Cooperstown Confidential: Rooting for Killer

When people find out about my association with the Hall of Fame, they inevitably ask me about the members enshrined in Cooperstown. How many have you met? What are they like? Who is the nicest guy among the Hall of Famers. In regard to the latter question, I usually provide multiple answers. Brooks Robinson is the consummate gentleman. Phil Niekro is very approachable. Billy Williams is always easy to talk to, as is Ferguson Jenkins. (There must be something about those old Cubs). The late Robin Roberts was as down to earth as they come. Don Sutton, contrary to what Steve Garvey might have thought, is a really good guy. And then there’s a friendly fellow named Harmon Killebrew.

As the old year came to an end, we all heard the distressing news that Killebrew is suffering from esophageal cancer. I’m hardly an expert on the disease, but from what I understand, it is one of the worst cancers to have. It goes without saying that I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I have to wonder why it would strike someone like Killebrew, who doesn’t smoke or drink and appears to lead a clean life, in addition to being an exceedingly pleasant guy. It just doesn’t seem fair.

In some ways, Killebrew is one of the most anonymous Hall of Famers. That’s because he’s the antithesis of a self-promoter; he is completely humble, someone who is clearly uncomfortable talking about his own accomplishments. If one were to solicit opinions from average fans, most would be able to tell you only that Killebrew, a pure slugger, hit with tremendous power, enough to put him in the 500-home run club. More sophisticated fans could tell you that he was a very patient hitter who drew bushels of walks, sometimes more than a hundred in a season. They might also know that he spent a significant amount of his career as a third baseman before settling into life as a fulltime first baseman.

There are a few things about Killebrew that might not be as well known. So let’s tackle several items of interest with regard to the man known fondly as “Killer.”

*Killebrew is best remembered as a corner infielder with the Twins, but he actually made his major league debut as a second baseman. The old Washington Senators (who eventually moved to the Twin Cities) brought him up at the age of 17 because of the bonus rule that existed at the time; given his status, Killebrew had to spend two full seasons in Washington before he could be sent to the minor leagues for additional seasoning. The teenaged bonus baby played only three games in the field, all at second base, for the Senators in 1954. He received a little more playing time in 1955, as the Senators switched him from second base to third base, but he essentially occupied the final spot on Washington’s bench. The Senators later moved him to the outfield, but his lack of speed necessitated a return to the infield.

It sounds preposterous now to regard Killebrew as a second baseman, but he was not particularly big (six feet, 195 pounds) and actually had decent speed and quickness in his early years. A series of hamstring, quad and knee injuries afflicted him in the early 1960s, reducing his foot speed and making any further experimentation at second base a moot point. If Killebrew had somehow been able to stay at second base for a prolonged period, he likely would have eclipsed Jeff Kent, Ryne Sandberg, and Joe Morgan as the all-time home run leader at the position.

*According to a longstanding urban legend, Killebrew was the model for the silhouetted figure that Major League Baseball adopted for its logo in 1969. Even Killebrew has stated publicly that his body and batting stance were used in designing the logo. But officials of MLB have repeatedly denied that this is the case. Jerry Dior, who created the logo in 1968, told Paul Lukas of that Killebrew is not the basis of the silhouette. “It’s not any specific person,“ Dior told Lukas directly. “I did a couple of variations based on
photographs I had. It was sort of a composite of what I had in front of me.” In spite of Dior’s revelation, the urban legend continues to persist in some circles.

*Killebrew’s best season came in 1969, coinciding with Minnesota winning the first title in the history of the American League West. Benefiting from the lowering of the pitcher’s mound and the expansion pitching of the Seattle Pilots and Kansas City Royals, Killebrew led the league in home runs (49), on-base percentage (.427), walks (145), and RBIs (140). He even stole eight bases in 10 attempts! Basically, Killebrew played like a right-handed version of Mickey Mantle, but showed more durability than “The Mick” in his prime, appearing in all 162 games for the Twins.

*Card collecting fans of Killebrew received a treat in 1972. He was actually portrayed on three different player cards: his own, his “In Action card,” and the action card featuring Yankees catcher John Ellis. Killebrew can be seen holding Ellis on at first base in a game at the original Yankee Stadium.

*Killebrew was good friends with Twins shortstop Danny Thompson, who was stricken with leukemia at a young age. Shortly after the 29-year-old Thompson died in 1976, Killebrew started the Danny Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament. Held annually ever since, the event has raised nearly $9 million for leukemia and cancer research.

*Though he’s become intrinsically linked to the Twins’ franchise, Killebrew actually spent the final season of his career with the Kansas City Royals. Filling a role as Kansas City’s primary DH in 1975, Killebrew struggled, batting only .199 with a .375 slugging percentage in 106 games.

Killebrew played alongside George Brett and John Mayberry, both of whom enjoyed prime seasons in 1975. It would have been fun to watch the righty-slugging Killebrew, playing at or near his peak, sandwiched in between two thunderous left-handed batters like Brett and “Big John.” Then again, Killebrew would not have found picturesque Royals Stadium (as it was known at the time), with its expansive power alleys, much to his liking.

*After his playing days, Killebrew almost embarked on a second career as a manager. Killebrew nearly became the skipper of the Texas Rangers. In fact, he could have had the job–if only he wanted it. During the first half of a tumultuous 1977 season, the Rangers fired manager Frank Lucchesi. They dipped into the college ranks to hire Eddie “The Brat” Stanky, the former major league second baseman. Stanky managed the Rangers for one game—and then decided that he had made a huge mistake. Realizing that managing in the major leagues was not for him, Stanky announced his resignation. Left in the lurch, the Rangers hired third base coach Connie Ryan as their interim manager. As Ryan managed the Rangers temporarily, the team then offered the full-time position to Killebrew. Harmon thought about the offer, considering the commitment of time, travel and energy. He decided to turn down the job, which eventually went to longtime Orioles coach (and noted disciplinarian) Billy Hunter.

If Killebrew had taken the position, he might have become the nicest man to serve as a major league manager. (I suppose Dick Howser and Art Howe could have competed with Killer for that title.) According to Leo “The Lip” Durocher, “Nice guys finish last.” Maybe so, but Killebrew’s smarts and generally strong character might have turned the tables on that saying.

*Considering how quiet and soft-spoken Killebrew remains in public, it’s rather shocking to learn that he actually worked as a broadcaster for 13 seasons. Killebrew’s broadcasting career included two stints with the Twins, along with some time in the booths of the Oakland A’s and California Angels. While with the A’s, Killebrew doubled as a batting instructor, both at the major and minor league levels. Somewhere in the land of memorabilia there must be a rare spring training photograph showing Killer wearing the green and gold of the A’s.

*Killebrew’s current bout with cancer is not his first serious health problem. In the spring of 1990, suffered a collapsed lung and a damaged esophagus, necessitating that he be rushed to the emergency room. While in the hospital, he endured a staph infection, an abscess, and three successive surgeries. Killebrew nearly died during the ordeal, but was eventually able to leave the hospital, albeit wheelchair bound, before recovering fully that winter.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

Perhaps Killebrew’s ability to survive 20 years ago will portend another recovery this time around. I know that I speak for many at the Hall of Fame who would like to see him return to Cooperstown for another twenty summers. He’s a good man, the kind of man who makes Hall of Fame Weekend just a bit more pleasant.

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Bruce Markusen is the manager of Digital and Outreach Learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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Steve Treder
Steve Treder

By every account I’ve ever heard, Killebrew is just a terrific guy.  All best wishes for his return to good health.