● I’d forgotten that Harmon Killebrew, who died Tuesday at 74, waited four years to get into the Hall of Fame. When I was reminded while reading one of tributes to the Twins and Senators legend, it just reaffirmed what I always thought: For all his greatness, “Killer” was underrated.
Let’s face it, he didn’t hit for average (.256 lifetime), couldn’t run (19 stolen bases in 22 seasons) and he was nothing special with the glove (at first, third or in the outfield). Fans today will look at his stats and think, perhaps, of erstwhile National Adam Dunn – or some other one-trick pony. But look closer. Dunn has never gotten a whiff of an MVP award – his best finish is 21st – and has never had an OPS+ of higher than 146. Killebrew finished in the top four in the Most Valuable voting six times and had a career OPS+ of 143. (And he played until he was 39; Dunn is 31 – and just beginning, maybe, to suffer the ravages of age.)
In 1981, Killebrew’s first year of eligibility for the Hall, he was fourth in the balloting behind Bob Gibson (who got in), Don Drysdale and Gil Hodges. I have no complaints about Gibson, who was the greatest clutch pitcher I’ve ever seen, but Drysdale and Hodges? Give me a break. Drysdale won 209 games, modest by Cooperstown standards, and Hodges still isn’t in the Hall. And these guys outpolled a slugger who, when he retired, was the No. 5 home run hitter of all time (573)? Good gracious.
The next two years, Killebrew remained in the Green Room while Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and Juan Marichal got elected. He was finally admitted in 1984, but even then trailed Luis Aparicio in the voting. Aparicio was a classy shortstop, don’t get me wrong, but … what game were those baseball writers watching?
● Killebrew might have won more MVPs, but he had the misfortune of playing in an extraordinary era. In 1966, when he was fourth in the balloting, Frank Robinson won the Triple Crown. In ’67, when he was second, Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown. Then there’s ’62, when he led the American League in both homers (48) and RBI (126) – one of only two times he did that – and was second in OPS (.912), but still wound up third behind Mickey Mantle (30 HR/89 RBI/39 missed games) and Bobby Richardson, the Yankees’ banjo-hitting second baseman. The horror.
● The dozen Hall of Fame pitchers Killebrew homered against: Jim Bunning (5 times), Hoyt Wilhelm (5), Rollie Fingers (4), Catfish Hunter (4), Jim Palmer (4), Robin Roberts (4), Whitey Ford (2), Drysdale (1 – in the ’65 World Series), Ferguson Jenkins (1), Gaylord Perry (1), Nolan Ryan (1) and Early Wynn (1).
● One of the pitchers who gave Killebrew the most trouble was journeyman Marty Pattin (Royals, Red Sox et al.), who faced him 26 times, excluding walks, without surrendering a dinger. I mention this only because of what Jim Bouton said about Pattin in “Ball Four.” Marty, according to Bouton, did a terrific Donald Duck impression, and “his great routine” was “where he [had] Donald reaching orgasm.”
● Here’s the box score of the game in which Killebrew, then with the Senators, hit his first major-league home run. (He was five days shy of 19, only a few months older than Bryce Harper is now.)
● And finally, here’s Harmon competing in “Home Run Derby,” a popular TV show in the ’60s, against Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Rocky Colavito and Ken Boyer. Note, too, what Mantle says about him: “I think when he hits a ball high [in the air] it travels farther than anybody I ever saw hit one.”
That was Killebrew for you: Mr. Moonshot.
Just wondering: Will he get into heaven, at least, on the first ballot?