“I try to hit the ball as hard as I can every time I swing.” – Ralph Kiner, Pittsburgh Pirates slugger
Home-run hitters, Kiner liked to say, drive Cadillacs. Kiner crushed big-league pitching. He didn’t drive a Chevy.
No one hit the long ball like Kiner did in the years following World War II. He led the National League in homers every season from 1946 through 1952. Twice, the right-handed hitter ripped more than 50.
“(Ralph) Kiner can wipe out your lead with one swing.” – Warren Spahn
Kiner, born Oct. 27, 1922, in Santa Rita, New Mexico, grew up in Alhambra, Calf.. He could play ball just about every day in the warm, sunny climate. Scouts began to notice this lanky, athletic prospect. Kiner signed with the Pirates after graduating from Alhambra High.
The Pirates assigned Kiner to the Class D Eastern League in 1941. Two years later, they promoted him to the organization’s Toronto farm club. By then, the U.S. Navy also wanted him. Kiner spent the war flying planes assigned to anti-submarine patrols.
Being a pilot challenged Kiner both mentally and physically, he said in a November 2009 article on ESPN.com. “You grow up fast when you are in a war,” he said. Kiner gained some maturity and 20 pounds, mostly muscle.
In 1946, Kiner reported for spring training. He blasted 13 home runs in 30 games. The left-fielder was ready. He led the N.L. in homers that season with 23. (Kiner played in 144 games in ’46. Johnny Mize, who broke a wrist and was limited to just 101 games, finished second with 22. Kiner’s tally was the lowest league-leading total since Hack Wilson hit 21 in 1926 for the Cubs.)
The next year, Kiner walloped 51 (and tied Mize). He hit 40 home runs in 1948 (again, he tied Mize) and belted a career-high 54 in 1949. Kiner was the first National Leaguer to enjoy two 50-homer seasons.
Many of Kiner’s round-trippers sailed over the left- and left-center-field fences at Forbes Field. The Pirates had shortened the distances from home plate to the fences upon Hank Greenberg’s arrival in 1947. They cut the left-field foul line from 365 feet to 335 and the left-center power alley from 406 to 376. Fans dubbed the spot “Greenberg Gardens.” Sportswriters began calling it “Kiner’s Korner.”
Big Ralph again topped the N.L. in homers in 1950 (47), 1951 (42) and 1952 (37). Fans loved Kiner’s long-ball heroics, and the Pirates paid him top dollar ($90,000 at one point). The Pirates, though, rarely contended for a pennant. During Kiner run of home-run crowns, the Pirates ended up last four times.
Branch Rickey, hired in 1950 to run the club, blamed most of the problems on Kiner. The guy can’t run, throw or play defense, Rickey complained. At one point, Rickey cut Kiner’s salary to $75,000. “We can finish last without you,” Rickey told his ballplayer.
Finally, in June of 1953, Rickey dealt Kiner to the Cubs in a 10-player deal. The trade proved Rickey right. Pittsburgh kept finishing last, in ’53, 1954 and 1955.
Kiner’s career last only a few more seasons. He played 117 games for Chicago that first year and belted 28 homers after hitting seven in Pittsburgh. He hit 22 in ’54 and was dealt to the Cleveland Indians. Kiner hit 18 homers in ’55, his last year. Back injuries forced him to retire at the age of 32. He left the game with 369 home runs over his 10 seasons. At the time, he was sixth on the all-time list.
Beyond the playing field, Kiner is famous for a few other things. For one, he dated some famous Hollywood starlets, including Elizabeth Taylor. Later, he married tennis star Nancy Chafee. The couple built a house in Palm Springs and palled around Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and the like.
Of course, Kiner also did a famous turn as a broadcaster. He called New York Mets games for decades. Fans know him for his “Kiner-isms,” humorous malapropos. Here is a sampling:
“On Father’s Day, we again wish you all a Happy Birthday.”
“All of his saves have come in relief appearances.”
