Unfortunately, none of us 20- and 30-something bloggers at HardballTalk ever got to see Harmon Killebrew play. I just remember his all-time name near the top of the all-time home run leaderboard. Killebrew.
As an avid collector as a youngster in the late-80s, I recall being excited to get his 1975 Topps card. That colorful set was my favorite of the old-time cards, and while I was in no position to buy the 50s and 60s cards of Hall of Famers, those 70s cards were usually within reason.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was Killebrew’s last baseball card. Although he played for the Royals in 1975 — the only one of his 22 seasons not spent with the Senators/Twins — Topps didn’t include him in the 1976 set. I’m guessing he wouldn’t have looked right in the Kansas City uniform anyway.
I’d always imagined Killebrew as the original Mark McGwire: a right-handed-hitting first baseman with huge power and modest averages. Killebrew led the AL in homers six times and in RBI three times. He won the MVP award in 1969 for hitting .276 with 49 homers and 140 RBI.
Of course, their builds weren’t at all similar. But Killebrew also shared another trait in common with McGwire: he walked a ton. He led the AL four times and he was seventh on the all-time list with 1,559 walks when he retired. Similar to how he’s fallen from fifth to 11th all-time in homers, he’s now 15th all-time in walks.
His batting average, apparently, was an issue. Killebrew never hit higher than .288 in a season, and he finished his career at .256. That, plus the fact that he was viewed as a subpar defender whereever the Twins stashed him, resulted in him waiting four ballots to be elected into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
That fact seems bizarre now. Killebrew wasn’t an all-or-nothing slugger: he finished in the top 10 in the AL in on-base percentage nine times. He was incredibly consistent: from 1959-1972, he had an OPS+ of 130 or better every years. He finished in the top five (but never first or second) in the AL in OPS+ 10 times in a 12-year span (he was right in that same range the other two years, but he was limited to 113 games in 1965 and 100 in 1968).
Killebrew was an 11-time All-Star. He finished in the top five in MVP balloting six times. In 1971, he was honored with the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award given to players for integrity on and off the field.
I just wish I had more to offer than the numbers. By every account, Killebrew is one of the greats off the field as well. It’s going to be a very sad day when he passes.