Killebrew's road to Cooperstown
was anything but smooth
(Jim wrote this for the Society of American Baseball Research on May 18,
Harmon Killebrew left the safe grasp of small-town Idaho in 1954 and
overnight found himself on first base in Chicago, a big-leaguer at age 17.
Thats where the whirlwind ended.
Killebrew's rudimentary baseball skills he was horribly inept
as he worked at third base a journalist wrote at the time were
first smothered by the post-World War II "bonus baby" rule, and his
talents were later chiseled by injuries.
Unimaginably, Harmon Killebrew became the corner lot on which owner Calvin
Griffith built the Minnesota Twins.
Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984, it wasnt
until 2009 that a right-handed batter eclipsed Killebrews 573 career home
Developing such skills was tough for a 17-year-old kid from Payette, Idaho,
who had signed a contract as the Washington Senators first bonus
The rule was instituted in 1947 to prevent teams from stockpiling players in
the minor leagues: sign a contract for more than $4,000 and you spent two full
seasons on the big-league roster.
After Killebrews brief debut for the Senators in Chicago in 54,
he didnt play again for nearly a month. But when asked to name his most
memorable game late in his career he said that nothing could replace being on
first base that night.
Played in first big league game that he saw
Killebrew had never even seen a big-league game, but here he was, a teenager
pinch-running in the bottom of the second inning as the Senators were rallying
for three runs after trailing 5-0 in the first.
Killebrew trotted from the dugout, planted his foot on first base and found
himself standing next to two-time batting champion Ferris Fain, almost twice
Killebrews age at 33. The White Sox first baseman stood 5-feet-11
the same as Killebrew.
Harmon Killebrew signs
autographs for Princess Kay of the Milky Way candidates at Metropolitan Stadium
in 1964 on the inticingly named 'Dairy Industries Night.'
"He looked nine feet tall to me," Killebrew recalled.
The interesting juxtaposition there was that Killebrew was a quiet Mormon
who never drank or smoked. Fain was a hot-tempered drinker who was arrested at
age 65 for growing marijuana in his backyard.
Although Fain was just a man with a lively personality, baseball could still
be a hard game with tough men in 1954. But Killebrew recalled his teammates
with kindness. Lacking even a sweatshirt when he arrived in Chicago, Killebrew
was given one by catcher Joe Tipton, a World War II veteran once traded from
the Chicago White Sox to Philadelphia for Nellie Fox.
Despite his self-professed ignorance of life outside of his hometown of
4,000, Killebrew claimed to have never endured hazing or difficulty from his
The bonus rule was another matter.
Killebrews $30,000 contract called for the big-league minimum of
$6,000 over three years, and a bonus of $4,000 for each. He recalled in 2004
that was a big price to pay for both him and the Senators, noting the bonus
rule benefited neither. He made 104 plate appearances during his first two
'Failed to hit his hat size'
When his bonus baby sentence ended, he went to the minor leagues
and flourished. He was promoted to the Senators again in 1957, demoted, and in
1958 struggled so badly in AAA that The Sporting News wrote that he
failed to hit his hat size. One year later, baseballs
Bible was calling Killebrew the most exciting personality since
In 1959, a new housing development in Springfield, Va.,
named a street Killebrew Drive after the budding Washington Senators' star. The
street is still Killebrew Drive, but it's now just inside the Capital Beltway
in Annandale, Va.
By then, Killebrew and his wife were accustomed to the fickle nature of the
game. They tried to ignore the national acclaim he received early in 1959, en
route to his first home run title. They barely furnished the apartment they
settled into that spring in Alexandria, Virginia.
Soon, news coverage of the most exciting personality since Willie Mays was
overwhelming, and word about the apartment reached furniture dealers, who began
contacting the Senators to offer the couple free furnishings. The Killebrews
couldnt take a phone call, because they hadnt bothered to install a
Those nomadic days were well behind the Killebrews when Griffith relocated
the Senators to Minnesota in 1961. Fifty years later, Killebrew was still known
as the franchises iconic star. His compact swing delivered 475 of his 573
career home runs in a Twins uniform. On the Twins list of top 10
single-season home run leaders, Killebrew occupies the top eight spots.
A 13-time All-Star, he became the Twins first MVP in 1969, and its
first Hall of Famer in 1984, which maddened his fans.
Despite being the No. 1 right-handed home run hitter in baseball history,
Killebrew waited through four Cooperstown roll calls before he was inducted.
The knock on him at the time was that he didnt hit for high average,
field or run well.
Unspoken was that he was considered to have decent speed when he signed with
the Senators, and he did hit seven triples during his first season with the
Twins in symmetrical Metropolitan Stadium.
As a first baseman he was about league average, and had his defenders as an
infielder. They included Frank Quilici, Killebrews teammate and later
manager, who said that Killebrew had soft hands, quick reactions, and an
accurate arm. It was easy to turn a double play with his throw.
Unlike many greats, moved around defensively
In further defense of his defense, Killebrew played almost as many games at
third base and in the outfield as he did at first base. Often, the moves were
made because of a teammate. For example, he played third base in 1965 because
first baseman Don Mincher could play no other position, and the Twins coveted
Minchers left-handed power.
Yet it was the injuries that were his biggest obstacle to the Hall of Fame
and to 600 career home runs.
They began with a shoulder injury at Chattanooga in 1957, shoulder and
hamstring injuries in 1960, leg injuries in 1961 and 1962, and a serious knee
injury in 1963. He played through that one, led the league in home runs, and
had surgery in the offseason.
More notably, he dislocated his left elbow in 1965, which almost cost him
his only trip to the World Series. A torn hamstring suffered in the 1968
All-Star Game left him with his worst statistical season since he established
himself in the big leagues in 1959. At age 33, Killebrew came back in 1969 to
win the American League Most Valuable Player Award.
It was the following season when shortstop Danny Thompson became a teammate,
a meeting which helped to spark Killebrews many charitable efforts and
the Harmon Killebrew Foundation for which he became known in retirement.
Thompson, a six-footer from Oklahoma State University, died of leukemia at
age 29 in 1976. As Killebrew sat at Thompsons funeral in Capron,
Oklahoma, he looked at Thompsons widow and small children and recalled
how his mother once told him that were put on this earth to help
others. He started a golf tournament in Thompsons name, which has
now raised $8 million for cancer research.
In 1990, his own health was in jeopardy. Killebrew lost dozens of pounds
because of an illness and deadly staph infection, and was coaxed back to good
health through hospice care. He championed that end-of-life choice for more
than a decade, and turned to hospice care again days before his death from his
esophageal cancer on May 17, 2011.