Killebrew, Harmon Clayton

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KILLEBREW, Harmon Clayton

(b. 29 June 1936 in Payette, Idaho), member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame whose home run total of 573 ranked sixth in major league history at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Killebrew was one of four children born to H. C. Killebrew and Katherine Pearl May Killebrew. His father was a former college football player and professional wrestler who moved to Payette from Illinois in 1922. While Killebrew was growing up in Payette, his father served as sheriff and made his living painting houses, a task in which the son often aided his father. The younger Killebrew, however, was best known for his endeavors on the athletic field. At Payette High School he lettered in baseball, basketball, and football. When he graduated from high school in 1953, Killebrew's high school jersey number was retired. Although he was offered an athletic scholarship by the University of Oregon, Killebrew choose to attend the College of Idaho, where he enrolled for one semester.

In the summer of 1954 Killebrew played in the semi-professional Idaho-Oregon Border League, where he hit an astounding .847 average and drew the attention of major league scouts. Senator Herman Welker of Idaho, a native of Payette, urged Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators, to investigate the young slugger. Ossie Bluege, the director of the Senators' farm system, signed Killebrew to a $30,000 contract—$6,000 a year for three years with a $12,000 bonus.

Under major league baseball's so-called "bonus baby" rule in place at the time, Killebrew had to spend two years with the Senators before he could be optioned to the minor leagues, where he could polish his hitting and work on defensive skills. Like most "bonus babies," he saw little playing time during his first two seasons with the Senators. In 1954 he had four hits in thirteen at bats with no home runs. The following season Killebrew managed eighty plate appearances with sixteen hits, four of which were home runs. He played mostly at third base, but his defensive skills were hardly at a major league level. In 1955 Killebrew married Elaine Roberts, his childhood sweetheart. They had five children.

From 1956 to 1958 Killebrew shuttled between Washington and the Senators' minor league affiliates in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Indianapolis, Indiana. While some were ready to give up on Killebrew, Calvin R. Griffith, who had taken over the Senators following his uncle's death in 1955, traded the incumbent third baseman Eddie Yost to the Detroit Tigers. The club owner then ordered the manager Cookie Lavagetto to insert Killebrew in the starting lineup at third base for the 1959 season.

While he still struggled defensively, Killebrew rewarded Griffith's confidence by hitting twenty-eight home runs by the season's midpoint and was selected for the All-Star team. He slumped somewhat during the second half of the season but finished with forty-two home runs, tying Cleveland's Rocky Calavito for the American League lead. In 1960 Killebrew's home run total dipped to thirty-one. Killebrew's career really took off when Griffith, seeking greater revenue, moved the Washington franchise to Minnesota following the 1960 season. In 1961 Killebrew hit for a .288 average and slugged forty-six home runs, but with the media hoopla surrounding Roger Maris's assault on Babe Ruth's season home run mark of sixty, Killebrew's accomplishments were overshadowed.

However, Killebrew was not ignored for long. From 1962 to 1964 he led the American League in home runs, amassing totals of forty-eight, forty-five, and forty-nine. In 1965 the Minnesota Twins won the American League pennant and met the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. Killebrew's home runs dropped to twenty-five as he missed a good portion of that season due to a dislocated left elbow. He returned for the series, but the Twins lost to the Dodgers.

Shifted to first base, Killebrew improved his defensive play and continued to be a dominant player for the Twins throughout the late 1960s and the early 1970s. In 1967 he led the league with 44 home runs and 131 runs batted in. The Twins won the division championship in 1969, and Killebrew, who amassed 49 homers and 140 runs driven in, was selected as the league Most Valuable Player.

Though the Twins repeated as division champions in 1970, the club's record declined during the decade, as the tightfisted Griffith found it increasingly difficult to compete with accelerating player salaries. The production figures for an aging Killebrew also began to decline. In 1974, his last season with the Twins, Killebrew batted only .222 with 13 home runs. He was traded to the Kansas City Royals, where he completed his final campaign with 14 home runs and a batting average under .200.

Following the 1975 season Killebrew retired from major league baseball. During his twenty-two years in the big leagues, he slugged 573 home runs, sixth on the all-time list at the beginning of the twenty-first century; drove in 1,584 runs; and posted a slugging percentage of .509. He averaged a home run every 14.22 at bats, the fourth best percentage in major league history to his time. Although his career batting average was only .242, Killebrew had 2,086 hits and 1,559 walks. Selected for thirteen All-Star games, Killebrew was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984.

As a baseball player Killebrew was noted for his power, but as a person he is quiet and reserved. A devout Mormon, he neither smokes nor drinks. His favorite recreation is hunting. His modest nature is evident in his wife's comment: "He doesn't say much about the ball game when he gets home, but I can tell when he has hit another home run. He always comes into the house looking sheepish."

Following his playing career, Killebrew worked as a baseball announcer for the Twins, the Oakland A's, and the California Angels. He resides in Scottsdale, Arizona, but maintains an interest in a Boise, Idaho, insurance and securities firm. As home run hitters such as Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Ken Griffey, Jr., have challenged lifetime home run marks, the achievements of the modest Killebrew have been rediscovered by baseball fans.

A file on Killebrew is at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. For a laudatory sports biography, see Wayne J. Anderson, Harmon Killebrew: Baseball's Superstar (1965). For the Minnesota Twins and Killebrew, see Dave Mona and Dave Jarzyna, Twenty-five Seasons (1986). For journalistic accounts of Killebrew's baseball career, see Shirley Povich, "Strong Boy of the Twins," Saturday Evening Post (15 Sept. 1962); and "The Nuclear Bomber," Time (14 Aug. 1964).

Ron Briley