The Killer

Harmon Killebrew

It seems like I’m writing an inordinate number of posts that deal with the death of a player from my younger years. I guess you’ve heard about the death of Harmon Killebrew by now. He was a player of my youth, but I associate him more with my coming-of-age years than with my younger years.

Killebrew was one of those “bonus babies” that came up in the 1950s. The rule was that if the guy got a bonus he had to remain on the big league roster for two years before he could go to the Minors. The idea was to discourage teams from putting out large amounts of money for unproven kids. What it meant in practice was that the signing of one of these guaranteed that fans saw the player getting his Minor League education in the Majors. Some of those could be painful to watch. I guess that Killebrew and Sandy Koufax were probably the most famous “bonus babies” of the 1950s. Both hit their stride in the 1960s (although Killebrew had a good 1959) and intertwined in 1965.

Killebrew came to the Washington Senators (now the Minnesota Twins) in 1954, rode the pine in ’54 and ’55, then split time between Washington and the minors the next three years. His Major League numbers weren’t very good. He had 57 hits in 254 at bats (.224) with 30 RBIs and 11 home runs. The 11 homers in 57 hits was pretty good but he walked only 23 times and  struck out 93 times. Additionally he was wretched in the field. They tried him at second and third with no success. He could catch the ball and had OK range, but he had a “God Knows” arm (“God Knows where the ball is going when he lets it loose”). he spent his career wandering from third, to left, to first and was honestly best suited for the DH role, which didn’t come into the AL until too late in his career.

Like I said, it was painful, but it did pay off. In 1959 he became the fulltime third baseman and began his assault of American League pitching. He hit all of .242, but led the league in home runs. Over the course of his career he would lead the AL in home runs six times, peaking at 49 twice. He also led the league in RBIs and walks three times each, in OBP, slugging and strikeouts once each, and picked up the AL MVP Award in 1969. In that same year, baseball adopted its modern logo. Killebrew is supposed to be the model for the logo.

In 1965 he helped lead the Twins to their first pennant and the fourth overall for the franchise (1924, 1925, 1933 in Washington). He faced fellow bonus baby Koufax in the Series. The Twins lost, but Killebrew hit .282, had an OPS of .873, and hit one home run (off Don Drysdale, not Koufax). The Twins also got to the AL playoffs in 1969 and 1970, losing to Baltimore both times. He hit a buck-25 in 1969, but had two homers, four RBIs, and a .273 average in 1970.

By 1972 he began falling off. He had miserable years in 1973 and 1974, was traded to Kansas City in 1975 and finished up a Royals teammate of George Brett. He was 39. The Hall of Fame brought him inside in 1984.

For his career he hit .256, slugged .509, had on OBP of  .376, and OPS of .884 (OPS+ 143). He had 573 home runs, 1584 RBIs, scored 1283 runs, and ended up 1559 walks to 1699 strikeouts. His career home run percentage is fourth all time.

There were two knocks on Killebrew as a hitter. First his batting average was only.256. With that average he produced 2300 runs,. Nine times he had 100 or more RBIs; he scored 90 or more runs seven times and 89 once. He managed to do all that while hitting .256. Tell you what, I’ll take the runs and RBIs, you can have the average.

Second, during his career and since his retirement there was a perception of Killebrew as a big lug who struck out a lot, kind of a latter day Ralph Kiner (which is wrong about Kiner too). For his career, Killebrew struck out exactly 140 times more than he walked. If you look at his productive years (1959-1972) the number drops to 24 (or 1.6 per season). I can give up 24 strikeouts for 500 home runs. If we’re going to complain about his strikeouts, we need to also remember his walk totals. He led the AL in strikeouts only once, in walks many more times.

My memories of Killebrew are mixed.I remember little of him as the “bonus baby”. I don’t recall a single Senators game I saw or heard, so I don’t know if I ever got to see or hear about him in the 1950s. I remember him as the fearsome slugger of the 1960s. No one I ever saw swung the bat harder more consistently than Killebrew. Roy Campanella had the hardest swing I saw, and Glenallen Hill scattering the fans on the rooftops across from Wrigley hit the hardest ball I ever saw, but Killebrew did both with more consistency than either. I swear even the homers that barely trickled over the fence seemed like he’d hit them a ton. He was awkward in the field, but graceful with a bat. I never particularly rooted for the Twins, but both he and Tony Oliva were personal favorites of mine.

So It’s Rest in Peace for the Killer. He was a great ballplayer, apparently an even greater man. All of us are poorer that he is gone. I offer up one simple prayer, “Don’t have too many more of these postmortem posts for me to write for the rest of this year.” Deal, Lord?

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3 Responses to “The Killer”

  1. Vinnie Says:

    Amen to that.
    The only player I ever saw who hit them harder or farther and more consistently was Mantle. Not bad company to be in.

  2. Sportsphd Says:

    As a Twins fan, it is a shame to see him go. He is probably the best player in Minnesota history. His hitting stats, given that thy came in a pure pitching era, are even better than they look. I love pictures of his batting stance. It seems to me it is the purest power hitting stance ever. It doesn’t have the balance of Williams or Pujols, or the quickness of Ichiro or Carew. Instead he stand there as if to say “I am going to use every muscle in my body to swing as hard as I can and fit the ball as far as is humanly possible.”

  3. Bill Miller Says:

    Killebrew is a perfect example of the limitations of batting average as a useful stat. A great player, for sure, no matter what era he played in. If he had played in the 1930’s, his batting average would have been up around .300 every year, and for some people, this would have enhanced his reputation. No matter, he was an example of what a ball player should be: Hard-working, humble, and talented.
    Nice post, Bill

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