Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Two About Killebrew

This morning, Minnesota Twins great and Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew succumbed to a six-month battle with esophageal cancer after choosing to end unresponsive treatment and die at home. I never saw him play (or if I did, I have no recollection, owing to young age and the fact that he was long past his prime and bore no resemblance to an all-time great whom I would remember), so a platitude-filled eulogy would be misplaced.*

*Sadly, as an employee for a sports-memorabilia company in 1989, I met many great baseball players but did not work the day that Killebrew came into the office to sign items—a missed opportunity that I've long regretted because he has always been known as a gracious and classy gentleman, as was confirmed by my then-coworkers.

However, two aspects of Killebrew's great career bear mentioning:

» Signed as a "bonus baby" in June 1954 by the Washington Senators, had the Sens given Killebrew a regular spot in the lineup earlier instead of allowing him a mere 254 at-bats during the first five years of his career, he may well have taken a run at Babe Ruth's mark of 714 home runs. Instead, Senators brass wasted Killebrew's first two years on the bench—for awful second-division teams going nowhere—and then sent him to the minors (under "bonus baby" rules, Killebrew had to stay with the parent club for two seasons before he could go to the minors). After three seasons climbing his way up the minor-league ladder (during which the Senators failed to play even .400 ball and clearly had nothing to lose by giving Killebrew more playing time), Harmon came up for good in 1959...and promptly smashed a league-leading 42 home runs (earning the first of six home-run crowns). That he did this while playing his home games in Griffith Stadium, one of the most unforgiving pitcher's parks in Major League history, is a testament to his brute strength—and Washington management's five-year short-sightedness. The Senators soon moved to the Twin Cities—and Killebrew would quickly lead the Twins to the World Series—but had foolishly deprived Harmon of at least several years in his early twenties when, with a full season to swing the bat, he could easily have hit at least 100 home runs before what eventually became his breakout year (based on the 11 HR he hit in those 254 AB, over five 650-AB seasons). Without question, Killebrew would have reached a minimum of 600 career home runs (he retired with 573)—placing him in "baseball immortal" territory...possibly ahead of Willie Mays—and within reach of Ruth, of whom he fell 141 homers shy...an amount for which he was almost exactly on pace during those first five years that the Senators squandered his talent. In any event, Killebrew would have retired a household name rather than a "second-tier" great.

» It has long been rumored that the official Major League Baseball logo designed in 1969 was based on Harmon Killebrew's batting stance (and perhaps it was no coincidence that Killebrew was in the midst of his greatest season in '69, eventually winning the AL MVP...so who better to "represent" baseball in tumultuous 1969 than the quiet, ever-respectable Killebrew?). This rumor was finally quashed by the logo's creator, Jerry Dior, in a 2008 Wall Street Journal story...but did it even need to be? That ball is coming right at the hitter—a hit-by-pitch for sure. Baseball, always staunchly conservative, obviously viewed the hit-by-pitch as a symbol of self-sacrifice in the overindulgent, anti-war '60s. Yet Harmon Killebrew was hit by a pitch only 48 times during his career, which ties him for 429th on the all-time hit-by-pitch list—hardly the emblem of the hit-by-pitch. And what pitcher would want to? Killebrew, although only 5-foot-11, was regarded as one of the most powerful men in baseball because of his many tape-measure blasts. No pitcher in his right mind would throw at Killebrew, even in that rebellious, anything-goes decade. Sure, Harmon led the AL in hit-by-pitches in 1964, but that was a season during which a lot of young and disillusioned American League pitchers were still shaken and angry over the Kennedy assassination (1964 was, in fact, the AL's highest year in hit-by-pitches since 1915—like John F. Kennedy, the season after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, which surely affected many politically aware pitching staffs).

No, he didn't get to 600 home runs and beyond. No, he didn't serve as the model for Major League Baseball's official logo. But the humble Harmon Killebrew lived, and died, with dignity and grace.

(MLB logo is a registered trademark of Major League Baseball.)

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