the bottom 75 fielders of all time based on BR’s career value. But looking at his numbers closer, the vast majority of those negative runs came at 3B: -50 runs at 3B, -19 at LF, -3 in some early stints at 2B (really?) and only -6 runs in 969 games at 1B.

      So I’d say Joe was more or less right in saying Killebrew fought 1B to a draw. And the Senators/Twins were idiots for playing him at 3B. I mean, they had him start 60 games at 3B in 1971 when he was 35. By the numbers he was horrible there while still being fine at 1B. I can’t imagine what they were thinking.

      Reply
      1. NevadaMark

        I can’t answer your question about 1971 but in 1965 Harmon was promised by his manager that he would play 1b the entire year. In the middle of the season Harmon went to his manager and volunteered to move to left field to get Don Mincher’s bat into the lineup. Yep, Don Mincher. Mincher led the league in intentional walks that year.

        I guess it worked out ok since the Twins won the pennant. Interestingly enough, Harmon did not have a great season by his standards but he only played 113 games (and still hit 25 homers). I assume he was hurt but do any old Twins fans here who remember the details?

        Reply
  4. Jon Midget (@YuccaManHoops)

    My father-in-law grew up in Minnesota, and Harmon was his favorite ball player ever. He had an autographed ball that was his prized possession.

    One day his younger brother was playing baseball, and they hit one over the fence into the woods. Nobody could find it. So he snuck into my father-in-law’s room and pulled out the autographed ball. “He’ll never even notice” was the thought. Well, they played with it all day, and it scuffed the autograph off.

    My father-in-law nearly died. He couldn’t even talk about it for years. Finally, about fifteen years ago, his son (my brother-in-law) caught up with Harmon speaking at a church event and got a replacement autographed ball. It was a surprise Christmas present. It went back in a little display on my father-in-law’s dresser.

    A few months ago, my father-in-law died. At his request, the autographed ball was displayed right next to the family photos at the funeral.

    That’s right … Harmon had a place in his heart right with his family. That’s the kind of ballplayer and man Harmon Killebrew was.

    Reply
  5. Ian

    Nice write up, Joe. What amazed me about him was how much the current Twins players liked him – a bunch of them were pall-bearers at his funeral (the Twins were in AZ at the time) and some were crying like babies.

    Reply
  6. Jake Bucsko

    While I’m here, I also just finished the Blyleven section and there was a lot of talk about park factors. I think that baseball diamonds all having different dimensions is my least favorite thing about baseball. How hard would it have been to just make all the parks the same size? Can you imagine this discussion happening in other sports?

    “Sure, Ovechkin scored more goals than Crosby, but remember that the net in Washington is four inches wider than in Pittsburgh”
    “Ray Allen is obviously a better three point shooter than Reggie Miller, the court in Indiana moved the three point line in two feet right before Reggie was drafted!”
    “It’s nice that Peyton Manning threw 55 touchdowns, but you have to remember the field is only 90 yards long in Denver. That’s basically the same as a 39 touchdown season in New Orleans, Brees has to drive 110 yards there”

    Blecch. If I am ever the Overlord of Baseball, my first act will be to make all parks the same size. I’m sure some (maybe even most) find it charming or old-timey or whatever, but it drives me nuts every time someone hits a game-winning HR and then I read that it only would have been a home run in like 5 ballparks.

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    1. Cuban X Senators

      “Sure Esposito tallied 152 points, but the blue line in Boston Garden was 10 feet from the red & the goal was 2 strides from the corner.”

      “Sure Prater kicked a 64-trader but only 2 of the top 5 longest FG have occurred outside of Mile High Stadium.”

      Reply
    2. Christopher Jones

      Hi Jake,
      I am in full agreement with you here. All ballparks should have the same dimensions. The funny part is, most stadiums have the room to fulfill the size adjustments (other than Fenway). I find it puzzling as well when people bring up the park dimensions issue.

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      1. Spencer

        Lame, having different dimensions gives ballparks character that is unparalleled in other sports.

        There are more unique and interesting stadiums (currently and historically) in baseball than there are in all other major American team sports combined.

