Harmon Clayton Killebrew was born on June 29, 1936. The Washington Senators signed the 17-year-old Idahoan in 1954 as a so-called “Bonus Baby,” which required them to keep the kid on the major league roster his first two seasons. He got into just 47 games during those two years, making 104 plate appearances. He did hit the first four of his 573 career home runs in 1955. He then spent the majority of the next three seasons in the minors. Washington’s patience would pay huge dividends. In 1959, his first season as a full-timer, Killebrew tied for the league lead with 42 home runs and drove in 105 runs.
Killebrew collected the first regular season hit in Twins history leading off the fourth with a single off Whitey Ford at Yankee Stadium on Opening Day 1961. Bob Allison hit the Twins’ first home run later in that game, but Killebrew would have the distinction of hitting the first inside-the-park home run in Twins history in the second game of a doubleheader against the White Sox at Met Stadium on the Fourth of July (Julio Becquer hit a pinch-hit walk-off grand slam in Game 1).
Killebrew was known throughout his career not just for the sheer quantity, but also the mammoth quality of his home runs. Facing future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning on August 3, 1962, Killebrew hit a monster home run over the roof and out of Tiger Stadium. Killer was the first of four to accomplish this feat of strength, the others being Frank Howard, Mark McGwire, and Cecil Fielder. On June 3, 1967 he hit perhaps his most famous homer, a prodigious blast at Met stadium eventually estimated by a physics professor at 522 feet.
Killebrew was the 1969 American League Most Valuable Player after leading the majors with 49 home runs and 140 RBI. Not surprisingly those are both Twins single-season records. He also hit 49 in ‘64.
Killebrew drove in seven runs in his first two (and only) at-bats in Oakland on September 7, 1969. He hit a three-run homer in the first inning, and a grand slam in the second before coming out of the game in the bottom of the fourth. Interesting, Brant Alyea drove in seven runs in his first two at-bats exactly one year later—September 7, 1970. Read more about Alyea here (link).
Killebrew set another team record by homering in five consecutive games on two separate occasions during the Twins’ 1970 Division Championship season. Rookie Marty Cordova tied that record in just his 23rd major league game on May 20, 1995. Brian Dozier homered in five straight in 2016, including a three-home run game on September 5. Killebrew hit 41 homers during that 1970 season. It would be the Twins’ last 40-home run season until Dozier hit 42 in 2016, forty-frickin’-six years later. So much for the Steroid Era in Minnesota.
September 7, 1969: Harmon Killebrew drives in SEVEN runs in the first TWO innings of a 16-4 #MNTwins win in Oakland. He hit a three-run homer in the first, and grand slam in the second before coming out of the game in the bottom of the fourth.
Harmon hit his 500th and 501st home runs on August 10, 1971. All told, he would hit 573, fifth-most in baseball history at the time of his retirement, behind only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Frank Robinson. He is still 12th all-time. 38-year-old Adrian Beltre, and 34-year-old Miguel Cabrera are sitting on 462.
After he refused Calvin Griffith’s contract offer, the Twins released Killebrew on January 16, 1975. To this day nobody has played more games in a Twins uniform. The Kansas City Royals quickly signed the Killer on January 24. The Twins officially retired his #3 before a game vs. KC on May 4, 1975. As long as so many fans were there to honor him anyway, Harmon went ahead and homered in the first inning. On September 18, he hit his 573rd and final home run off the Minnesota Twins’ Eddie Bane.
In 1984—his fourth damn year of eligibility—the Baseball Writers’ Association of America finally elected Killebrew to the Hall of Fame, along with Luis Aparicio (sixth ballot), and 1965 World Series nemesis Don Drysdale (10th ballot). Veterans Committee selections Rick Ferrell and Pee Wee Reese would also be inducted with the class of ’84.
Harmon Killebrew passed away on May 17, 2011 after a brief battle with esophageal cancer. He was just 74 years old. To put a silver lining around an otherwise sucky situation, the Twins were in town to play the Diamondbacks, and able to attend Harmon’s funeral on May 20. Bert Blyleven spoke at the service, and Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, Frank Quilici, Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Ron Gardenhire, and Paul Molitor served as pallbearers. The Twins held a public memorial at Target Field six days later. In addition to an All-Star lineup of Twins past and present, the event was attended by Commissioner Selig and Hank Aaron.