“Hello, everybody, welcome to Kiner’s Korner. I’m Ralph Korner.”
“The Hall of Fame ceremonies are on the 31st and 32nd of July.”
“All of the Mets road wins against the Dodgers this year occurred at Dodger Stadium.”
You get the idea. Kiner didn’t win many awards for his broadcasting. He did, though, get voted into the Hall of Fame in 1975. He had been on the ballot since 1960, so his was not a slam-dunk case. Kiner never won an MVP, and his career batting average was just .279.
However, he did walk a lot (at least 100 times in six different seasons) and finished with an impressive .398 career on-base percentage. Kiner led the lead in slugging three times and in OPS and OPS+ three times. His short career may look more impressive in retrospect than it did decades ago.
Kiner, beloved in Pittsburgh as a player and in New York City as a broadcaster, died Feb. 6, 2014, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at the age of 91.
Roamin’ in the gloamin’ on the bonnie banks o’ Clyde
Roamin’ in the gloaming’ wae my lassie by my side
When the sun has gone to rest
That’s the time we love the best
O, it’s lovely roamin’ in the gloamin’
Harry Lauder wrote the ditty in 1911. Gabby Hartnett hit the famous home run 27 years later.
Charles Leo “Gabby” Hartnett, a top National League catcher, came up to bat for the Chicago Cubs in the bottom of the ninth inning on Sept. 28, 1938, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Wrigley Field, lightless (until 1988) so as not to disturb the neighborhood residents, had grown dark.
The ninth inning would be the last one played that day, the umpires said. The score was tied 5-5. Under the rules, if the game remain knotted, the whole thing would be replayed the following day.
Hartnett stepped into the batter’s box with two out and nobody on base. Surely, the crowd let out a cheer. The fans loved Hartnett, although he was near the end of a long career at this point.
A native of Woodsocket, R.I., Harnett came up to the big club in 1922 and earned a starting job in 1924. The Cubs loved his strong throwing arm.
Hartnett also ripped line drives, at Wrigley Field and everywhere else. The right-handed batter belted 16 home runs in ’24 and hit .299. The following year, he cracked 24 homers. Harnett enjoyed his best season in 1930. That year, he crushed 37 homers, drove in 122 runs and batted .339 with a .630 slugging percentage.
A few years later, in 1935, the writers voted Hartnett the National League’s MVP. He hit a career-high .344 with 13 homers and 91 RBI. The Cubbies finished first that season with a 100-54 won-loss record. They lost the World Series in six games to the Detroit Tigers.
Chicago never won a Series in the Hartnett era. The Cubs, as you probably know, last popped the champagne bottles on a world title in 1908. (Insert joke here.) Tolstoy and Twain were still alive.
But, the Cubbies almost always contended during Hartnett’s time. Gabby played in four World Series. Most famously, he squatted behind home plate on Oct. 1, 1932, in Game 3 of the Series against the New York Yankees. Just inches away, the great Babe Ruth “called his shot” in the fifth inning. Or, did he?
By late 1938, as summer had just given way to fall, and Pittsburgh pitcher Mace Brown stood on the mound as afternoon had given way to evening, and as Hartnett stood ready to hit, the catcher had been doing double-duty as player-manager for a few months. Cubs owner Phillip K. Wrigley, the chewing-gum baron, promoted Hartnett to his new role on June 20, 1938. Skipper Charlie Grimm was given the pink slip.
Brown got ahead of Hartnett 0 balls, 2 strikes. Then, Gabby connected. He ripped a pitch that hurled over the ivy and into the left-center field bleachers. Players and fans sprinted to greet Hartnett as he rounded the bases in the darkness.
That home run vaulted Chicago into first place. The Cubs clinched the pennant a few days later, thanks in part to Hartnett’s homer and, even more importantly, to the team’s 19-3 record in September. Once again, though, the Cubs lost the Series. The Yankees beat them in fourth straight.