        I’m sorry if it makes it harder for you to translate stats…Yeesh…

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    3. Trent Phloog

      Boy, am I glad you’re not the Overlord of Baseball. Do you also wish everyone in America spoke with the same accent? Ate the same food? Wore the same clothes — like in sci-fi movies where everyone’s in a silver jumpsuit?

      Unique park dimensions are just one of the (many, many) reasons why baseball is more interesting than, say, basketball.

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    4. NevadaMark

      Not that it negates your point, but in the old Boston Garden the rink really was smaller than regulation.

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    5. invitro

      “If I am ever the Overlord of Baseball, my first act will be to make all parks the same size.”

      Certainly this is sarcasm.

      Your intended change would not have its intended effect anyway, as field dimensions causes only a small part of park factor. There’s also elevation and temperature, which I think have a greater effect.

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  7. Lawhamel

    Geez, even a guy who leads his league in OBP while batting .276 is subject to the scrutiny of Saber-stats. Sorry his WAR wasn’t high enough – career OPS of .915 through age 36, with an OPS+ of 149 – certainly this guy is a top 100 player.

    As to the vagaries of the different parks – same as different Eras – this is one of the beauties of baseball. It’s why the stats should not be the be-all, end-all. There IS room for debate, for subjective analysis in baseball. Would Mel Ott have hit 511 home runs playing outside of the Polo Grounds? Because Larry Walker played in Colorado, should his numbers NOT count? Should players from the late 1960′s get more credit for hitting and less credit for pitching? Ditto in the deadfall? All of this matters, and everyone has a different opinion on this stuff. Which makes for GREAT debates.

    Reply
    1. Jake Bucsko

      @lawhamel, I just think there would be plenty of things to argue over in baseball if all the parks were the same size. It’s not like other sports are hurting for argument and debate.

      And I said, I’m not saying Killer doesn’t belong. Playing a little devil’s advocate to spark some of that debate and differing opinions you were just talking about. But the 7 WAR thing did catch my eye since Joe used that particular stat against Palmeiro just the other day.

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      1. Patrick Hogue

        Fangraphs has slightly better WAR numbers for Killebrew: 7.1 in 1969 and 7.0 in 1967, followed by seasons of 6.4, 6.0 and 5.5. Palmero’s top 5 seasons are 6.9, 6.3, 5.9, 5.6 and 5.4.

        Reply
  8. George

    Killebrew and Greenberg have comparable WAR (60.4 for HK, 57.6 for HG), but Killer player 1,000+ more games. Hank blows Killer away in OPS+ (158 to 143). Give me Greenberg over Killebrew.

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      1. BobDD

        At 1B only, I also would rate Killer number 4, but have a burning need for a sluggers bat at 3B and he all of a sudden rates number 1 among those same players. Not that he was ever even average at 3B defensively, but probably a bit better than Miguel Cabrera for instance.

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  9. Wilbur

    Jake, is your objection to nonuniformity in ballparks limited to outfield dimesions? Or does it include the amount of foul-ground territory? The various temperature, humidity, prevailing wind speed and direction throughout MLB? Could these factors be more influential in park differences than outfield dimensions?

    Reply
    1. Christopher Jones

      Good points. The foul ground issue is another thing. I think they should be more uniform as well, but the outfield dimensions are the bigger concern. The foul ground is up for more debate. and yes, weather will always be a factor, as is with football as well.

      Reply
  10. Jake Bucsko

    @wilbur, I’m sure that stuff matters too but you can’t control act of God type stuff like the weather. That happens. It’s harder to play QB in Green Bay than in Miami. But when a fly ball is a home run in Atlanta but not in Los Angeles, that’s the head scratcher for me.

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    1. BobDD

      even in indoor stadiums, altitude would make a difference
      no way to “pre-neutralize” park affects for baseball
      so we’ll just be forced to remain smarter than Chass

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    2. bellweather22

      A head scratcher that the parks are different? That LA has thick cool night ocean air? That in Atlanta the breeze often blows from left to right? Which? The dimensions themselves are actually pretty similar.

