Killer swing, generous heart

Harmon Killebrew’s passing brought to a close a life filled with honor on and off the field

May 17, 2011
Harmon Killebrew passed away Tuesday at the age of 74. (Shoup/National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

The Hall of Fame Remembers Harmon Killebrew

Video Tribute to Harmon Killebrew

Harmon Killebrew's Induction Speech Video

Harmon Killebrew's Induction Speech Text

Photo Gallery of Harmon Killebrew

Funeral and Memorial Plans

Harmon Killebrew was one of the most feared sluggers of his or any generation, and when he retired after the 1975 season, he had accumulated more home runs than any right-handed batter in the history of the American League.

He wasn't called "Killer" for nothing.

"If I was a pitcher, I would have been scared," said Killebrew's Twins teammate Tony Oliva. "Because whenever he was up, there was a chance the ball would disappear."

Off the field, however, the gentle giant was the antithesis of his nickname – known around the globe for his kindness and charity.

Killebrew died Tuesday at the age of 74 in Scottsdale, Ariz., after a battle with esophageal cancer.

Born June 29, 1936 in the small town of Payette, Idaho, it was there, on the high school ball fields, that he was discovered by the Washington Senators. He was given a large signing bonus, and the "Bonus Baby" rule of the time required the 17-year-old to be kept with the major league team for at least two years, or the Senators would risk losing him to another club. It was because of this rule that Killebrew saw limited action, but once the Senators were able to send Killebrew to the minors in 1956, his growth as a player accelerated.

When Killebrew returned to the big leagues full time in 1959 at age 23, he had a breakout year as Washington's third baseman, cracking 42 home runs and knocking in 105 runs. Orioles manager Paul Richards marveled at his immense power and prestigious blasts, saying: "Killebrew can knock the ball out of any park, including Yellowstone."

From 1959- 1971, "Killer" put together eight- 40 home run and nine- 100 RBI seasons, was named to 13 All-Star teams (including two each in 1959 and 1961) and won the American League MVP Award (1969). Longtime Senators and Twins owner Calvin Griffith remarked "He hit home runs like few people can in the category of height and distance... Harmon didn't hit many line drive home runs. He would hit the ball so blooming high in the sky, they were like a rocket ship going up in the air.",

Harmon Killebrew was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)Teammate Bob Allison said of Killebrew: "Harmon has that graceful, fast swing, he swings up at the ball just a little bit and hits those high homers."

Griffith called him "The meal ticket for our franchise for all those years in Washington and Minnesota." Killebrew left the Twins at the conclusion of the 1974 campaign and on his first trip back to the Twin Cities in 1975, with his new team the Kansas City Royals, the Twins retired their beloved slugger's No. 3.

In 1984 Harmon Killebrew became the first member of the Minnesota Twins inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Upon receiving the honor he called it "the greatest thrill I've had in baseball."

Killebrew finished his 22-year big league career with 573 home runs and 1,584 RBI and was named an All-Star in 11 of his major league seasons. He finished in the top four of the American League Most Valuable Player voting six times and led the Twins to the postseason in three seasons. He led the AL in home runs six times, RBI three times and walks four times.

"Killer," however, was a reserved, kind and quiet man off the field. Once, when asked what he liked to do for fun, he replied "Well, I like to wash dishes, I guess."

Longtime Twins public relations representative Tom Mee once said of Harmon: "He is one of the finest individuals in the major leagues... to know Harmon Killebrew is to be a Killebrew fan."

Rich Reese called him former Twins teammate "One of the classiest people I've ever met in my life... He treated people with respect, even with the stature he had."

Of life, Harmon Killebrew said: "Life is precious and time is a key element. Let's make every moment count and help those who have a greater need than our own."

The Killebrew Family would like to thank fans for their generous outpouring of support and prayers for the late legend Harmon Killebrew. At this time, in lieu of flowers, the Killebrew family is urging fans to send donations to the Harmon Killebrew Foundation "Legacy Program" at P.O. Box 14550 Scottsdale, AZ 85267 or by visiting www.HarmonKillebrewFoundation.org.

The Harmon Killebrew Foundation is a nonprofit 501c3 dedicated to enriching the quality of life by promoting positive and healthful participation in sports, specifically baseball, by partnering with other 501c3 organizations to raise funds for their missions of promoting mental and physical health, education, self-sufficiency and community service. 

Freddy Berowski is a library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum