Toward the end of Harmon Killebrew’s career, Calvin Griffith, the penny-pinching Twins owner who had backed Killebrew in 1959 for a full-time chance to play with the Washington Senators, now looked for a way not to pay Killebrew as much heading into the 1975 season, according to “Ultimate Slugger,” the 2012 biography of the man by sportswriter Steve Aschburner.
Griffith hoped he could pay him less as a player/manager or as manager of the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate in Tacoma, Washington. But Harmon wanted to play another season of baseball, so he looked elsewhere, finally agreeing to play for the Kansas City Royals in 1975, a forgettable season to wind down a Hall of Fame career.
Once he became Hall of Fame eligible, he was shockingly not inducted on the first, second, or third ballots, but on the fourth, winning entry in 1984, almost a decade after he left major league baseball.
Aschburner’s book includes an argument from Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter, Allen Lewis, about why Killebrew did not belong at Cooperstown, which I will not repeat here, but he also provides a defense of Killebrew and his 573 career home runs.
“Other veteran baseball writers, such as feisty Dick Young in New York and Joe Falls in Detroit, backed Killebrew from the start, figuring he did one thing — one mighty thing — better than all but four people who had ever played the game by the time he retired. Wrote Falls in June 1982, ‘He hit more home runs than Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Fox, Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, Mel Ott, Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial.'”
Enshrinement, launching a successful golf tournament to raise money for cancer and a late-in-life role with the Twins, mentoring younger players, appear to be the highs for Killebrew after he stopped playing the game.
But there were lows as well, according to the book. A longtime marriage finally came apart and other business ventures were not successful, finally leading Killebrew to seek bankruptcy protection from creditors.
He married for a second time, then finally had to battle esophageal cancer, which took his life on May 17, 2011. Killebrew, his parents, and some of his siblings, are buried at Riverside Cemetery in Payette, Idaho.
Some nice moments from Aschburner’s book:
Harmon on playing first base and trying to talk to fellow slugger, Frank Robinson:
“I remember trying to strike up a conversation with Frank Robinson,” Killebrew said. “Frank was the most serious player, I think, I can remember playing against over those years. He didn’t want to have any conversations with the opponents. He wouldn’t even answer me when I talked to him. … Now we’ve become real good friends. Brooks Robinson, on the other hand, was a very big talker. He’d come down and carry on a conversation with you.”
Hall of Fame basketball player, Dave DeBusschere, who also pitched briefly in the majors:
For the next four decades, whenever someone asked, he had a two-word explanation for his permanent switch to basketball, “Harmon Killebrew.”
“I’ve got a better chance against (Wilt) Chamberlain,” he once told reporters. “Wilt’s a lot bigger, but Harmon might have been stronger.”
Former Twins pitcher Jim Kaat on Harmon:
Kaat said that only two sluggers in his day consistently stopped other players in their tracks with the sound and scope of their blasts: Mantle and Killebrew.