      Reply
  11. Scott Harris

    Having grown up in Mpls. when the Twins moved to town, I had the good fortune of learning to love baseball with Harmon as my boyhood hero. He was as strong as Paul Bunyon, a solid citizen and possessed an easy charm (he hosted a pre-game interview show when the Twins games were televised). His gentlemanly and modest demeanor perfectly reflected the simple Minnesota spirit of the time, and with each of his at bats there was the very real possibility of him hitting a towering home run. It’s hard to overstate what he meant to the growth of pro sports in Minnesota.
    I wish I could get a recording of the David Letterman show broadcast sometime in the mid-80′s when he had Harmon Killebrew Night, complete with a re-enactment of Harmon leaving Idaho as a teen to play pro baseball (Harmon played himself, and I believe that Dave played his mother waving goodbye from the train platform).

    Reply
  12. Chris M

    2 things to consider with Killebrew, that Joe sort of alluded to but didn’t really delve into:

    1) The lost development time. Killebrew basically wasted his age 18 and age 19 seasons sitting on an MLB bench. Could you imagine the outroar if, say, Bryce Harper had been drafted and then immediately had to sit on an MLB bench for 2 years? People talk about how many prospects are ruined by being rushed to A+ or AA these days. Makes you wonder how much better Killebrew could have been had he been allowed to develop like a normal prospect. Same goes for Sandy Koufax.

    2) Had he been born a decade later, he would have been able to play the last 12 years or so of his career as a DH. I wonder what kind of impact that might have had on his overall numbers (600+ homers?)…also, his defensive “value” greatly drags down his overall value as a player, so his WAR numbers might look better. And that’s not even getting into the fact that being born a decade later means he wouldn’t have had play as much of his career in the offense suppressing 60′s.

    Reply
    1. Cuban X Senators

      ‘Cept that when presented with the option of DHing Killebrew, the Twins chose to DH Tony Oliva instead.

      Reply
      1. Anon

        Cept that faced with DHing Killebrew, the Twins basically chose to not play him because he was washed up. Killebrew played only 69 games in 1973 (57 at 1B) and while he played 122 games in 1974, a quarter of those were PH appearances and half were DHing meaning he only played 33 games in the field that year.

        Reply
        1. Cuban X Senators

          In 1973, Killebrew, coming off of 2 knee surgeries, opened his season at week late, then played 53 of 62 at 1B, PH twice, DH’d twice (the 2 DH games being the only games he started when Oliva was not in the line up).

          Ie, 53 out of 53 times, The Twins chose to DH Oliva & only opted to DH Killebrew when Oliva was out of the line up.

          Killebrew then went on the DL until September. Playing time had little to do with washed-upedness.

          But to be less prosaic in the intent of my previous post, the Twins felt they had a bigger defensive liability with a bat they wanted in the lineup.

          Reply
  13. Tom Flynn

    His wasted time and endangered development as a “bonus baby” raises an important question. How many prospects were really screwed up under this system Is it possible to identify and track the relative success or failure of those players ?

    Reply
    1. NevadaMark

      It should not be that hard. After all, no team is going to have more than one or two at a time, since they would be wasting roster spots. So they should be relatively easy to track.

      Reply
  14. Carlton Howard III

    Harmon was also the source for what I believe to be the greatest baseball song ever; “Harmon Killebrew” by Jeff Arundel.

    Check it out:

    Reply
  15. Wilbur

    If you go by his “Baseball” series, Burns never heard of anyone who didn’t play in New York or Boston.

    Doris Kearns Goodwin’s childhood recollections of Brooklyn were infinitely more fascinating than Harmon Killebrew, for example. He did stoop to give 90 seconds to Stan Musial, though.

    Reply
    1. Tom Flynn

      And I thought it was just me! I got the distinct impression that baseball did not exist outside of NYC in the 40s and 50s.

      Reply
  16. David Gardner

    My Harmon Killebrew story:

    In 2010, I went to the Rickwood Classic in Birmingham, Alabama.
    Rickwood Field (built in 1910) is the oldest surviving professional ballpark in the U.S. It was the home of the Birmingham Baron until 1987, and was also the home of the Birmingham Black Barons of the old Negro Leagues.

