This was in the early 1950s, and owner Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators had just learned that third-base coach George Myatt was giving batting lessons to Harmon Killebrew, the club’s teenage bonus baby.
Such a revoltin’ development was cause for alarm because banjo hitter Myatt had produced exactly four home runs during his seven major league seasons.
Although Griffith was in his 80s when the startling news reached him, he reacted like a senior-citizen high jumper.
“Unk positively launched out of his chair and bellowed, ‘Tell Myatt never to do that again!’” recalled Clark C. Griffith, the Old Fox’s namesake and the son of former Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith. “I’m sure George never did.”
Griffith is one of many baseball people who will grieve because of Hall of Famer Killebrew’s death Tuesday from esophageal cancer at 74. During and since Harmon’s 22 seasons in the big leagues, his gentle, open manner won tons of friends who did not earn their living as pitchers.
“I feel a great sadness because he was a part of my life for half a century,” said Griffith, who met Killebrew soon after Harmon reported to the Senators in 1954. “You know, I never saw him take a bad swing. It was always perfect, just perfect.”
That swing yielded 573 home runs on behalf of the Senators, Twins and Kansas City Royals, but very few came in the next few seasons after U.S. Sen. Herman Welker convinced the original Nats to tender a whopping (for them) $30,000 bonus to his fellow Idahoan.
Clearly, the teenager was over his head against American League pitchers. From 1954 through 1958, he batted just .224 and fanned 93 times in 254 official at-bats as a pinch-hitter and occasional replacement for veteran third baseman Eddie Yost. Interspersed with these failures were trips to Chattanooga and Charlotte, the Senators’ top farm clubs.
Ah, but then came the grand awakening. In 1959, at 23, Killebrew bashed 42 home runs to tie Cleveland’s Rocky Colavito for the American League lead. Although he still didn’t hit for average, just .242, nobody wanted Harmon to hit singles. He batted just .254 lifetime, but when he hung ‘em up, only one American Leaguer had ever whacked more dingers than Killebrew. That guy’s name was George Herman Ruth.
Over his career, Killebrew hit between 42 and 49 homers eight times. He was one of the reasons the traditionally terrible Senators were getting good when Calvin Griffith shanghaied them to Minnesota in 1961. Four years later, Harmon finally got to play in a World Series. Fittingly, he hit a home run although the Twins lost to the Dodgers in seven games.
Such accomplishments seemed unlikely in the early seasons while Killebrew was stirring up cool breezes over Griffith Stadium with his swings and misses. Often when the Nats’ manager of the moment summoned him from the dugout, fans uttered the same prayer: “Please don’t let him strike out again.” I know I did.
Nor were the whiffs confined to baseballs. Longtime Senators broadcaster Bob Wolff recalls taking Killebrew to a father-and-son outing at Landon School in the mid-‘50s and asking Harmon to take a few cuts against a softball pitcher. One miss after another followed until Wolff, in desperation, invited him to hit a few fungoes. Only then did Killebrew’s awesome power emerge.
“Don’t worry, Harmon,” Wolff consoled the chastened non-slugger afterward. “You’re not going to make the Hall of Fame hitting softballs, but you will make it hitting baseballs.”
This daring prophecy came true in 1984, nine years after Killebrew retired. He remained one of the all-time favorite Twins in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, but his unique ability to smite horsehides hither, thither and yon was only one of the reasons.
Former teammate Tony Oliva probably described Killebrew best a while back by insisting, “He’s too nice to be a baseball player he’s a gentleman.” Thus figurative gray skies are descending now upon many baseball people and fans, whatever the local weather.