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?