Reggie Jackson once said of Harmon Killebrew, “If Harmon Killebrew isn’t the league’s best player, I’ve never seen one.” Killebrew was one of the most feared bats in all of baseball through the 1960s, remembered for being a force at the plate for the Washington Senators, who eventually moved and became the Minnesota Twins.
To this day, this Baseball Hall of Famer is regarded as the foundation of the Twins franchise, recognized for feats on the field that remain records for Minnesota to this day.
Growing up in Payette, Idaho, Harmon Killebrew was the product of athletes before him. His father was a standout for the Milliken College football team; his grandfather considered by tale to be the strongest man in the Union Army. Killebrew earned twelve letters in various sports. His talents on the ballfield drew Idaho senator Herman Welker’s attention, who alerted the Washington Senators to a slugger hitting .847 for a semi-professional baseball team. Senators farm director Ossie Bluege flew to Idaho to see Killebrew for himself, waiting out a rainstorm to witness him hit a home run deep into a beet field.
Killebrew would sign with the Senators after they beat out the Boston Red Sox on contract terms.
Swinging into Success
Killebrew’s early years of his Major League career were spent on the bench, eventually in the Senators’ farm system, before a trade that would change his career trajectory. The Senators were taken over in 1958 by Calvin Griffith, following the death of his uncle, Clark. As the new owner, the younger Griffith felt Killebrew had proven to be ready to become the team’s starting third baseman, trading veteran Ed Yost to the Detroit Tigers.
1959 would become the year Killebrew showed MLB what he has to offer. With an American League-leading 42 home runs and 105 RBIs, Killebrew would earn the first All-Star Game appearance of his career. After an injury-plagued season the following year, Killebrew and the Senators would head north, relocating and renamed the Minnesota Twins in 1961, named the team’s first-ever captain. Earning Hammerin’ Harmon and The Killer’s nicknames, he would hit a franchise-record 46 home runs and a club-leading 122 RBIs.
Like properly secured clothing storage, Killebrew’s success at the plate became a safe bet. He would lead the American League in RBIs twice more, home runs six times over his career, making thirteen All-Star appearances. Perhaps the crowning achievement of Killebrew’s career came in 1969. The Twins all-star would be named AL Most Valuable Player after knocking 49 homers and 140 RBIs. Killebrew would retire in 1975, having hit 573 home runs and the Twins retiring his jersey no. 3.
After hanging it up in Major League Baseball, Hammerin’ Harmon would head to the broadcast booth, covering the Minnesota Twins from 1976 to 1978. Killebrew would follow that up with stints behind the microphone for the Oakland Athletics and the California Angels before returning to Minnesota in 1984. That same year, Killebrew was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, earning just over 83% of votes from baseball writers in his fourth year on the ballot to Cooperstown.
After suffering significant health setbacks in the 1990s, Killebrew became an advocate for cancer research and encouraging physicals as part of healthy aging. His Harmon Killebrew Foundation would find the Killebrew-Thompson Memorial golf tournament for leukemia research, honoring his former teammate Danny Thompson, who passed from the illness at the age of 29.
Harmon Killebrew passed away after a battle with esophageal cancer in 2011, but his impact on Major League Baseball continues to this day. He is forever remembered as a consummate teammate, a gentle soul, and one of the best to pick up a bat.