A man who wielded significant power in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s and is generally recognized as the first player to admire the parabolic trajectories of self-launched baseballs has died. Harmon Killebrew, slugger supreme, Hall of Famer and civic treasure in the Twin Cities, has joined the great majority, among whom he will stand with distinction because of achievement, friendly persuasion, unusual name and “Killer” nickname.
Killebrew succumbed to esophageal cancer Tuesday in Scottsdale, Ariz., at age 74. Diagnosis of the rare disease was made public in late December and he underwent treatment in Arizona, his adopted home state. But he began hospice care on May 13, issuing a statement that said, in part, “I have exhausted all options with respect to controlling this awful disease. My illness has progressed beyond my doctors’ expectation of cure.”
He is the fifth Hall of Famer to pass in slightly more than a year. The passing of Robin Roberts last May has been followed by the deaths of Sparky Anderson, Bob Feller, Duke Snider and now the slugger who, until 2009, had more home runs, 573, than any right-handed hitter in American League history.
“No individual has ever meant more to the Minnesota Twins organization and millions of fans across Twins Territory than Harmon Killebrew,” Twins president Dave St. Peter said. “Harmon will long be remembered as one of the most prolific home run hitters in the history of the game and the leader of a group of players who helped lay the foundation for the long-term success of the Twins franchise and Major League Baseball in the Upper Midwest.”
A native of Idaho, Killebrew made his name in baseball in the nation’s capital near the end of the ’50s, underscored it many times in 14 summers playing for the Twins in Minnesota, wrapped up his career with one final season in Kansas City, and eventually found a permanent baseball address in Cooperstown, N.Y., among the most prominent names in the game’s long history.
Harmon Clayton Killebrew was a name of distinction, to be sure. The Major Leagues has had no other player with Harmon as a first name and no other with the same surname.
Though he and fellow Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry played in different leagues until the slugger’s career was winding down, Perry once referred to Killebrew as “Ma Bell” because he hit for long distance. Killer, Mickey Mantle, Willie McCovey and Frank Howard were the primary practitioners of the mammoth home run in the 1960s, when Killebrew won five of his six American League home run championships and a Most Valuable Player Award, played in a World Series and hit 393 home runs. No one hit more home runs in the decade.
And no one at the time lingered so long in the batter’s box to admire his power-ball handiwork. Though the behavior seemed contrary to his modest personality, Killebrew is widely regarded to have been the first player to delay his home run trot in order to monitor, and perhaps admire, his launches. Reggie Jackson, Dave Parker, Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds took it to new levels, but they were mimicking Killer.
He hit the longest measured home runs at Metropolitan Stadium and Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, and in 1962 was the first to clear the left-field roof at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.
He was a farm-strong man readily recognizable because of his broad shoulders, relatively short frame — he was generously listed at 5-foot-11 — minimal hair, and, when in uniform, his signature No. 3. He emerged as the Babe Ruth of the Midwest, hitting more career home runs than all but Ruth, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson before his retirement at the end of the 1975 season. Until Alex Rodriguez passed him in 2009, Killebrew had hit more home runs in the American League than any right-handed hitter. His single-season home run total exceeded 40 eight times in his 14 seasons as a regular; he hit 39 once.
A nomad defensive player, he is one of three players to have hit at least 100 home runs at each of three positions — first base, third base and left field.
Killebrew’s 1,584 career RBIs rank in a tie for 36th place all-time. He led the league in RBIs three times, establishing his personal high, 140, in 1969, when he won the MVP. He placed in the top five in MVP balloting in five other years.
Hall of Fame status for Killebrew appeared to be a foregone conclusion when he retired, but he wasn’t elected until 1984, his fourth year of eligibility.
Killer was revered in Minneapolis and St. Paul. A street alongside the Mall of America, built on the site of Metropolitan Stadium, where the Twins played, is named Killebrew Drive. His No. 3 was the first uniform number to be retired by the Twins in 1974, the year the team released him at age 38. His congeniality and unblemished personal resume only reinforced the popularity produced by his on-field achievements. He appeared in 2,435 games during his career and never was ejected. When his cancer was announced, former Twins teammate Tony Oliva said, “I tell everybody he’s too nice to be a baseball player. He’s a gentleman.”
Earlier platitudes of that nature once prompted Killebrew to wonder aloud: “If I am such a nice guy, how’d I get this nickname?” He did so by bashing home runs to the farthest reaches of ballparks. He was as feared as any slugger. Dave DeBusschere, who made his athletic mark in the NBA, also pitched for the White Sox in 1962-63. He abandoned baseball, he said, for one reason: “Harmon Killebrew.”
DeBusschere faced Killebrew four times — struck him out, walked him and surrendered two home runs. The 443 other batters DeBusschere faced combined for eight. “I’ve got a better chance against Chamberlain,” DeBusschere said years later. “Wilt’s a lot bigger, but Harmon might have been stronger.”
Killebrew’s strength came from his Idaho upbringing, from hoisting 10-gallon milk cans onto trucks. Got milk? Indeed. It may be apocryphal, but his grandfather was said to be the strongest man in the Union army. He routinely won wrestling matches.
Killer’s career was undermined by frequent debilitating injuries and also by the “bonus-baby” rule in effect when he signed with the Washington Senators in 1954. Because of the rule, the Senators were obligated to carry him on their big league roster for two seasons, so Killebrew didn’t immediately benefit from the everyday Minor League schooling available to lesser prospects. Though his first turn at bat came at age 17 in ’54, he had merely 280 plate appearances in the big leagues by the time he began playing regularly in 1959.
He hit 42 home runs that season, tying Rocky Colavito of the Indians for the league leadership and equaling the Senators’ single-season record established two years earlier by Roy Sievers. Nine of the 11 highest single-season totals in Senators-Twins history were produced by Killebrew.
Idaho senator Herman Welker is said to have alerted the Senators of Killebrew’s power and prowess. The Red Sox also pursued Killebrew as an amateur, but the Senators, at that time recognized for an ability to spot offensive potential, signed the Milkman for $50,000.
Injuries, the most prominent of which occurred in the 1968 All-Star Game, were an issue for Killebrew. He was assigned to the disabled list for 55 days that summer after tearing his left hamstring while stretching for a throw at first base. He had merely 371 plate appearances, 48 following his return Sept. 1. He walked 70 times, but hit merely 17 home runs. He produced his finest season in 1969, when the Twins won the first American League West championship.
Killebrew endured financial and medical problems after retiring. He was reported to be $700,000 in debt in 1989 following a foreclosure on his home the previous year. He suffered damage to his esophagus in 1990 when his lung collapsed. He was in serious condition and required a wheelchair during his convalescence.
But his health had been considered good until the announcement of cancer in December. Killebrew is survived by his second wife, Nita, and nine children from two marriages.