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A look back at Harmon Killebrew

One of the all-time greats

Kansas City Royals v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The Hall of Fame weekend was a few weeks ago and as you well know Buck O’Neil was finally inducted. It was an honor that was well deserved and also long overdue. Do you know how many Hall of Fame inductees had ties with the Royals? It’s kind of a surprising number. There are many others who have ties to Kansas City baseball, either through the Monarchs or the Athletics. Immortal names such as Satchel Paige, Enos Slaughter, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Bullet Rogan, Hilton Smith, Dick Williams and of course Buck, just to name a few.

One of the inductees with ties to the Royals is Harmon Killebrew. The Royals, still trying to figure out the designated hitter thing, signed Killebrew for the 1975 season. More on that later.

Killebrew, who earned the nicknames “Killer” and “Hammerin’ Harmon”, was a high school legend in his hometown of Payette, Idaho where he earned 12 letters in various sports. His family had an athletic pedigree. His grandfather Culver was reportedly the strongest man in the Union Army as well as the army’s heavyweight wrestling champ. Culver’s great-granddaughter said he could stand flat-footed and jump over a horse. A full-grown horse can stand anywhere from 14 to 18 hands high. A hand is equal to about 4 inches, so that puts a horse at 56 to 74 inches in height. A 60-inch vertical leap? I’m guessing old Culver went over the horse like Fosbury went over the high jump bar. Still an impressive feat.

Killebrew’s father, Harmon Sr. who was also known as Clay, was the sheriff of Payette County and was a college football All-American at Millikin College before playing professionally with the Wheeling Steelers. Harmon himself was an outstanding football player and had a scholarship offer to play quarterback at the University of Oregon. There was only one problem with that. He liked playing baseball better.

The Red Sox had him on their radar, but were beaten to the draw by the Washington Senators, who signed the 17-year-old Harmon to a $30,000 contract. Baseball rules of the day dictated that Harmon was now a” Bonus baby” and had to spend two full seasons on the major league roster. The bonus baby rule was put into place to keep the Yankees from signing and stashing all the young talent in the minor leagues. It generally worked, except in cases like Clete Boyer. New York badly wanted Boyer but had no room for him on the major league roster. Instead, they worked out a backroom deal with the Kansas City Athletics, who signed Boyer. Once Boyer had turned 20 and fulfilled his two years of major league service, the Athletics traded him to the Yankees in a package with Art Ditmar and Bobby Schantz for a collection of stiffs. Boyer was a very solid third baseman for the Yankees from 1960 to 1966. The trade was one of many trades between the two teams that cemented the idea that Athletic owner Arnold Johnson was nothing more than a Yankee stooge.

Harmon, meanwhile, reported to the Senators, where he endured the scorn of his manager Bucky Harris, and older teammates. He made his debut as a pinch runner on June 23, 1954, as a 17-year-old. He got his first start on August 23rd at second base in a game against Philadelphia at Connie Mack Stadium. He collected three hits, including a double and drove in three runs. He didn’t see much action in 1955 either, only garnering 89 plate appearances. He did hit his first career home run on June 24th, a solo shot off Billy Hoeft of the Tigers.

Once Killebrew had served his Bonus Baby period, the Senators wisely sent him to the minors for seasoning. Minor league pitching was no problem for Harmon. In parts of three seasons between A and AAA ball, he slashed .290/.392/.533 with 63 home runs and 228 RBI.

He stayed with the Senators for good in the 1959 season and after a slow start was a revelation. The Senators, under former Brooklyn Dodger Cookie Lavagetto, only went 63 and 91 but Killebrew did his part. Even though he only hit .242, he led the league with 42 home runs. He collected 90 walks and drove in 105 more, while making his first All-Star team and picking up some down-ballot MVP votes.

That season started a phenomenal run for Killebrew, who went on to lead the American League in home runs in six different seasons, RBIs for three and walks for four seasons. He made ten more All-Star teams and won his only MVP award in 1969 when he slashed .276/.427/.584 with an OPS of 1.011. By this time, the Senators had abandoned Washington for the prairie of Bloomington, Minnesota. The laid-back nature of Minneapolis suited Killebrew perfectly. Killebrew was widely known as one of the nicest and most humble men in baseball and became a folk hero to the Scandinavian Lutherans who populate the Twin Cities.

Killebrew enjoyed his last All-Star season with the Twins in 1971, when at the age of 35 he still hit 28 home runs while driving in 119 and drawing 114 walks. The Twins hung onto him through the 1974 season, though it was clear that his best days were far behind him. Killebrew only hit .222 with 13 home runs in 1974 and after electing not to retire as a Twin, he was released on January 16, 1975. The rumor was that the Twin’s skinflint owner Calvin Griffith had offered Killebrew a $50,000 contract with the understanding that he’d be primarily a pinch hitter and coach. Killebrew had publicly stated that he wanted to play for 20 full seasons and reach the 600-home run mark, both admirable goals. After being released by the Twins, Killebrew contacted the Royals to see if they had any interest. “I think they can win, and I think I can fit in here (KC). Baseball is beautiful to me. People sometimes don’t realize what goes into making the game. The things you don’t necessarily see are what makes the game beautiful.” said Killebrew.

