Harmon Killebrew slept here.
Sorry, but those words keep popping into my head as I ponder Washington’s attachment to the Hall of Fame slugger, who died Tuesday at 74. Killebrew, after all, is in the D.C. Hall of Stars, along with Sammy Baugh, Red Auerbach and the rest. His passing, moreover, was much noted in the local media.
Dick Heller eulogized him in these pages Tuesday — in a column stripped across the top of the section — and the Washington Post gave him lengthy treatment in the obituaries (including, as this newspaper did, a photo of Harmon shaking hands with President Eisenhower).
Killebrew was a peach of a player (as they might have said his native Idaho), no question. His 573 home runs, a number of which haven’t come down yet, speak for themselves. But how much was he really our player, Washington’s player? Only 84 of those homers, let’s not forget, were hit in a Senators uniform. Almost all the others came while he was in Minnesota, which kidnapped the Senators in 1961. Indeed, he was gone from the D.C. landscape — except for occasional visits with his Twins team — by the time he was 24.
Harmon Killebrew, in other words, slept here. Yes, he led the American League in home runs as a Senator — with 42 in 1959 — but he played just two full seasons in this fair city before going off to greater fame and fortune in the Twin Cities. Whose cap is he wearing on his Hall of Fame plaque? Why, the Twins’, of course.
Should Hammerin’ Harmon really be thought of as one of the greatest athletes in Washington history (as the Hall of Stars suggests), or should he be thought of as one of the greatest athletes ever to, oh, pass through Washington?
I guess what I’m asking is: Are we that hard up for sports heroes? It just strikes me as needy that this huge metropolis, this capital of the free world, should feel it has a claim on Harmon Killebrew. And it’s not just him. What about Early Wynn? He’s another of the Hall of Stars’ more interesting inductees. As you’re probably aware, Wynn won 300 games in the major leagues, but he was 72-87 in eight seasons with the Senators. So, again: Should he be filed under Great Washington Athletes or under Great Athletes Who Happened to Spend Some Time in Washington?
Maybe you don’t care about such distinctions, but I do. It bugs me no end, for instance, when the Redskins list guys like Stan Jones and Deacon Jones among their Pro Football Hall of Famers. Stan spent one season in Washington - his last. For the rest of his 13-year career he was a Chicago Bear. Deacon is a similar story: 14 seasons in the league (most of them with the Los Angeles Rams), one in D.C. He wasn’t a Redskin, he was a rental.
We all have our rules. Here’s one of mine: If an athlete hasn’t played a significant portion of his career in your town — or accomplished something great there — you can’t refer to him as “one of ours.” Example: Frank Howard spent only seven of his 16 major-league seasons in Washington, but he had far and away his best seasons here. So, obviously, he’s one of ours. What about a coach like Vince Lombardi, though? Can’t we let Green Bay have him (since he won five NFL championships there)? Or does his one year with the Redskins, before cancer struck him down, make him a local legend for all eternity? Just askin’.
Which brings me back to my previous question: Are we that hard up for sports heroes? And the answer is that, in Killebrew’s era, perhaps we were. Think about it: In 1960, his last year in D.C., there were no Wizards, no Capitals, and the Redskins were positively pitiful (and soon to embark on a 23-game winless streak). That left the Senators — fifth in the AL (at 73-81) and dead last in attendance (at less than 10,000 a game). Against this backdrop, brawny Harmon must have looked like a colossus.
So much so that, years later, the Hall of Stars was only too happy to anoint him a Washington immortal. Killebrew’s an immortal, all right — and it was awfully nice of him to visit here — but he belongs, alas, to somebody else, to the land of Lake Wobegon.