Earl Hilligan, a sportswriter for the Associated Press, coined the term “homer in the gloamin’.” Maybe he was a fan of old, romantic tunes. Harry Lauder wrote and sang plenty of songs in his day. He did “I Love a Lassie” and “A Wee Deoch-an-Doris.” Winston Churchill called the Edinburgh native “Scotland greatest-ever ambassador.”
As for Hartnett, he managed the Cubs through 1940 and retired after the 1941 season, ending his career with the New York Giants. He hit 236 home runs over his 20 seasons and knocked home 1,179 runs. Additionally, he batted .297 with a .370 on-base percentage.
Later, he did some coaching and some scouting. He even opened Gabby Hartnett’s Recreation Center in suburban Chicago and ran that for a time. The writers voted him into the Hall of Fame in 1955.
Hartnett died in 1972 at the age of 72. He remains somewhat overlooked on the litany of catchers, although he at least got nominated for baseball’s All-Century team. Gabby will be remembered most for a game-winning home run he ripped into a dark Chicago sky. His homer in the gloamin’.
By Glen Sparks
Babe Ruth, dead at age 53, lay in state at Yankee Stadium, the house he built.
Fans, former teammates, dignitaries and assorted drinking buddies paid their respects to America’s greatest athlete on Aug. 17-18, 1948. About 77,000 people filed by.
The site of a still Ruth probably struck many of them odd. Did the Babe ever stay still for long in life? One of his New York Yankee teammates, Ping Bodie, said, “I didn’t room with Babe Ruth. I roomed with his suitcase.” (This quote is attributed to most of Ruth’s roommates over the years.)
He did things big. “I swing big,” he said. “I like to live as big as I can.” He made headlines. “Babe Hits 60th Home Run of Season.” “Sultan of Swat Slams No. 714.” He did the improbable. In 1920, the Bambino blasted 54 home runs, more than any one team in the American League hit that year. He did the controversial. “He called a shot in the World Series!” … “No, he didn’t!”
Ruth suffered in 1925 from a bellyache “heard round the world.” Or, did he battle something more sinister? (“Syphilis,” some whispered.) He ate, drank, and wanted nothing more than to be merry. He punctuated the Roaring ‘20s.
Born in Baltimore, Ruth grew up rough and tumble. He learned baseball at the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. He compiled a 94-46 won-loss mark as a big-league pitcher, complained that he wanted to play every day and then led the American League in home runs 12 times. Dizzy Dean said, “No one hits home runs the way Babe Ruth did. They were something special.” Ruth said of himself, “If I’d just tried for them dinky singles, I’d have hit .600.” Maybe.
Throat cancer did in the Babe. The day before he died on Aug. 16, Ruth said to the great Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack, “the termites have got me.”
Family and friends filled St Patrick’s Cathedral for Ruth’s funeral mass on Aug. 19 It was hot that day in New York City. One former Yankee supposedly turned to Ruth’s old teammate Waite Hoyt. “I could sure use a beer,” the ex-ballplayer said.
Hoyt: “So could the Babe.”
The funeral procession left St. Patrick’s Cathedral and headed north to the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y., in Westchester County. About 6,000 people met the Babe’s casket.
Ruth’s second wife, Claire, who died in 1976, is buried next to her former husband (The Babe’s first wife, Helen, died in a fire in 1929.) The grave site is marked by a tall, sandblasted image of Christ with his arm on a young boy. The Ruths share space at Gate of Heaven with, among others, the actor Jimmy Cagney, the manager Billy Martin, writer Herman Melville, and the mobster Dutch Schultz.
Thousands of fans visit the Ruth site every year, according to an article written by Spencer Fordin for mlb.com. Some arrive by tour bus. In death, as in life, Babe Ruth remains an attraction. No one, not Cagney, not Martin, not Schultz, not Melville, the author of Moby Dick, gets as much attention as Ruth.
Some fans drop off a bat, a baseball or a ribbon from a youth baseball tournament, Fordin writes. Others bring a hot dog or a pizza. How many people have dropped off a beer?
Andrew Nagle, an employee of the cemetery, operated by the New York Archidiocese, confirms that the Babe tops ‘em all.
“No graves are visited like Babe Ruth’s grave,” he says.
George Herman Ruth Jr., the kid from the Baltimore waterfront, the “incorrigible” youngster dropped off at St. Mary’s, the one-time great pitcher, the long-time preeminent hitter, remains the stuff of legend, of tales fit for the ages.
By Glen Sparks
Jackson or Smith, who was the better Reggie?
You probably know more about Reginald Martinez Jackson, born May 18, 1946, in Wyncote, Pa., near Philadelphia. He rarely lacked for attention, and he truly did spectacular, front-page, “the straw that stirs the drink” sort of stuff during his 21-year career. Before retiring following the 1987 season, Jackson hit 563 home runs and led the American League four times.
At the 1970 All-Star game in Detroit, the left-handed slugger rocketed a Dock Ellis pitch into a light-standard atop Tiger Stadium in right-field, 520 feet from home plate. He led the Oakland A’s to three World Series titles and the New York Yankees to two. In 1977, “Mr. October” blasted three home runs on three straight pitches in Game Six against the Los Angeles Dodgers (off Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa and Charlie Hough, in that order.)
Jackson made 14 All-Star teams and the writers, as they should have, elected him to the Hall of Fame in 1993, in his first year on the ballot. As much as anyone, he was the face of Major League Baseball in the 1970s.
Now, about that “the straw that stirs the drink” thing. He supposedly said that to sportswriter Dave Anderson in July of 1977, to the dismay of teammate Thurman Munson and others. Braggadocio and Reggie Jackson frequently knocked around together. Of course, Jackson did back it up more often than not. He once said that if he played in New York City, they’d name a candy bar after him. He did, and they did. (Catfish Hunter, a cut-up, said this about the Reggie Bar: “I unwrapped it, and it told me how good it was.”)
Jackson liked to take a mighty cut and frequently tied himself into a knot after missing a pitch badly. He struck out 2,596 times, more than anyone in the game’s history. He actually finished with 13 more K’s than hits. No. 44 accumulated 76.6 oWAR points but finished 17.2 points in the hole on dWAR.
One of the great scenes in the Bronx Zoo era of Yankee baseball happened June 18, 1977, during a Saturday afternoon nationally televised game versus the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Jim Rice hit a ball to shallow right field. Jackson jogged in to field it and Rice, hardly a speed burner, ended up on second base. A furious New York skipper, Billy Martin, yanked Reggie from the game. The NBC cameras caught the whole dugout rhubarb on videotape.
“The best thing about being a Yankee is getting to see Reggie Jackson play every day. … The worst thing about being a Yankee is getting to see Reggie Jackson play every day.” – Graig Nettles
The “Other” Reggie
Carl Reginald Smith, born April 2, 1945, in Shreveport, La., grew up in Compton, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles. He played on four Major League teams (the same number as Jackson) and one in Japan, the Yomiuri Giants, in the same era as the more famous Reggie.
Smith belted 314 home runs during a 17-year career, or 249 fewer than Jackson. He drove in 1,092 runs, or 610 fewer than Jackson. Yes, so far, this comparison seems awfully lopsided in favor of Reggie J.
But, let’s move on. Smith batted .287 to Jackson’s .262. His on-base percentage also beat out Jackson, .366 to .356. And, even though Jackson did out-homer Smith by a wide margin, he topped Smith in slugging percentage by just one point, .490 to .489, and in OPS+ by only two, 139 to 137.
Paul Haddad, author of High Fives, Pennant Drives, and Fernandomania, did an interesting comparison of Smith and Jackson. Over a 162-game average over their careers, the numbers look like this: Jackson: 32 home runs, 98 RBI, 89 runs scored, 27 doubles, 79 walks and 149 strikeouts. Smith: 26 home runs, 89 RBI, 92 runs scored, 30 doubles, 73 walks and 84 strikeouts. Wow, pretty close.
On defense, it isn’t even close. Smith won one Gold Glove, probably could have won another, had a great arm and finished with 2.6 dWAR points. (Jackson accumulated 76.6 oWAR points to 55.9 for Smith, which seems like a greater margin than it should be. Even so Smith’s figure is 5.6 points higher than Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda and 7.4 points than inductee Lou Brock.)
What might the difference be? For one, Smith didn’t last as long as Jackson. He retired, or, rather, left for Japan after the 1982 season. (It should be said that he clearly had something left in the tank. He hit .284 in ’82 for the San Francisco Giants and belted 18 homers in only 349 at-bats.) It didn’t help that Smith also suffered some serious injuries late in his career, missing chunks of the 1979-81 seasons.
Jackson won the MVP in 1973 with Oakland and finished in the top five two other times with the A’s and once with the Yankees. Smith finished fourth in the balloting with the Dodgers in 1977 and 1978.
Of course, Jackson lit up the postseason, as mentioned earlier. He hit 18 home runs in 77 playoff and World Series games. Smith hit six in 32.
Reggie Smith also didn’t lit up any reporter’s pens with his electrifying quotes. The man who made seven All-Star teams once said, according to Haddad, “I don’t concern myself with what people say about Reggie Smith.”
Smith stayed on the Hall of Fame ballot for one year, 1988. He grabbed 0.7 of the vote, and that was that. He subsequently did some coaching for the Dodgers and now runs youth baseball academies in the L.A. area.
Bill James rated Jackson as the seventh best right-fielder in baseball history in his 2003 Historical Baseball Abstract. He rated Smith the 20th best but gives him his due, even comparing him with Jackson. He calls him “almost as good, not quite.”
That seems fair. Smith didn’t always do the spectacular stuff that Jackson often did. He was a steady player, though, a complete player, and a very good player.
By Glen Sparks
Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams co-owned the 1941 baseball season.
DiMaggio, the regal center-fielder for the New York Yankees, hit in 56 straight games in ’41, from May 15 through July 16. Since then, only the Cincinnati Reds’ Pete Rose has gotten within two weeks of that run to immortality, a 44-game dash in 1978.
The Yankee Clipper batted .357 in 1941 with a .440 on-base percentage, 30 home runs and 125 RBI. He led the Yankees to 101 wins, the American League pennant and, in the end, a World Series title following a five-game series against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
A few hours up the Atlantic coast, Williams put together an incredible year for the Boston Red Sox. The high-strung left-fielder, dedicated since his San Diego childhood to making himself, in his own words, “the greatest hitter who ever lived,” crushed A.L. pitching, good and bad. He ended the season at .406, the last man to reach that lofty, almost heavenly, .400 mark.
The lanky Teddy Ballgame, just 23 years old and in only his third Major League season, belted 37 home runs to lead the league and drove in 120, fourth best. He topped everyone else, even the great DiMaggio, in on-base percentage (.553), slugging percentage (.735), runs scored (135) and walks (147).
The Red Sox, though, still an also-ran and not yet the hipster unit of more recent times, finished in second place, a respectable 84-70 but 17 games behind the mighty “Yankees of New York,” as the great fisherman Santiago called them in The Old Man and the Sea.
Not surprisingly, especially for that time, the baseball writers voted DiMaggio the American League MVP. Williams, who settled for second place in the standings, also settled for second place in the race for baseball’s top award.
I wrote a post on Jan. 22 that goes into more detail about DiMaggio and Williams in that season of ’41, including a comparison of each batter during Joe D’s legendary streak. You can go back and check it out. (By the way, not getting the MVP didn’t bother Williams, at least publically. He probably expected it and said something like, “Yeah, well, it took the big guy to beat me.” In that sorta John Wayne-type drawl of his.)
The Biggest Thrill
On this particular date in 1941, though, Teddy Ballgame got the best of everyone. He grabbed the headlines and the glory. And DiMaggio went 1-4. On this day, Joe and Ted weren’t even rivals; they were teammates.
