Harmon Killebrew Baseball Stats and Facts by The Baseball Page
“Killer” might seem like an odd sobriquet for a stocky, soft-spoken Mormon who once included washing dishes among his favorite hobbies, but when one considers how Harmon Killebrew massacred fastballs throughout the 1960’s, the nickname becomes entirely appropriate. No player hit more home runs that decade than Killebrew, and few could hit them as high or as deep. Playing in an era of cavernous ballparks and dominant pitchers, Killebrew finished his career with an astonishing 573 home runs, good for tenth best all time, and second only to Babe Ruth among American League sluggers. Powered by the Killer’s prodigious bat, the Minnesota Twins went from perennial also-rans at the beginning of the ‘60’s to pennant winners by decade’s end. To many of his fans and fellow players, Killebrew wasn’t just the Twins’ franchise player - he was the franchise. Said fellow Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, "If Harmon Killebrew isn't the league's best player, I've never seen one. He's one of the greatest of all time."
The youngest of four children, Harmon Killebrew was born in Payette, Idaho in 1936. His father, a former college football star, encouraged his son’s passion for sports, but cautioned him never to let his passions get the better of him between the lines. "My father taught me to keep my emotions under control," Killebrew once said. "If they get out of control, then the opposition has the advantage." While other superstar sluggers made headlines with their flashy play and off-the-field antics, Killebrew became renowned for the stoic reserve and quiet intensity with which he approached his craft. Over the course of a 22-year career in which he played 2435 games, Killebrew was never once ejected from a ballgame for arguing with an umpire.
An honors student in high school, Killebrew was offered an athletic scholarship to the University of Oregon, but opted instead to play semi-pro ball and attend college in his home state. After hitting a blistering .847 for the local farm team, Killebrew was scouted by Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith, acting on a tip from Idaho Senator Herman Welker. The Boston Red Sox also expressed an interest in the young slugger, but Griffith eventually signed the 17-year-old Killebrew to a $50,000 contract in June of 1954.
Such a hefty contract for one so young placed Killebrew under the major leagues' “bonus baby” restrictions, which required that he spend two full seasons on the major league roster. Though a naturally gifted hitter, and though he offered brief glimpses of the awesome power he would develop later in his career, Killebrew seemed overwhelmed by the abrupt transition to the big leagues, and spent most of his first two seasons languishing on the Senators’ bench. When his two-year bonus period ended, he was sent down to the minors to continue his development. After Killebrew led the Southern League in home runs and RBIs in 1957 and played at various minor league levels in ’58, Griffith made the decision to bring his bonus baby back to the big club, where he would start the 1959 season at third base.
Killebrew struggled throughout April that year, but once the calendar turned to May, the Killer emerged. From May 1 to May 17, he had five multi-home run games, and he had 28 round-trippers by midseason. He finished the year with 42 homers, tying him with Cleveland’s Rocky Colavito for the league lead. Unfortunately, Killebrew’s previous major league experience disqualified him from winning the Rookie of the Year award, which went instead to his teammate Bob Allison. Though hampered by injuries the following year, Killebrew hit 31 home runs in only 124 games.
Still, Killebrew’s home run heroics alone could not lift the Senators out of the American League cellar. Hoping that a change of scenery would result in gains both at the gate and in the standings, Griffith moved his team to the Twin Cities at the conclusion of the 1960 season, renaming them the Minnesota Twins in the process. Killebrew was named team captain upon their arrival in Minnesota, and he became the leader of a core group of young players that soon turned the franchise from a laughingstock into a league powerhouse. In the team’s second year in Minnesota, Killebrew topped the league with 48 homers and 126 RBIs, leading his team from a seventh-place finish the year before to a 91-71 record, good for second place behind the mighty New York Yankees.
The Twins continued to develop over the next few years, as Killer led the league with 45 and 49 home runs in 1963 and 1964, respectively. In 1965, the Twins finally overtook the Yankees to win the American League pennant. In doing so, they toppled a dynasty that had reigned over baseball since the late 40’s, and, in the eyes of many, it was Harmon Killebrew who delivered the deathblow. On July 11th, in the last game before the All-Star break, Killebrew crushed a dramatic ninth-inning home run off Yankee reliever Pete Mikkelsen, winning the game for the Twins and effectively knocking the Bronx Bombers out of contention – they would not return to postseason play until 1976. Until Kirby Puckett’s game-winner in Game Six of the 1991 World Series,
Killebrew’s blast was considered the most dramatic in Twins history. Though the luster of his home run has been dimmed somewhat by Puckett’s heroics, it still stands as a turning point in the history of the franchise. Killebrew performed admirably in the World Series that year, hitting .286 with one home run, but the Twins could muster little offense against the powerful pitching of the Los Angeles Dodgers, losing to their National League counterparts in seven games.
Killebrew led Minnesota back to the postseason in 1969, the same year he won the league’s MVP award. He had finished second to triple-crown winner Carl Yastrzemski two years prior, but in 1969, his numbers left no room for doubt. He set career highs for home runs (49), RBIs (140), walks (145), and on-base percentage (.427), leading the league in each category. His Twins won 97 games that year, winning the newly-formed American League West division; they went on to face the Baltimore Orioles in the first-ever American League Championship Series. Killebrew, who also led the league in intentional walks that year, was walked six times in the series. His teammates fared poorly against the powerful pitching of the Orioles, and were swept in three games. In 1970, Killebrew nearly repeated his success from the year before, swatting 41 home runs (his eighth season with 40 or more home runs) and driving in 113 runs. The Twins won 98 games and the division title, but were once again swept in the ALCS by the Orioles.
As the decade of the 60’s came to an end, injuries began catching up with the Killer, and his legendary power began to wane. Though he hit his 500th home run and led the league with 119 RBIs in 1971, he never again hit more than 28 homers in a season. He hit only 18 home runs over the course of two injury-plagued seasons in 1973 and 1974, after which he was given his release by the Twins. He played for one more year with the Kansas City Royals; though he put up respectable numbers in 106 games with the team, he decided to retire at the end of the 1975 season.
Killebrew’s #3 was retired by the Twins in 1974, making him the first of only five players to be so honored by the organization. In 1984, he was elected to the Hall of Fame, where his plaque identifies him as a “muscular slugger with monumental home run and RBI success.” But a more fitting monument to Killebrew can be found at Minnesota’s Mall of America, built on the site of the old Memorial Stadium. There, in the mall’s amusement park, you’ll find an oddly placed red bleacher seat that marks the spot of the longest home run ever hit at the old stadium. The 520-foot drive hit by the Killer on June 3, 1967 is still the longest in Twins history, but it was just one in a long line of tape-measure shots for one of the game’s all-time greatest sluggers.
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