Latest in my series of posts to remember recently passed baseball greats. Today is about Harmon "Killer" Killebrew, who received his final call up last week.
When examining history's great sluggers, you'd be hard pressed to find a hitter whose legacy suffered more from the excess of the steroid era than Killebrew. Widely regarded as one of the most powerful right handed hitters to ever swing the lumber, Killebrew started the last decade at solidly in fifth place on the all time homer list. By the end of the decade he stood at eleventh, passed by the likes of McGwire, Sosa, Rodriguez, Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Thome (a very similar player style-wise). Only Griffey and Thome have survived the steroid fallout with their reputations still intact. Without the fascinating career story of Frank Robinson or Reggie Jackson's flair for the post season, Killebrew, a quiet man who shunned the spotlight, has seen his name fade into the fog of history. Unless, of course, you live in Minnesota.
Killebrew came up with the original Senators as a second baseman, but moved around to 3b,1b, and OF. Apparently his fielding was adventurous at best. True to DC's absurdly cursed baseball karma, Calvin Griffith moved the team to Minnesota as his career was really going bonkers, thus denying DC a second truly great player to accompany the Big Train in baseball's pantheon (I love Frank Howard as much as the next guy, but the Bespectacled One isn't getting a plaque anytime soon).
Obligatory photo of ballplayer holding lots of bats
Drafted with much fanfare at 17, the Senator's developed him slowly. When given a chance to hit full time, he tore the cover off the ball for the next 13 seasons, barring an injury here and there. He was a power and patience guy from the get go, never hitting over .300, while belting 40 home runs 8 times (second only to the Bambino) and leading the league in round trippers 6 times. He retired the AL's top RH slugger until some douche with dreams of being a centaur joined the league in the nineties. Like every other hitter in the game, he went absolutely nuts in 1969 after the pitching mound was lowered to 10 inches, dropping 49 HRs, driving in 140 RBI's and posting a 1.011 OPS. Not surprisingly, the writers gave him what would be his only MVP.
Known for absurd tape measure blasts; Killebrew owned the longest home runs in Baltimore and Minnesota stadium history, reportedly the longest at old Anaheim stadium, and bounced a ball off the left field roof of Tiger Stadium. He's been credited with a 550 foot blast, putting him in Mickey Mantle territory, if you believe that a baseball can actually be hit that far and isn't the result of some shaky press box math.
The Twins were occasionally competitive during his tenure, losing a 7 game World Series to the Dodgers in 1965, and getting buzz sawed by Earl Weaver's Orioles in the 69 and 70 ALCS. Killebrew played solidly in all three series and shined in 1970.
Killer was rare (along with Hank Aaron) among history's great sluggers in that he did almost all of his damage during the sixties when just getting a hit, much less giving the ball a 450 foot ride, was a massive accomplishment. The bulk of history's greatest sluggers tend to come in bunches, whether during the live ball area of the 20's and 30's, or the juiced up 90's/aught's.
Killebrew is instructive on the way the BBWAA mindset on the Hall of Fame has evolved over the year's. Killer became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1980, and waited until 1984 to get the requisite number of votes to be elected. The other Minnesota great, Kirby Puckett, whose career hitting stats are lower in aggregate than Killebrew's, was elected to much fanfare on his first ballot in 2001.
Unlike Puckett, Killebrew was a good guy. Gentle and polite almost to a fault and beloved by virtually everyone who came into contact with him, Killer spent his post baseball life involved in charity work.
And he had that batting stance.