Briggs Stadium in Detroit hosted the All-Star game that year on July 8. More than 54,000 fans packed the park on a sunny day in the Motor City. Whit Wyatt, enjoying a big year with the Dodgers, started for the National League. Future Hall of Famer Bob Feller, ace of the Cleveland Indians, started for the American League.
Back then, the All-Star game was a big deal. Oh, sure, now it—what?—”means” something, or something like that. The outcomes decides which league gets the home-field advantage in the World Series. Everyone hates this idea.
But, back in the day, the All-Star game really did mean something. The players played for pride. Which was the superior league? A.L. or N.L.? As Leigh Montville writes in his biography of Ted Williams, the Mid-Summer Classic was the second-biggest deal in baseball, right behind the World Series.
Williams hit fourth in the starting line-up for the American League, right behind DiMaggio. They both played the whole game. Because this one meant something. Pete Reiser, Arky Vaughn and Terry Moore went the whole way for the National League.
The A.L. broke out on top 1-0 in the fourth inning on Williams’ double. The National League held a 5-3 advantage going into the bottom of the ninth. Williams came to bat with two out, two men on base and one run in. On the mound was Claude Passeau, a right-hander with the Chicago Cubs.
The count at two balls and one strike, Passeau came in with a slider. Williams swung, a home-run swing, as he recalled in his autobiography My Turn at Bat. The ball sailed into right field, but Williams thought at first that he had missed the pitch. He figured it would go for a lazy fly out. It kept going and going and going, though, and Williams began leaping and smiling.
He clapped, and he broke into a big smile as the ball sailed out of the park for a glorious walk-off home run. Afterward, Williams said over and over that it was his “biggest thrill.” In the caption section of My Turn at Bat, a picture shows Williams crossing the plate with that big grin on his face, greeting teammates. He writes that “I had my biggest single thrill in baseball: the home run that won the All-Star game.”
Williams and DiMaggio co-owned the 1941 season. Williams owned the 1941 All-Star game.
By Glen Sparks
Maybe “Bunny” Brief couldn’t get around on a good fastball. Maybe it was the 12-6 curveball that gave him fits. Or, maybe he just didn’t like the big crowds. Whatever the case, Brief struggled mightily to hit Major League pitching.
The first baseman and left-fielder played four seasons, 1912-13, 1915 and 1917, for the St. Louis Browns, the Chicago White Sox and the Pittsburgh Pirates. He only accumulated 569 at-bats, about a season’s worth for a starter. In total, he hit .223 with five home runs and 59 RBI.
Here is a little bit of background on “Bunny” Brief: He was born Anthony John Grzeszkowski on July 3, 1892, in Remus, Mich. He later changed his name to Anthony Vincent Brief. (Your guess is as good as mine as to why he played pro ball as “Bunny” Brief.)
Bunny might be just another player forgotten to baseball history. Except for one thing. He absolutely crushed minor league pitching. I mean, he hammered it. The right-handed batter holds the all-time American Association record with 256 home runs. He collected eight home run titles—five in the A.A., two in the Michigan State League and one in the Pacific Coast League. He belted 302 minor-league home runs.
Brief also led the American Association in RBI five times and in runs scored two times. He put together his greatest season in 1921, as a member of the Kansas City Blues. Brief belted 42 home runs, drove in 191 runs and scored 166 times, to go along with a .361 batting average and a .685 slugging percentage.
The pro baseball career of “Bunny” Brief began in 1910. He broke in as a 17-year-old with the Traverse City Resorters of the Western Michigan League, the WMIL, and hit just two home runs in 354 at-bats. The league expanded state-wide the following year, and Brief topped the Michigan State League in homers in 1911 (10) and 1912 (13).
Brief spent most of the 1913 season with the Browns but was back in the minors the following year. He enjoyed his first big season in baseball in 1916, whacking 33 homers for the Salt Lake City Bees of the PCL.
