Killebrew, Harmon Clayton, Jr.

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KILLEBREW, Harmon Clayton, Jr.

(b. 29 June 1936 in Payette, Idaho), one of the most prolific sluggers in baseball history, a small but potent batter who hit more home runs than anyone in the 1960s, shattering seats with his legendary blasts and bringing the Minnesota Twins franchise into prominence.

Killebrew was the youngest of four children born to Harmon Clayton Killebrew and Katherine Pearl May Culver, a homemaker. He had two older brothers and a sister. Killebrew's father was a local sheriff and a house painter, and young Killebrew often took painting jobs after school. At Payette High School, Killebrew became a varsity baseball, basketball, and football player as a freshman, and the school honored him by retiring his number twelve uniform after he graduated.

Killebrew planned to accept a football scholarship to the University of Oregon, but major-league scouts came to watch him play baseball in a local semiprofessional league the summer he graduated from high school. Idaho senator Herman Walker, a native of Payette, told Clark Griffith, president of the Washington Senators team, to sign Killebrew before some other club did. A week before he turned eighteen, Killebrew signed a $30,000 three-year contract, including a $12,000 bonus.

Killebrew, a poor fielder at first base, third base, and left field, needed to go to the minor leagues for more seasoning, but the Senators had to keep him on their roster for two seasons or risk losing him. He batted less than 100 times in 1954 and 1955, and then spent the next three years shuttling between Washington and its farm clubs. Most team officials gave up on him, but Calvin Griffith, Jr., the new club president (and nephew of the former club president), ordered third baseman Eddie Yost traded and had Killebrew installed as the regular third baseman in 1959. Killebrew rewarded Griffith with a league-leading 42 home runs, despite a second-half slump and 30 fielding errors in 100 games.

Killebrew was an instant sensation in Washington, but in 1961 Griffith packed up his team and moved to Minnesota, where the team was renamed the Twins. There, during the 1960s, Killebrew led the American League (AL) in home runs five more times, peaking at forty-nine home runs in 1964 and again in 1969. Despite his subpar fielding and low batting averages (he finished with a career mark of .256), Killebrew was named to the AL All-Star team thirteen times during his career.

Soft-spoken and reserved, Killebrew shunned the spotlight. A Mormon, he never drank, and he was never thrown out of a major-league game for arguing with an umpire. At six feet tall and weighing two hundred pounds, Killebrew was small compared to sluggers of later days, but he was a fearsome figure in the batter's box, with massive, menacing forearms and a compact, powerful swing. Killebrew married Elaine Roberts on 1 October 1955; the couple had five children.

During the 1960s he hit home runs at a rate not seen since the New York Yankees' player Babe Ruth, and many of his clouts were almost as legendary. In 1962 Killebrew became one of the few players ever to hit a ball over the left-field roof at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. On 3 June 1967 Killebrew hit a home run into the upper deck in left field at Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota, shattering two seats with a ball estimated to have gone 530 feet. The splintered seats were painted orange and never sold again.

Perhaps Killebrew's most memorable home run came in July 1965, a game-winning blast against the Yankees that cemented the Twins' lead over the perennial New York powerhouse. The Washington-Minnesota franchise had long been an AL doormat, but Killebrew, Tony Oliva, and other stars put the club into a dominant position. After another losing record in 1964, the so-called Impossible Twins reached the World Series in 1965. In his only World Series, Killebrew hit one home run and batted .286, and the Twins lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In the mid-1960s Killebrew, not better-known stars such as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, or Mickey Mantle, seemed to have the best chance of breaking Ruth's career home run record of 714. By the end of 1967, Killebrew was thirty-one, and had 380 home runs, twenty-four more than Ruth at the same age. "It was mostly the press talking about [catching Ruth]. I wasn't thinking about that," Killebrew said later. "I thought more about [Roger Maris's season record of] sixty-one. A couple of times, I had opportunities. I got hurt. Sometimes you put more pressure on yourself than pitchers put on you. I wasn't trying to hit sixty-one, but I probably had opportunities."

In 1968 Killebrew tore a hamstring during the All-Star game, the first of a series of debilitating injuries. The next year he bounced back and led the AL in home runs, runs batted in, walks, and on-base percentage, and was named Most Valuable Player. After that, however, his production declined rapidly.

During the 1960s Killebrew hit 403 home runs, more than any of his rival sluggers. But in 1973 he hit only five homers. After 1974 the Twins released him, and he played one more season for Kansas City before retiring with 573 career home runs, the fifth-highest total recorded at the time, behind Aaron, Ruth, Mays, and Frank Robinson.

Killebrew was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984. He stayed in baseball as a broadcaster for the Twins, the Oakland Athletics, and the California Angels, and later in life became a spokesman for hospice care after almost dying of an infection in 1991.

As a player Killebrew was a one-dimensional force. He lacked speed and defensive skills and was not much of a hitter. But his power has rarely been equaled. As a home run hitter he dominated the 1960s just as Ruth dominated the 1920s and Mark McGwire the 1990s.

Biographies of Killebrew include Hal Butler, The Harmon Killebrew Story (1966), and Wayne J. Anderson, Harmon Killebrew: Baseball's Superstar (1971). Entries on Killebrew are in Jim Ison, Mormons in the Major Leagues (1991), and in Bob Allen and Bill Gilbert, The 500 Home Run Club: Baseball's 16 Greatest Home Run Hitters from Babe Ruth to Mark McGwire (2000).

Michael Betzold