FanShot

The Gentleman Called Killer

8

The gentleman the sportswriters somewhat desperately called "Killer" was just 23 years old in 1959 -- but by then Harmon Killebrew already had played parts of six seasons in the major leagues. Six seasons. He was of that peculiar bonus baby time, when owners (as owners tend to do) went looking for convoluted and spectacularly destructive methods to control their own spending. Certainly, they might have controlled spending by not spending as much money. But that was deemed unrealistic. 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 the years. He is the only Hall of Fame player to get fewer than 500 plate appearances total 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. Then, the blossoming of Harmon Killebrew happened. It was not gradual. It was instant. On May 1, 1959, Harmon Killebrew hit two home runs at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. There were fewer than 2,000 people in the stands -- the Tigers were dreadful, they had lost 13 of their first 15 games. Killebrew homered in the second inning off a good young pitcher named Jim Bunning. In the 10th inning, with the score still tied, Killebrew hit another homer off Bunning. Killebrew's amazing home runs stretch in 1959 more or less carried on for the next dozen years. It was his fate to play baseball in the worst hitting era since Deadball, and yet from 1959 to 1970 -- 12 years dominated by pitchers -- Killer hit a home run ever 12.7 at-bats. Up that point, only Babe Ruth had hit home runs so often. Forty-five times in his career he hit two homers in a game. Six times he led the league in home runs. Eight times he hit 40-plus homers in a season. He was a low average hitter -- he spent a career fighting to make more solid contact -- but he was a ferocious worker, and he developed remarkable plate discipline. "If it isn't a strike, don't swing," he said years later when asked his philosophy of his hitting. He led the league in walks three times, and despite those low averages, from 1966-1971 he led the American League overall in on-base percentage (.401). He wasn't fast or particularly nimble and so playing defense was always a challenge, but he played five different positions, and he played hard, and observers will say he wrestled first base to a draw. As a hitter, he was ahead of his time. His high-walk, big-power numbers would anticipate the 1990s, when various factors -- steroids not being the least of these, though weight training and advances in diet and so on played their role -- would give many players the superhuman strength of Harmon Killebrew. At the time, though, Killebrew was different. He was apart. He was larger than life. Much more at link.

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