Why we like him: The game lost a true hero this week with the passing of Harmon Killebrew. Of course I'm way too young to have ever seen him play, so when I heard about his death, I felt compelled to look him up and really look at what kind of career he had. Obviously, I already knew Killer was a heck of a ballplayer, an 11-time All Star, and a Hall-of-Famer. What I never really knew or appreciated what the true depth of his greatness and his legendary impact on the game.
Most of Killebrew's contributions to the game are clearly documented with some pretty attractive stats over the course of his 22 seasons. His career total of 573 home runs is still impressive in any era and remains good enough for 11th on the all time list (with 4 questionable guys ahead of him in McGwire, Sosa, A-Rod, and Bonds). In all honesty, he was a player who was ahead of his time as a power hitter. Just imagine what how fun it would have been to see highlights of Killer's tape-measure shots every night on ESPN. In 1967, he smacked an officially measured 520-foot home run against the Angels that still boggles the mind. Killebrew was also one of the premier RBI men of his era, leading the league four times and finishing in the top six a total of ten times.
Early in his career, Killebrew could be described as a bit of a free swinger. With his big hacks, he led the league in strikeouts in 1962, but he also led the league in homers and RBI that season too. However, by the time he won his first and only MVP award in 1969 at the age of 33, he was regularly finishing in the top three in walks and striking out far fewer times that taking the base on balls. He continued to be a productive hitter through his mid-30s until his body naturally began to break down due in large part to the introduction and growing popularity of astroturf. One piece of oft forgotten trivia is that Killebrew actually played his final season for the Kansas City Royals in 1975, batting just .199 with 14 home runs in 106 games.
Killebrew was every bit as good as Maris at his best, Al Kaline, Frank Robinson, Yaz, and even Mantle. He was arguably one of the best five players of his era, but he was actually more than that. He practically defined the face of the Twins franchise for the majority of two decades. Even today when someone thinks about the Twins, it's hard not to think about Harmon Killebrew regardless of how old you are. He was that great. We'll miss him.
Ladies and gentlemen, Harmon Killebrew, Ballplayer.