    The Rickwood Classic is a “throwback” game, in which both teams wear period uniforms.
    A Babe Ruth look-alike circulated among the crowd, and a lot of people were getting their picture taken with him. Also, the Birmingham starting pitcher (don’t recall his name) made two big back and forth rocking pumps to throw the first pitch of the game, looking like one of those old-time pitchers from the newsreel. (Or like Juan Marichal.) The crowd got a good laugh out of that, and gave him a nice hand.

    And Harmon Killebrew was the special guest that year. (He had played at Rickwood several times when he was a member of the Chattanooga Lookouts.) He was supposed to sign autographs for thirty minutes prior to the game, which he did. And then…instead of taking off, or heading up to the press box…he set at a little table at one corner of the covered bleachers right behind home plate, patiently signing autographs and chatting with fans all during the game, and for probably another thirty minutes AFTER the game. He was typical Harmon…friendly and down-to-earth, sharing a few stories here and there, and complimenting a lot of the great players he had played both against and with. And this was a man who…even then…was fighting esophageal cancer.

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  17. Geoff

    I appreciate all the nice stories people have posted (and of course this amazing list!), and Killebrew was obviously a great guy, but when it comes to this ranking I just don’t see it. Killebrew is tied with Bobby Abreu and Gary Sheffield in 172nd place for career WAR, which honestly seems about right. I think he’s a clear HOFer, but getting him into the top 100 seems like a reach, and having him ranked 67 seems like an overly sentimental choice. He’s 19th in JAWS among 1B, well below the HOF average for the position, and is sandwiched between Keith Hernandez and John Olerud. I love both those guys, but I certainly don’t think either of them belongs anywhere near this list. I saw it argued that Killebrew should get some extra consideration for having his development stunted by the bonus rules of the time, but even if you (very generously) gave him an extra 10 wins he’d still rank behind Thome and Palmeiro. Again, these are great players who (I think) both belong in the HOF, but we’re talking about the 67th greatest player ever. Maybe I’m wrong, but it doesn’t look like Manny will make this list…what exactly is the argument that Killebrew was a better player?

    This is the first selection that’s really baffled me…I’m very curious to see who gets left off this list, as I had 97 locks/maybes for the last 69 spots, all of whom I’d rank ahead of Killebrew.

    Reply
    1. John Gale

      Well (if Manny does indeed fail to make the list, and I’m not prepare to make that prediction just yet), I think the argument might be that Killebrew didn’t fail a drug test. Twice (actually, it’s really three times, since Manny was also on the 2003 list, but he only faced suspensions for the two tests he failed after the penalties were put in place). Admittedly, that wouldn’t explain why McGwire is on the list, what with his confirmed steroid use. As for the rest of your argument, I was also surprised that Killebrew made the list at all, let alone this high. But I don’t really mind, as it was a great read, and I don’t have super strong feelings on many players on the list.

      One thing we can say, I think, is that Joe is not directly going by career WAR, so maybe we (or at least I) should stop expecting him to. Here are the players so far and their career WAR rank. Obviously, a few of these (e.g. Ichiro, Greenberg, Jackson, Rivera, Cabrera) have good reasons (being born in Japan, serving in World War II, Black Sox, being a closer, and still being active, respectively) why their WARs are lower. And of course, some guys (Bell, Rogan, Williams, Leonard, Irvin and Oh) don’t have rankings because they played in other leagues.

      100. Curt Schilling (62)
      99. Cool Papa Bell (N/A)
      98. Ron Santo (92)
      97. Lou Whitaker (77)
      96. Ichiro Suzuki (190)
      95. Mariano Rivera (207)
      94. Paul Waner (83)
      93. Craig Biggio (134)
      92. Old Hoss Radbourn (71)
      91. Robin Roberts (49)
      90. Mark McGwire (158)
      89. Bullet Rogan (N/A)
      88. Tim Raines (105)
      87. Nolan Ryan (58)
      86. Miguel Cabrera (231)
      85. Barry Larkin (97)
      84. Frankie Frisch (94)
      83. Gaylord Perry (42)
      82. Roberto Alomar (124)
      81. Joe Jackson (156)
      80. Johnny Mize (91)
      79. Smokey Joe Williams (N/A)
      78. Ryne Sandberg (118)
      77. Ozzie Smith (69)
      76. Buck Leonard (N/A)
      75. Tony Gwynn (107)
      74. Hank Greenberg (201)
      73. Arky Vaughan (82)
      72. Willie McCovey (137)
      71. Monte Irvin (N/A)
      70. Duke Snider (127)
      69. Sadaharu Oh (N/A)
      68. Bert Blyleven (37)
      67. Harmon Killebrew (172)

