SI Vault
Barbara Heilman
April 08, 1963
Minnesota's Harmon Killebrew, the loudest bat and quietest mouth in baseball, goes doggedly about the business of leading the major leagues in home run production and ice cream consumption
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April 08, 1963

Out Of The Park On A Half Swing

Minnesota's Harmon Killebrew, the loudest bat and quietest mouth in baseball, goes doggedly about the business of leading the major leagues in home run production and ice cream consumption

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It is becoming baseball's best-known little-known fact that Harmon Killebrew of the Minnesota Twins {see cover) is challenging Babe Ruth's lifetime home-run average. Not Maris, Mantle, Mays or Colavito, but Killebrew, and he is challenging briskly. The average is derived from the number of homers per times at bat ( Ruth's average was 11.8; Killebrew's is 13.1), and Mantle, Colavito and Maris are fifth, sixth and 13th, respectively, behind Ruth. For those who like their figures absolute rather than relative, there is the fact that since he became a big-league regular four years ago Killebrew has hit 167 home runs. Colavito is second with 159, Mantle follows with 155 and Maris with 149. (The fan of the absolute figure may also ponder the fact that Harmon led the American League in strikeouts last year, with 142.)

In all the late hullabaloo over the single-season home-run record, Killebrew's steady attack on the ultimate average has gone—if not unnoticed—at least unsung, or at the very least not sung in a loud voice. One cynic has said that you have to be a New York ballplayer with New York press coverage before anybody knows what you're doing. But in any city Harmon Clayton Killebrew would have an almost infinite capacity for not causing a stir. In 1959 Killebrew was nicknamed "Killer" by desperate sportswriters—sportswriters who also have come up with "Charmin' Harmon," "Harmin' Harmon," and "Bombin' Harmon," depending on the circumstances. The term Killer eventually died of its own silliness, and from being good-naturedly abused by Harmon's teammates. You can't look an abstraction of amiability in the eye and call it Killer, day after day, no matter how hard it hits. But the name persists in some newspapers, and this may be because reporters trying to make colorful and intimate copy out of Harmon have discovered that he is a killer indeed. What makes a reporter happy is someone with a facial tic, conversational peculiarities, a hobby involving off-season archaeology or perhaps an acquittal in the dim past for the murder of an aunt. And Harmon Killebrew is a sensible, good-tempered man who loves his wife and children and has no curious hobbies. ("Come on, Harm. You must have some unusual hobby." "Just washing the dishes, I guess," says Harmon, trying to help.)

The result is that only the basic facts of Killebrew's career are well known. He was "discovered" by the late Senator Herman Welker of Idaho and scouted by the Senators' Ossie Bluege, when he was 17 and playing semiprofessionally in the spring of 1954. He responded magnificently to Bluege's scrutiny, with four homers, three triples and five singles in 12 times at bat. He was signed for $30,000 by the Senators' Clark Griffith, thus becoming the Senators' first bonus baby, a distinction that gave him the chance to sit on the bench for two years. There followed three years in the minors, and in 1959 he came to Washington for good, forming, along with Jim Lemon, Roy Sievers and Bob Allison, a new version of "Murderers' Row." A bunch of hitters anybody could call Murderers' Row was something Washington never expected to call its own. The Senators picked up, attendance picked up, Killebrew's spirits picked up. He drove in 105 runs and tied Rocky Colavito for the American League home-run championship with 42.

In 1960 what may be called the Killebrew split season really manifested itself. In 1959 Harmon didn't homer once in 24 exhibition games, but hit 42 during the season. In 1960 he slumped through the first half of the season, turning in four homers; in the second half he came through with 27 home runs for a total of 31. In 1961 the season split the other way. He started strong and slumped late, but finished with an even gaudier 46 homers. In 1962 the slump reversed itself again, but when it was all over the home runs added up to 48, the RBIs to 126, and Killebrew was the American League home-run champion.

But there is more to playing baseball than hitting or not hitting home runs. There is always the other half of the inning, and a major problem it has been for Harmon Killebrew. He came from high school to the Washington Senators as a shortstop, and the Senators tried him there—for about 20 minutes. From shortstop to second to third to first; nothing made anybody very happy. "I just wasn't built for shortstop," Killebrew says now. "I didn't have the range for it. At the time Eddie Yost was playing third and they didn't need me there, but I wasn't particularly good at second base. Wasn't built for that, either." (Harmon is square. He's 5 feet 11 inches, 213 pounds, and square. "Harmon's legs are short from the knee to the waist," Twin Physician Bill Proffitt says, but the fact is, his legs are short from the waist to the ground. Harmon's shoulders and torso would require peculiarly long legs to make him look anything but square.)

"Well, finally I spent several years at third, and that was the place I felt most at home, but then in 1960 I was injured and Reno Bertoia came in." Where Bertoia came in to, of course, was third base. "When I was ready again they put me at first. I liked the position." Harmon sounded a little wistful. "But I kind of jumped back from first to third and was kind of in a mess. In the minor leagues I'd played a few games in the outfield. I played some in left and right in Chattanooga, and I kind of knew my way around." The Twins put Harmon in left field where, according to a rather obscure statement by Herb Heft, the Twins' PR man, "He did a lot better than anyone expected."

Killebrew began spring training in left field this year, the first time he has ever known so early where he would play. He is not particularly agile and not particularly fast, but his arm is sufficient and his hands are good. He is an earnest and adequate outfielder, and his peregrinations around the infield are over.

It has been a long shakedown process, and back near the beginning of it there wasn't too much joy in Washington about Mr. Griffith's bonus baby. Griffith had not spent any fluorescent $50,000 as was reported, but he had spent $30,000, and there was certainly some pressure on the very young Harmon to look like $30,000 worth.

Bucky Harris was managing the Senators at the time, and he has been described as "very in with the press; though they didn't often quote him, what he said became their opinion." The opinion of Bucky Harris, thus made ubiquitous, seems to have been doubt that the acquisition of young Killebrew was going to be worth it. Harmon was depressing everybody at shortstop, and soon the question was, was Killebrew going to be a bust?

A nice position to be in—to be a boy with a single gift, not allowed to cultivate it or a supplementary strength for two years, with a batch of sportswriters sitting around waiting for you to look like an unprecedented $30,000, if not a mythical $50,000. The sportswriters were not kind.

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