Harmon Killebrew Was Gentlest Of Sluggers

Perhaps Harmon Killebrew himself put it best ...

I didn't have evil intentions, but I guess I did have power.

I guess.

By the time Harmon Killebrew retired after the 1975 season, he'd hit 573 home runs.

That might not seem like a huge number now; at the time, only four men in major-league history had hit more.

Late in Killebrew's career, pitcher Tommy John said, "I still think Killebrew is the single most dangerous hitter in the league. He's got the perfect batting stance. You look down at him and there's no place to throw the ball."

In 1962, Killebrew became the first player to hit a ball over the left-field roof at Tiger Stadium; only three others would accomplish the feat before Tiger Stadium closed 37 years later.

In 1964, Killebrew hit the longest-ever measured home run at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium.

In 1967, Killebrew hit the longest-ever measured home run at Minnesota's Metropolitan Stadium (today the landing spot, 520 feet from home plate, is commemorated by a stadium seat inside the Mall of America).

Harmon Killebrew came by his power honestly, though it took some time for him to show it in the majors.

According to one source, Killebrew's "grandfather was reputed to have been strongest man in the Union Army during the Civil War," and his father was a college fullback and, for a time, a professional wrestler.

Killebrew grew up in rural Idaho, and was set to accept a scholarship offer from the University of Oregon until the Washington Senators -- tipped off by one of Idaho's U.S. Senators -- offered him $30,000 and a three-year professional contract. Under the rules governing "bonus babies" at the time, Killebrew had to be placed on Washington's active roster. So at the ages of 18 and 19, he was in the majors but hardly played.

Killebrew would spend most of the next three seasons in the minors, and showed the great power that had gotten him signed in the first place. As he would later say, "It took me five years to catch up with major league pitching."

The results showed in 1959. In his first full season in the majors, Killebrew swatted 42 home runs to lead the American League, a feat he would duplicate five more times in his career.

It's been written that Killebrew was a one-dimensional player, but that's not really fair. Killebrew didn't run well, was just adequate defensively -- he saw significant time at both corner infield spots, and in left field -- and finished his career with a .256 batting average. But like another famous "one-dimensional slugger", Killebrew drew great numbers of walks, leading the league in that category four times and finishing his career with a .376 on-base percentage.

But while Killebrew first brought to mind power, his personality couldn't have been more different. Hall of Famer Rod Carew once said of his long-time teammate, "He is a quiet man, and a true gentleman. He commands respect. He always went out and did his job and never complained. Harmon never argued with an umpire. It just wasn't his nature."

And here's American League umpire Ron Luciano:

The Killer was one of the most feared sluggers in baseball history, but he was also one of the nicest people ever to play the game. He was one of the few players who would go out of his way to compliment umpires on a good job, even if their calls went against him. I'd call a tough strike on him and he would turn around and say approvingly, "Good call."

In 1961 the Washington Senators became the Twins upon moving to Minnesota, where Killebrew became an icon. He suffered a pair of injuries in 1968 and posted terrible numbers, but bounced back in '69 to win his only MVP Award. After three subpar seasons with the Twins, he finished his career in 1975 as Kansas City's designated hitter.

Next came broadcasting, with the Twins, A's and Angels. In 1990, Killebrew suffered a collapsed lung and an esophagus problem and nearly died, but eventually regained his health and spent most of the last 20 years working his way out of bankruptcy, engaging in various philanthropic endeavors, and just generally being Harmon Killebrew, the latter of which brought a great deal of pleasure to Twins fans.

Last winter, Killebrew was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Tuesday, the gentle giant succumbed.

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