Monday, May 23, 2011

The Killer, Rest in Peace

Harmon Killebrew was the first and greatest hero of Minnesota baseball. Every Minnesota kid knows that, even those too young to ever have seen him play. My baseball consciousness emerged just after after Harmon's retirement. And though the first Twins heroes of my memory were the likes of Butch Wynegar, Roy Smalley, Mike Cubbage, Bombo Rivera, and Hosken Powell, the first souvenir I ever bought at a baseball game was this:

It was at the old Met, mid-1970s, either the year after he left the Twins for his year in KC (1975) or the year he retired (1976). It must have been on clearance or something. And even then, as now, the purpose and play value of the mini-bat completely eludes me. But I bought it anyway, because it said HARMON KILLEBREW. And the nicks and dings in the bat 35 years later tell me I found a use for it to do something.

One of the best baseball writers in the country right now is Joe Posnanski. He's now at Sports Illustrated and he fills in some of the blanks on Harmon's back story. Excerpt:

The Washington Senators sent out former third baseman Ossie Bluege to see Killebrew play in a few Idaho sandlot games. Killebrew, as legend goes, responded by getting 12 hits in 12 at-bats, including four homers and three triples. The Senators owner Clark Griffith giddily signed Killebrew for $30,000 — the team’s first bonus baby.

And so Killebrew was a part of the team. He made his major league debut six days before his 18th birthday. Here is a fun little baseball trivia question that might win you a bar bet: What position did Killebrew play in his major league debut?

Answer: The great but not particularly swift Harmon Killebrew debuted as a pinch-runner.

He got just 15 plate appearances that first year, and 89 plate appearances in his second. He hit his first big league home run five days before he turned 19. He hit the home run at Griffith Stadium off Billy Hoeft, with his Senators down 13-0. He hit another one two days later off of George Zuverink, but that pretty much summed up his achievements that second year. In 89 plate appearances, Killebrew hit an even .200 and was promptly sent to Charlotte for more seasoning.

The point is that by 1959, Harmon Killebrew was no phenom. He had been up and down so many times that his name was achingly familiar to Senators fans (and this was right in the prime of the Senators’ “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League” glory). Killebrew had hit .224 in 280 plate appearances scattered over his first five seasons. He is the only Hall of Fame player to get fewer than 500 total plate appearances in his first five years. This is not to say that anyone in the game had given up on Killebrew’s future. It’s more that his promise had dulled. Albie Pearson won Rookie of the Year in 1958; people were more excited about him.

But the truth is that Killebrew was just 23 years old, and he had not been given that gift that every great player, without exception, needs: a chance to play. In 1959, the Senators gave him that chance.
Rest in Peace, Harmon.