American baseball player
Harmon Killebrew ranks seventh on baseball's all-time home run list, having hit 573 homers in his twenty-two-year career. Killebrew homered once every 14.2 atbats. He played all but one season with the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins franchise, playing his final year with the Kansas City Royals in 1975. Killebrew, an eleven-time all-star, won or tied for the American League home run title six times, led the league in runs batted in three times and earned the league's Most Valuable Player award in 1969. He also played in the 1965 World Series.
His nickname, "Killer," belied Killebrew's gentlemanly reputation. He didn't drink and was never ejected from a game. He has established events such as golf tournaments to benefit charities. Killebrew himself had a brush with death in the early 1990s, when he was hospitalized for about three months and developed complications from medicine given for his knees. He also overcame financial problems after his playing career ended.
From Idaho to Stardom
Killebrew, born in Payette, Idaho, signed with the Washington Senators as a second baseman in 1954, a
week before his 18th birthday under the "bonus baby" rules in effect at the time. He made his major league debut that June, but did not crack the Senators' starting lineup for good until 1959, when he replaced the injured Pete Runnels. He tied Rocky Colavito of the Cleveland Indians for the American League in home runs that year with forty-two.
In 1961, owner Calvin Griffith moved the Washington franchise to Minnesota and renamed it the Twins. Killebrew took advantage of dimensions in suburban Bloomington's Metropolitan Stadium that were amenable to right-handed power hitters and belted 188 homers in his first four seasons in the Twin Cities. He won the AL home-run titles in 1962, 1963 and 1964.
Killebrew's power, however, was feared everywhere. In 1962, he hit a ball completely over the left-field roof at Detroit's Tiger Stadium, a ballpark tough on right-handed, pull hitters. In 1967, he shattered two seats in the sixth row of the upper deck of Metropolitan Stadium with a homer estimated at 530 feet. One day later, another Killebrew home run nearly reached the same spot, hitting the upper-deck facing. "Killebrew can knock the ball out of any park, including Yellowstone," Baltimore Orioles manager Paul Richards said in the early 1960s.
Killebrew was moved to several positions during his career, playing primarily at third base and left field. "But Killer never groused and his lack of a permanent defensive spot never seemed to affect his power," according to the Web site Baseball Library.com.
Pennant in 1965
The Twins, meanwhile, built a formidable lineup around Killebrew. The middle of the batting order featured Killebrew with the likes of batting champion Tony Oliva and power hitters Bob Allison and Don Mincher. Shortstop and leadoff hitter Zoilo Versalles often gave Minnesota a needed jump-start. In 1965, with the New York Yankees declining after having won fourteen of the previous sixteen American League pennants, the Twins stepped into the breach and won the AL championship by seven games with a 102-60 record. In the World Series, Minnesota won the first two games against the favored National League champion Dodgers, but Los Angeles won the Series in a full seven games. Killebrew batted .286 and homered in Game 4 in Los Angeles, off Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale. In the 1965 All-Star game, also in Minnesota, Killebrew hit a two-run homer.
"The team without Killebrew is like dressing up for a formal affair with a white tie and tails and then wearing muddy shoes," catcher Earl Battey once said.
Killebrew tied Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox for the American League home run title in 1967, but the Twins lost the pennant the final weekend when they dropped the final two games in Boston. Two years later, Killebrew, rebounding from a hamstring pull suffered in the 1968 All-Star game, had a career season. He belted forty-nine homers, drove in 140 runs and was voted Most Valuable Player as the Twins, in baseball's new divisional realignment system, won the AL West title. Minnesota, however, lost the AL Championship Series in three straight to Baltimore in both 1969 and 1970. Killebrew homered twice in those six games.
|1936||Born June 29 in Payette, Idaho|
|1954||Signed by Washington Senators as a "bonus baby," one week before 18th birthday. Makes major league debut on June 23.|
|1959||Becomes regular in Washington starting lineup|
|1961||Washington Senators relocate to Minneapolis-St. Paul—renamed Minnesota Twins.|
|1965||Bats .286 in seven games, hitting one home run as Twins lose World Series to Los Angeles Dodgers, 4 games to 3.|
|1969-70||Plays in American League Championship Series as Twins lose each year in three straight to the Baltimore Orioles.|
|1974||Released by Twins|
|1975||Plays final season for Kansas City Royals; ends career with 573 homers|
|1977||Helps found Danny Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament in honor of teammate who died of leukemia|
|1998||Founds Harmon Killebrew Foundation, Ltd., with his wife, Nita|
After the 1970 season, Killebrew's career began a gradual decline, and the Twins released him after the 1974 season. Press reports cited fiction between Killebrew and Griffith, which Killebrew denied. Killebrew played his final season with the Kansas City Royals before retiring. He worked as a Twins broadcaster for a few years and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984.
Personal Struggles, Charity Endeavors
Killebrew struggled financially when a golf-course investment in the 1980s soured. According to The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, Killebrew and former Idaho congressman Ralph Harding were among those defrauded in the "RM-Eighteen" golf course and condominium project near Rancho Mirage, California. News accounts portrayed Killebrew sympathetically. Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson , who had loaned Killebrew money, was said to have relaxed repayment terms.
