One of the most feared power hitters of his era, Harmon Killebrew played 22 years in Major League Baseball. He is best remembered for his time with the Minnesota Twins in the 1960s and early 1970s.
During his time in Minnesota, Killebrew joined the elite club of players who hit at least 500 home runs during their career. Over this career, he also led the American League in home runs in six seasons and made the All-Star team 11 times.
Harmon Killebrew Early Life
Harmon Killebrew started his journey to becoming a power hitting star on June 29, 1936, in the small town of Payette, Idaho. Killebrew was the baby of the family, the youngest of five siblings born to Harmon and Katherine Killebrew. His father ran a house painting business and was also a sheriff.
Killebrew worked on farms during the day and played baseball and other sports during his free time and at school. When he graduated from Payette High School, he had earned 12 letters in sports and was an All-American quarterback.
Killebrew intended to enroll in the University of Oregon. However, fate intervened in the form of Republican Sen. Herman Welker of Idaho. A big sports fan and a regular at Washington Senators’ games, the senator informed Senators owner Clark Griffith about Killebrew, who he had seen play.
Griffith dispatched a scout to check out Killebrew. No one knows for sure whether he did this to stay on the good side of Sen. Welker or because of genuine interest. Whatever the case, it proved to be a smart move.
Harmon Killebrew’s Early Career
The Senators’ scout, Ossie Bluege, had to wait out a rainstorm to see Killebrew play. He was rewarded by seeing Killebrew hit a giant home run deep into an Idaho beet field. Offered a contract, Killebrew decided to sign.
However, Killebrew later admitted he wanted to be a member of the Boston Red Sox. He had met the Red Sox scout for the Northwest, who had told Killebrew to contact him if another team made an offer. Killebrew did, but Boston could not match the Senators’ offer ($6,000 for each of the first three years, plus a $4,000 signing bonus).
Because of the bonus, Killebrew immediately was signed to the Senators’ Major League team. He pinch-ran in a game against the Chicago White Sox on June 23, 1954, at Comiskey Park, which was his debut in the majors. He played in only nine games in 1954, making 15 plate appearances and hitting .308.
For the next four seasons, 1955-1958, Killebrew had limited playing time at the top level and ended up getting sent to the minors. He married his high school sweetheart during this period and ended up having five kids.
Harmon Killebrew’s MLB Career
Things changed for Killebrew when Clark Griffith died and his nephew, Calvin Griffith, took over the team. The younger Griffith thought Killebrew was ready to start at third base, and traded veteran Ed Yost to the Detroit Tigers in December 1958 for Reno Bertoia, Ron Samford and Jim Delsing. Delsing is famous for pinch running for the three feet, seven inch tall Eddie Gaedel after he walked in his one and only plate appearance in 1951 when they both played for the St. Louis Browns.
The most significant impact of the trade was that it opened the door for Killebrew. In 1959, he earned the first of 11 trips to the All-Star game, hitting 42 home runs and driving in 105. It was also the first year he led the American League in home runs, a feat he accomplished in 1962, 1963, 1964, 1967 and 1969.
He also led the American League in RBI in 1962, 1969 and 1971. Killebrew was named the AL Most Valuable Player in 1969, a year when he hit .276, slugged 49 home runs and drove in 140 runs. He also played in all 162 games.
The Twins had little postseason success, unfortunately. The high-water mark was winning the 1965 pennant, although the team lost the World Series that year to the Los Angeles Dodgers
Killebrew retired from baseball after the 1975 season. He spent his last season with the Kansas City Royals. In 1984, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first Twin to make the hall.
Throughout his career, he maintained a low-key public image. As noted by the Hall of Fame, when asked one time what he did for fun, he responded: “Well, I like to wash dishes, I guess.”
He went on to a broadcasting career for the Twins, the Oakland A’s, and the California Angels. He also ran a car dealership and a car leasing company, although both ended up failing and Killebrew experienced financial difficulties. Following a divorce, he remarried and moved to Arizona, where he ran a charity organization. He died on May 17, 2011 of esophageal cancer, at the age of 74.