Tuesday, July 17, 2012

#400 - Harmon Killebrew

I’ve been on a good jag about being current with my posts but I couldn’t do this one on Friday the 13th, so I skipped a day, or a few since I don’t post on weekends and then got side-tracked. For the big 400 card Topps gives us an action shot of The Killer, who, despite an off year, is very deserving. And it was an off year: early season knee problems killed his power and then required surgery, pretty much cutting his year in half. And while he would return to double digit homer totals his next couple seasons, Harmon was in decline mode so he was not likely to get such an honorary card designation again. Let’s just chalk up the big number to his eight years of 40-plus homers. He is set to tee off somewhere on the road, but it’s hard to tell exactly where. He swung a pretty mean bat; he is about as far away from a choke grip as I’ve seen in the set.

Harmon Killebrew was born and raised in Payette, Idaho. In high school he played the big three sports and was an all-American in football. He planned to go to Oregon – his dad spent a bunch of time in Portland – but a state senator saw him playing summer baseball and happened to know Nats owner Clark Griffith and it was bye-bye football. Harmon signed with DC in ’54, a year outside of high school, for either $50,000 or $30,000, depending on the source. Either way, the amount was enough to land him bonus baby status and he spent his first two years exclusively on the Nats roster, rarely playing, and not hitting terribly well when he did. But he did show some big occasional power and when he was allowed to he hit the minors in ’56 where he hit .325 with 15 homers in A ball. He rose a level each season, continuing to show pretty good power, and after a few stints each year at the top was ready in ’59 to take over a regular spot in DC.

In ’59 Killebrew became the regular Washington third baseman which was his normal position in the minors. Finally given a chance to get decent at bats he responded by hitting an AL-leading 42 homers, probably making DC fans wonder why the team took so long in giving him the gig. Then in ’60 he split time between first and third while missing over a month due to hamstring problems. The guys who subbed for him while he was out were Reno Bertoia (3rd) and Julio Becquer (1st) which are both awfully good baseball names. In ’61 the team moved to Minnesota to become the Twins and Harmon spent most of his time at first while putting up the first of four consecutive 40-plus homer years. Then in ’62 he moved to left field when Don Mincher became the regular guy at first and continued to yank them despite playing with a pulled quad for a couple months. In ’63 a hurt knee contributed to his RBI totals sliding below 100 and in ’65 he cracked his elbow, missing a couple months during the big playoff run. But he hit .286 with a .444 OBA against the Dodgers in the Series and followed it up with two healthy seasons.  He also moved back to the infield as his knees were in pretty much constant pain and he did a better job as a fielder there anyway. Then after a slow start in ’68 he pulled a hamstring in the All-Star game and missed the rest of the year. But he returned big in ’69, leading the majors with 49 homers and 140 RBI’s while posting a .427 OBA to lead the Twins to the first AL playoffs. While the O’s would pitch around Harmon in that series – he was walked six times in three games – it ended an amazing decade in which he led the AL in homers five times, RBI’s twice, and walks three times. He hit the most homers of anyone in the decade and was an All-Star nine seasons.

The Seventies pretty much picked up where the Sixties left off for Killebrew as in ’70 he put up another 40-plus homer and .400-plus OBA year. That was his last year as the regular guy at third and in ’71 while the homer tally dropped he did lead the AL in RBI’s and walks in his final All-Star year. Then in ’72 the knee issue hit hard and the ribbies and average tumbled. After the further slowdown in ’73 he came back to DH in ’74 for about half a season to hit 13 homers and 54 RBI’s. After the year ended he was given the option of coaching, managing in the minors, or being released. He opted for the last one, hooked up with Kansas City for a year of DHing and was done. He finished with 573 homers, 1,584 RBI’s, 2,086 hits, a .256 average, and a .376 OBA. In the post-season he hit .250 with three homers, six RBI’s, and a .444 OBA in 13 games. He was elected to the Hall in ’84, his fourth year of eligibility.

After he was done playing, The Killer did some parallel professional things. In baseball he announced: for the Twins (’76-’78 and ’84-’88); Oakland (’79-’82), where he also served as hitting coach; and California (’83). He also had his own insurance agency from ’76 to ’87 and auto dealership from ’84 to ’90. That last year he relocated to Arizona and began to make a living from personal appearances. He also did a bunch of charity work, including organizing the Danny Thompson Memorial golf outing every year in Idaho and other work to raise funds for kids. In late 2010 he contracted esophageal cancer – he’d had issues with his esophagus in the early Nineties as well – and in May of 2011 decided to go into hospice care, passing away a few days later a few days shy of his 75th birthday.

Harmon gets no space for star bullets but certainly wouldn’t be hurting for them. He has a classy signature. When he retired he would be the number one guy in career homers for a right-hander.

 A couple of music items are worth noting. On July 13, 1973 the Everly Brothers put on their last concert in many years as a duo after Phil Everly smashed his guitar and walked offstage. Brother Don continued to perform, explaining the group breaking up by saying “the Everly Brothers died ten years ago.” They wouldn’t perform together again until ’84. The following day ex-Byrds guitarist Clarence White is killed by a drunk driver while loading a van after a concert. He was 29. On July 13, 1974 a new Number One song tops the charts in George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby.” George had been an AOR guy who had also written hits for other artists, so of course his big one was written by someone else: Harry Wayne Casey, better known as KC of KC and the Sunshine Band. Finally on July 17th, Cat Stevens performs a charity gig for UNICEF at Madison Square Garden, and in return the group names him its first “pop music ambassador.” Pretty ironic title for a guy who would later demand the killing of author Salman Rushdie.

I am falling back again on the ex-MVP for the hook-up:

1. Killebrew and Zoilo Versalles ’59 to ’67 Senators/Twins;
2. Versalles and Mike Paul ’69 Indians.

1 comment:

  1. I think the picture was taken in Baltimore. It looks as if the players in the dugout are wearing white (home) uniforms, and I believe the Orioles used the dugout on the third-base side in Memorial Stadium.