Killebrew was hospitalized for thirteen weeks in the early 1990s and nearly died of complications from medicine administered to benefit knee pain. It "caused a lot of damage to my insides," he said years later. Over several years, Killebrew battled ulcers, a perforated stomach, a collapsed lung and "a tumor the size of a small football located behind his lung," according to the San Angelo Standard-Times. At one point his doctor sent him home, essentially to die in comfort, in the care of his wife, Nita, and a home-health nurse. "When I went back to see the doctor, he said, 'I didn't expect to see you in here,'" Killebrew said.
Following his near-death experience, Harmon Killebrew, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife, Nita, has since become a national spokesman for the VistaCare Hospice Foundation, which the Arizona Republic described as "sort of the adult version of the Make-a-Wish Foundation."
Said Killebrew during a Thanksgiving Day visit to a terminally ill patient in November, 2002: "If you haven't been touched by hospice care yet, you will be. Every family will be." He recalled an admonition from his mother, Katie: "We're here to help each other. What other reason could there be? So get with it, son."
Killebrew also visits his former Minnesota Twins team, helping during spring training, visiting their minor-league affiliates and making promotional appearances. He spoke to the Minnesota crowd on Opening Day in 2002 at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis. Killebrew Drive was named in his honor near the site of Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, now the Mall of America shopping and entertainment complex.
Touched by the leukemia death of teammate Danny Thompson at age 29 in 1976, Killebrew a year later helped found the Danny Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament in Sun Valley, Idaho, to raise money for leukemia research. In 1996, he started the Harmon Killebrew Signature Classic Golf Tournament to benefit the American Red Cross and two years later established, with his wife, the Harmon Killebrew Foundation, a fund-raising charity.
|KCR: Kansas City Royals; MIN: Minnesota Twins; WSH: Washington Senators.|
Killebrew was an intimidating home-run hitter, but teammates and opponents alike remember him for his softspokenness and community outreach. "I didn't have evil intentions, but I guess I did have power," he once said. Killebrew still visits baseball parks and autograph shows across the country while promoting hospice care and typically gives short shrift to his baseball accomplishments. "People get all excited about players who hit home runs," he said at one minor league ballpark. "I actually always felt runs batted in were more important than home runs."
Awards and Accomplishments
|1955||Hit first major league homer June 24, against Billy Hoeft of the Detroit Tigers|
|1959||Tied Cleveland's Rocky Colavito for American League lead in home runs with 42.|
|1959, 1961, 1963-71||All-Star Team|
|1962-64||Led American League in home runs with 48, 45 and 49, respectively|
|1967||Tied Boston's Carl Yastrzemski for American League lead in home runs with 44.|
|1969||Voted American League Most Valuable Player after leading league in home runs (49) and runs batted in (140).|
|1971||Hit 500th home run, off Mike Cuellar of Baltimore Orioles|
|1974||Twins retire his uniform number (3)|
|1984||Elected to Baseball Hall of Fame|
The Twins' unexpected appearance in the 2002 American League playoffs—Minnesota won the AL Central and upset Oakland in the first round before losing to eventual World Series champion Anaheim—brought back memories of the Killebrew days in Minnesota, and reminded out-of-towners what "Killer" meant to one of baseball's smaller markets. Eric Slater of the Los Angeles Times described the Twins as one of "history's great smaller-town teams, a club that lost more often than it won but came through just frequently enough—with the help of Hall of Famers such as Harmon Killebrew—to allow major league baseball to survive even in a place where the number crunchers said it couldn't."
"A Troubled Financial Past: Timeline of Franks' Legal Problems." The Desert Sun. http://www.thedesertsun.com/news/stories/breaking (October 22, 2002).
"Hall-of-Famer Killebrew Spreads the Wealth." Athens Daily News. http://www.onlineathens.com/1998/ (October 22, 1998)
"Harmon Killebrew." BaseballLibrary.com. http://www.pubdim.net/baseballlibrary/ballplayers/K/Killebrew_Harmon.stm (December 4, 2002)
"Harmon Killebrew Foundation: Making the Difference." Harmon Killebrew Home Page. http://www.harmonkillebrew.org/sys-tmpl/door/ (December 4, 2002).
Harmon Killebrew Lifetime Statistics. http://www.baseball-reference.com/ (December 4, 2002).
"Hospice Has Big Surprise for a Dying Baseball Fan." Arizona Republic. http://www.arizonarepublic.com (November 29, 2002).
"Killebrew to Throw First Pitch at Colts Home Opener." San Angelo Standard-Times. http://www.texaswest.com/archive/00 (May 13, 2000).
"Puckett's Role with Twins to Change." Minneapolis Star Tribune. http://www.startribune.com (December 4, 2002).
"Team May Strike Out if Players Walk." Los Angeles Times. http://www.latimes.com (August 29, 2002).
"The Killer on a Killer: Harmon Killebrew Signs on to Cypress Systems' Prostate Cancer Awareness Campaign." Cypress Systems Inc. press release. http://www.cypsystems.com/ (January 21, 2000).
"Twins History: Harmon Killebrew." http://minnesota.twins.mlb.com/ (December 4, 2002).
Sketch by Paul Burton