The Royals, always a team hoping to catch one last burst in a player, signed him a few days later and installed him as their designated hitter. It didn’t go well. In 106 games, over 369 plate appearances, Killebrew slashed .199/.317/.375 while hitting the final 14 home runs of his illustrious career. But what a career it was. Killebrew ended up with 573 home runs and 1,584 RBI in a career that was worth 60 WAR. Killebrew was never known as a superb defender, which certainly subdued his career WAR number.

I only saw him play once and that was on July 6, 1975, a Sunday game at the tail end of a long Fourth of July weekend. The game log says it was only 86 degrees but in my memory it was hotter. July and August in Kansas City can be close to Hades hot, and this day was no exception. Killebrew was batting fifth behind John Mayberry. He had just turned 39 a few days before but with his bald head and paunch body looked like he was 50. Of course, I know now that a man of 39 is still a young man, but when you’re 14, 39 looks ancient.

The White Sox stroked four Royal pitchers for 17 hits and 9 runs in a game that turned into a rout early. Fans, laboring under the summer sun, were restless and when catcher Fran Healy dropped an easy pop foul, they nearly exploded in frustration. We were sitting next to the Royals WAGS and I saw several cringe as sun-baked fans hurled invective upon Healy. Claude Osteen, who had a pretty good run with the Dodgers from the late 1960s to early 1970s, still knew how to pitch and he had the Royals off balance all afternoon. Frank White, playing shortstop that day, and Hal McRae hit doubles and Big John Mayberry cranked a two-run home run and that was about all Osteen gave up. Killebrew ended the day one for four, collecting a 2nd inning single before being wiped out by a Healy double-play grounder.

Killebrew, trying to defy Father Time, had one last good game for Kansas City. On May 23rd, in front of an appreciative Royals Stadium crowd, Killebrew slugged two home runs off Baltimore’s Ross Grimsley. His four RBIs helped lead the Royals to a 10 to 1 victory. The game marked the 47th and last time that Killebrew hit two home runs in a game. Killebrew had three more at-bats in the game, hoping to stroke another long ball, but a strikeout and two groundouts ended the quest.

Kansas City finished the 1975 campaign with a record of 91-71, the third best record in the American league and the fifth best record in all of baseball. That was good for second in the American League West, but still 7 games back of Oakland. No participation trophies or wildcards in those days. You either won your division or you stayed home.

At the time, the Royals had a reasonably strong farm system and had several younger players who needed playing time, guys like Hal McRae, Jim Wohlford, Tom Poquette, Ruppert Jones and Al Cowens. The 39-year-old Killebrew no longer fit into new manager Whitey Herzog’s plans so in November of 1975 the Royals granted Killebrew his release and that was it. Killebrew got his first baseball card in 1955 and looking at it you see a fresh-faced 19-year-old, the world in front of him and full of possibilities. His last card came in the 1975 set, still showing him with the Twins. On it, he’s signing an autograph for a fan. But the end comes for all of us, regardless of our profession. It just comes sooner for professional athletes.

Even though Killebrew was charitably listed as 6’0 and 195 pounds, he generated tremendous power. He hit several tape measure home runs in his career including a ball he hit over the left-field roof of Tiger Stadium. He was the first player in history to accomplish that feat. He hit the longest home run on record at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium and hit a 520-foot bomb in June of 1967 at Metropolitan Stadium that was the longest in Twins history. The Mall of America, which stands where Metropolitan Stadium once stood, has a replica home plate where it used to be at the Met. If your eyesight is good, you can look to your left and high up on a wall, three stories up, 520 feet away, is a red seat from the stadium that the ball struck on its return to earth.

Killebrew always said his first home run was his favorite. As he came to the plate in the bottom of the fifth, Tiger catcher Frank House said, “Kid, we're going to throw you a fastball.” Killebrew didn’t know if House was telling him the truth or yanking him around, but it didn’t matter. Killebrew hit the ball deep into the left field bleachers of Griffith Stadium, in what was one of the longest home runs he ever hit. As he crossed the plate, House said, “that’s the last time I ever tell you what pitch is coming.”

In retirement, Killebrew worked as a TV analyst for the Twins and Athletics and later became Oakland’s hitting instructor. In December of 2010, he announced that he was suffering from esophageal cancer which claimed his life on May 17, 2011.

Killebrew was widely recognized by umpires, executives, and players as one of the nicest men to ever play the game. The street just south of the Mall of America is called Killebrew Drive in his honor. His number 3 has long since been retired by the Twins, who also named Gate 3 at Target Field the Killebrew Gate. His 573 career home runs still ranks 12th all-time and his 1,559 walks still stand at #15 all-time.

In his prime he was one of the game's most feared sluggers. Think along the lines of someone like Jim Thome.

He’s a member of the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame and the Washington Nationals Ring of Honor. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984, in his fourth year of eligibility with 83% of the vote.

The answer to the earlier question about players in the Hall with Royal connections? Eight. Or nine, depending on how strict you are with service time. You have George Brett of course. Plus Killebrew. The others are Bob Lemon, Gaylord Perry, Orlando Cepeda, Joe Gordon, Whitey Herzog and John Schuerholz. I also included Hoyt Wilhelm, who was a Royal for about two months before traded to California for Ed Kirkpatrick.

Harmon Killebrew, one of the game's all-time greats and one of the kindest men to ever play the game. And for one summer, a member of the Royals.