In the mid-1960s, it wasn’t Hank Aaron or Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle but Harmon Killebrew who seemed to have the best shot at Babe Ruth‘s lifetime homer record. At the end of 1967, the 31-year-old Killer, a nickname that contradicted his gentle nature, had hit 380 home runs, more than Ruth had at the same age. But in 1968 he was out much of the year with an injury, and after 1970 his enormous power dissipated quickly. Killebrew finished fifth in HR all-time, and third in home run frequency, and left behind a legacy of pure power.
Killebrew was the Senators’ first “bonus baby” in 1954, signing a week before his 18th birthday on the recommendation of a U.S. Senator from his home state of Idaho. He shuttled between the majors and minors for five years before finally getting a legitimate shot. He made the starting lineup for good in 1959 when second baseman Pete Runnels got spiked and Killebrew came through with two HR. He finished the season with a league-leading 42, the first of eight times he would top 40.
Throughout his career, Killebrew changed positions frequently. He came up as a second baseman, was soon moved to third, then to left field for a few seasons, over to first base for a while, then back to third, back to first, and finally off the field altogether to DH. He would often shift between two positions in the same game. But Killer never groused and his lack of a permanent defensive spot never seemed to affect his power. In 1962, the second year after the original Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins, Killebrew hit a ball completely over the left-field roof at massive Tiger Stadium. On May 2, 1964 he was the fourth straight Twin to homer in the eleventh inning against the Angels to tie a ML record. On June 3, 1967 against the Angels, Killebrew rifled a three-run shot six rows into Metropolitan Stadium’s upper deck in left field, shattering two seats. The shot was estimated to have gone 530 feet. The splintered seats were painted orange and never sold again. The next day he hit another shot to almost the same spot, the ball pounding off the upper deck facing.
All-Star games brought out the best and worst in Killebrew. He homered in three contests. His first came in the first game in 1961 and provided the AL with its first run in an eventual 5-4 loss. In the 1965 game, his sixth-inning two-run homer in front of his home fans tied the game at 5-5 in another one-run AL loss. In 1968, he overstretched for a throw for an error that led to the only run of the game. The stretch also caused him to pull his hamstring, and he was out for the rest of the season, effectively ruining his chance to catch Ruth. In the homer-rich contest at Tiger Stadium in 1971, his two-run shot in the sixth provided the eventual winning runs in a 6-5 AL victory to snap an eight-game AL slide.
Killebrew, who never drank and was never thrown out of a game, came back from his All-Star hamstring injury to have his best season in 1969. He had career highs with 49 HR and 140 RBI and was selected the AL MVP. He hit another 41 HR in 1970 but saw his home run total slide to only 28 in 1971, although he did lead the league in RBI with 114. His home run totals slid further to 26 in 1972, to 5 in an injury-plagued 1973, and to 13 in 1974. The press reported acrimony between Killebrew and Twins owner Cal Griffith when Killer was released after the 1974 season, which Killebrew denied. But it was obvious that his eroding skills could no longer help Minnesota. He signed on with Kansas City for a final season in 1975. After retirement, he became a Twins broadcaster. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984.