Harmon Killebrew 1936-2011
May 17 was a sad day for baseball in the Nation’s Capital. Shortly after the Nationals-Pirates game was called due to rain, the announcement was made that one of its legends had passed. Former Senators slugger and Hall-of-Famer Harmon Killebrew succumbed to esophageal cancer at the age of 74, just four days after entering hospice care.
Born Harmon Clayton Killebrew in the small town of Payette, Idaho, he was a boy who would eventually be referred to as “The Killer”—a name that couldn’t be more inaccurate. It was like naming a poodle Rampage. It was a name derived strictly from his last name because Killebrew was the antithesis of a killer. He was taught how to be a great athlete by his father, Harmon Sr. He recounted in his Hall of Fame induction speech how, when he was a child playing ball with his father, his “mother would say, ‘You’re tearing up the grass and digging holes in the front yard?’ And my father would say, ‘We’re not raising grass here, we’re raising boys.’” Killebrew’s father would pass in 1953, a year before he would ever get to see his son play in the Major Leagues.
For his career, Killebrew hit .258; he wasn’t ever considered a “great” hitter. But he was always a dangerous hitter: he hit 290 doubles with 1,584 RBI and 573 home runs for a .509 slugging percentage. He is currently 11th on the all-time home run list. Former Senators pitcher Dick Bosman would face Killebrew during their careers and recalled how difficult it was to approach the slugger.
“He could hit pretty much anything you threw out there at him. He could hit to right, he could hit to center and he could sure hit it to left,” Bosman said. “It was almost a guessing game as far as what you wanted to throw him and when.”
Killebrew was drafted by the original Washington Senators in 1954. Under the “Bonus Rule” that was installed by Major League Baseball at the time, Killebrew—then only 17 years old—was required to be on the active roster due to the amount he was being paid on his contract. He was the youngest player in the Major Leagues at the time. His rookie season, he only appeared in nine games; though in his first-ever Senators appearance, he belted out two singles and a double.
Two years after his debut, Killebrew’s “Bonus Rule” period expired and he was able to take advantage of more extended playing time in the Minors. He batted .325 with the Charlotte Hornets in 1956 and blasted 29 home runs with 101 RBI in ’57 for the Chattanooga Lookouts.
By 1959, Killebrew was the man to beat on the Senators. After veteran third baseman Eddie Yost was traded to Detroit, Killebrew took over that position. By mid-season, he had hit 28 home runs and was chosen to start the first of two All-Star Games that year. He would also be on the team in the second All-Star Game, as a reserve.
At the end of the 1959 season, Killebrew had hit 42 home runs to tie Rocky Colavito of the Cleveland Indians for the American League home run title. It was the first of eight times he would hit more than 40 home runs, as well as the first of six times that he would lead the AL in home runs. He also placed 15th in the voting for the 1959 MVP award.
Killebrew got off to a rough start to what would be his last year in DC due to injury, but quickly bounced back. In the 124 games he played in 1960, he hit 31 home runs; this did little to help the Senators, who went 73-81 en route to one of many second-division finishes.
Following the 1960 season, the original Senators went to Minnesota and became the Twins. They were replaced in Washington by the expansion Senators that same year. During his time spent in DC, he hit for a .250 average with a .494 slugging percentage. He hit 84 home runs, three triples and 45 doubles for the Senators and drove in 215 runs.
Killebrew placed in the MVP voting for the majority of his years in the Twin Cities, eventually taking that title in 1969—in a season where he played all 162 games.
“The Killer” played for the Twins until 1974, when he was given his release. He played one year for the Kansas City Royals before he retired.
Killebrew was a fan favorite in Washington, as well as in Minnesota, where they have retired his No. 3 jersey. A statue in his likeness currently stands at the Twins’ Target Field in addition to a large Gold Glove exactly 520 feet from home plate—520 feet being the distance of one of his longest home runs at old Metropolitan Stadium.
Beyond his contributions to the game, he was also known as simply a great person to be around.
“Everybody respected him, because he carried himself in a classy way. He was a quiet gentleman. He treated everybody equally, with respect,” Bosman said. “But he played the game hard. Everybody liked the guy, everybody spoke highly of him. I was fortunate to play against him.”