Bunny’s big run came from 1920-1926, leading the American Association five times in home runs during that seven-year span. He quit playing in 1928 but managed the Wausau, Wisc., Lumberjacks of the Northern League to a 60-55 mark and a fourth-place finish in 1938.
Bunny Brief never did much in the majors. But, he was a minor-league success story.
Harmon Killebrew didn’t just hit baseballs; he punished them for getting into his way. Killebrew blasted 573 home runs into orbit during a 22-year career.
He hit the first of those homers on June 24, 1955, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. Detroit Tigers starter Billy Hoeft served up the pitch. Killebrew, a 19-year-old rookie, deposited it into the bleachers, the highlight of the day for the Senators, who lost 18-7. (Sign of the times: Hoeft gave up 12 hits and seven runs and went the whole way for Detroit.) Only 4,188 fans “filled” the stands at Griffith for the Friday tussle.
“Killer” led the American League in home runs six times, topping out at 49 in 1964 and 1969. The slugger stood a few inches shy of 6-feet tall but relied on forearms that would have made a lumberjack envious.
Pitchers started getting twitchy when Killebrew stood in the on-deck circle. His bat was simply a launch vehicle. Baltimore Orioles Manager Paul Richards once said, “Killebrew can the ball out of any park, including Yellowstone.” He once hit a pitch over the left-field roof at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.
Harmon Clayton Killebrew was born June 29, 1936, in little Payette, Idaho, near the Oregon state line. His dad, Harmon Clayton Sr., went out for football at Milliken College in Decatur, Ill, and encouraged his sons to play hard. Here is one great story:
Harmon and his brother were messing around in the yard with Dad. Katherine Killebrew took one look at the beat-up lawn and said, “You’re ruining the grass.” The games went on. Pops Killebrew simply said, “We’re not raising grass. We’re raising boys.”
Payette High School never had an athlete like Harmon Killebrew Jr. The youngster earned 12 varsity letters and was signed by the Washington Senators, thanks to a tip from U.S. Sen. Herman Welker, R-Idaho. (It probably wasn’t a hard sell. Killebrew was .8batting .847 for a local semi-pro team.)
Four days after signing, Killebrew made his debut with the Senators, pinch-running for Clyde Vollmer, six days shy of turning 18. Over the next few years, the muscular prospect with a compact, but powerful, right-handed swing, sat mostly on the Washington bench as a Bonus Baby. Only later did he get to punish young, impressionable minor league pitchers.
Finally, in 1959, Killer played in his first full Major League season. He promptly led the A.L. with 42 home runs. He also made the All-Star team, something he would do another 11 times in his career.
The Washington Senators left for Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1961. Killebrew took his home-run swing with him. From 1961-64, he belted 188 balls out of the park.
He also led the league in RBI three times. And, despite a pedestrian .256 career batting average, Killebrew retired with a .376 on-base percentage, thanks to a good eye and careful pitching. He led the league in intentional walks three times and ended up with 160 free passes.
The baseball writers elected Killebrew to the Hall of Fame in 1984. His No. 3 is retired by the Minnesota Twins, of course, and a street at the famous Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., bears his name. One rumor is that his likeness is the one on the MLB logo.
Killebrew now stands at No. 11 on the all-time home run list. He is tied with Rogers Hornsby at 38th on the RBI list (1,584) and is 15th on the all-time walks list (1,559). He also is Idaho’s all-time home run champ by far, 502 ahead of Vance Law.
Known for his kind heart, Killebrew organized the Danny Thomson Memorial Golf Tournament in honor of a Twins teammate who died of leukemia. The tournament still goes on every year in Sun Valley, Idaho, and benefits cancer research efforts.
Killebrew spent time as a broadcaster for a few years after retiring, worked as a coach and nearly died from infections after suffering a collapsed lung and damaged esophagus in 1990. He died in hospice care of esophageal cancer on May 17, 2011, at the age of 74.
“I didn’t have evil intentions, but I guess I did have power.” – Harmon Killebrew