      Joe has Killebrew 30 spots higher than Whitaker, who is 95 spots ahead on the career WAR list. So some of these aren’t even all that close to what we might expect just by looking at WAR. Then again, I’m a bit of a skeptic about the way WAR is used by some people these days (as a be-all end-all stat), anyway. I may not agree with Joe’s rankings on everything (though that will be true of any list that I didn’t write myself), but I have enjoyed each and every entry. I think I’m done trying to figure out the rest of the list and will just enjoy each entry as it comes. Part of the fun is waiting for each new name to be unveiled, especially when it’s a surprise.

      Reply
      1. invitro

        I’m scratching my head too. But this pick is consistent with some other lists. Bill James had him #63 and ESPN had him #64. Maybe it’s OK to assume Killebrew would’ve had 6 WAR in his age 18 to 22 seasons.

        Reply
        1. Phoenix Woman

          Oh, maybe because Harmon was the best home run hitter in baseball during a time of pitcher dominance not seen since the Dead Ball Era. His average wasn’t high, but he was so feared as a threat and so good at judging pitches that he consistently led the league in on-base percentage.

          About that power of his that made pitchers walk him whenever they could: You can count the number of people who hit balls over the left-field roof and out of the old Tiger Stadium on the fingers of one hand. Harmon was one of them. And he was the first to ever hit it over the left-field roof.

          Reply
    2. Phoenix Woman

      Why is Harmon on this list? Ask any of the pitchers who faced him. Including Koufax.

      He played the bulk of his career during a time when pitchers ruled the roost, and he still hit a home run every thirteenth at-bat. If he’d been born twenty years later he’d have had a career .290 average and an OBP of .500.

      Reply
  18. Dave

    This is not a list of the top 100 WAR players; it’s a list of who, in Joe’s opinion, are the 100 “greatest” players. “Greatest” can have different meanings: WAR yes, but also impact on the game in addition to stats, For example, I would think Joe will have Jackie Robinson ranked far higher than WAR would suggest, and Paige as well. (As Larry Tye wrote in his biography of Satchel, and I don’t remember if he was quoting someone else, Yes, Robinson opened the door, but only after Satchel had unlocked it.) They had an impact on the game far above any WAR calculation. Another player who I believe will be ranked higher than his WAR would indicate, although it’s quite high, is Clemente.

    So let’s enjoy these beautiful vignettes, helping us to remember our youth, our readings, our present observations, and not get hung-up only on stats. And I write this being a SABR member “stat head.”

    Thanks Joe, thanks ever so much for this continuing “Christmas present.”

    Reply
      1. vivaelpujols

        Seemed pretty mean spirited and dismissive to me. It’s possible to question a players ranking on this list without being a unthinking slave to WAR.

        Looks like Killebrew’s getting a ton of extra credit for being sort of a pioneer of the 90′s/00′s playing style. But to my eyes it looks like Greenberg it’s at least equal in that department and kills him in overall baseball talent/value. So I guess Killebrew is getting extra credit for being a really nice guy? That’s fine I guess.

        Reply
          1. Phoenix Woman

            Harmon was the best home run hitter of his time, and he played, without drugs, during two decades of time where the pitchers dominated as they hadn’t since the 1920s and never will again.

  19. Kuz

    I have witnessed several Major League tilts in my time, and Harmon Killebrew hit the hardest ball I have ever seen. It was around 1994-6 in Yankee Stadium. It is difficult but fun to describe. He hit a line drive that appeared to be rising and sinking at the same time. The ball had a spin on it like a fast curve ball thrown by a righty. It continued to rise and sink and curve left until it landed inside the foul pole in the upper deck of left field of the old Yankee Stadium. It was not a fly ball but a line drive.

    Reply

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