On the theory that everyone has a little bit of Washington Senator in him, the rise of Harmon Clayton Killebrew as the American League's leading home run hitter can be regarded as the most pleasant surprise of the 1959 baseball season. Killebrew's barrage of May home runs, 12 thus far, has stirred Washington's interest in baseball. It has also made Killebrew a celebrity.
Until May, Killebrew's performance had never matched the elegance of his name. He had been a professional for almost five years, with nothing to show for it except the modest bonus he got for signing with Washington and the knowledge that major league pitchers are better than those around Payette, Idaho, his home town. As a schoolboy athlete, he had attracted the attention of the late Senator Herman Welker. Welker told the Washington front office about him. They took a quick look at Harmon's power and signed him. For two years (mandatory for bonus players) the young infielder stayed with Washington. Then he was shipped to the minors. Each year he returned to Washington briefly, always ending up back in the minors. He could hit far, but not often. And his fielding was poor.
This spring Manager Cookie Lavagetto gave him a crack at the third-base position vacated by Eddie Yost, who after a decade with the Senators had been traded. Harmon opened the season, and although he hit the first home run of 1959, he was hitting under .250 with only three home runs when May arrived.
On May 1 Killebrew hit two home runs. He hit two more the next day. On May 5 he hit one, then two again on May 9. Three days later he hit another two, and two more still on the 17th. On May 20th he hit one. Babe Ruth, the record book reveals, when he hit his 60 home runs in 1927, hit two home runs in one game eight times. Harmon Killebrew had hit two in one game five times in 17 days.
Killebrew's swing is designed for the home run. He stands deep in the batter's box. He grips his 33-ounce bat at the end and holds it high. When he swings, it is a brutal stroke. His home runs are long ones. But he also strikes out a lot. In the past he has often been attracted to the chin-high fast ball that sends so many promising hitters back to the minors. This year he has been trying to wait for strikes, but even so he has struck out frequently. One night against Cleveland, he struck out three times, then hit a 430-foot home run.
There are various opinions about Killebrew's defensive ability at third base. Ellis Clary, a Senator coach, says he is 100% improved, which could mean anything. George Kell, the Detroit radio announcer who for years was the best third baseman in the league, says Killebrew "gets by." Harmon himself admits "I'm no Pie Traynor." And his manager, Cookie Lavagetto, concedes that "he pays his way with his bat." And he does.
It is easy, looking at Killebrew from handshaking distance, to see where the power comes from. From years of helping his father paint houses in Payette, Harmon has developed thick forearms and wrists. His shoulders are wide. He weighs almost 200 pounds, even though he is only 5 feet 11.
"He's 5 feet 10 and 3/4 inches," his wife Elaine corrects.
"I'm 5 feet 11," repeats Harmon. "I measured myself against the door this morning."
Killebrew will be 23 in June. With his cap off he looks older, for his reddish-brown hair is fading in front. He has an expression around his eyes of continuous surprise, delighted surprise, and no wonder. His nose is sharp and his mouth wide. No one would call him handsome, but his appearance is pleasant.