This story, by Mike Lamey, first appeared in the Oct. 25, 1969, issue of The Sporting News, naming Twin Cities icon Harmon Killebrew TSN’s AL Player of the Year, as voted by his fellow AL players.
Baseball’s quiet man, Harmon Killebrew, is The Sporting News’ Player of the Year in the American League.
Killebrew, who lets his bat do most of his talking, was selected ahead of another quiet giant, Boog Powell of Baltimore, in balloting by A.L. players.
It is the first time the Twins slugger has received the award and he greeted the news modestly.
“To have the players vote me this honor means an awful lot,” Killebrew said.
Although he has hit 446 home runs in his 11-year major league career and driven in 1,148 runs, he never has been in the running for any top-player honors except for those awarded by the Twins.
This year, he hit 49 home runs, a total he also achieved in 1964. In 1965, he was a vital cog in the Twins’ winning the pennant, but he was injured late in the season and then teammate Zoilo Versalles was the A.L.’s MVP.
However, this was the year that almost wasn’t.
July 9, 1968, Killebrew’s baseball career was nearly ended during the All-Star Game in Houston. Harmon, while stretching at first base, slipped and ruptured his left medial hamstring muscle.
“It was as severe an injury as I’ve seen in the past 10 years,” said the Twins’ medic, Dr. Harvey O’Phelan. “We thought this could be the end of his career and so did he.”
Wasn’t Sure of Future
But Killebrew never gave up hope or started looking for another job.
“I wasn’t sure how it was going to be at the start of this season,” Killebrew explained. “I really wondered how it would turn out. To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure I’d play again.
“That wasn’t a pleasant thought, yet I never thought of any alternatives of what I’d do if I was through with baseball. I just planned to wait and see.”
During the off season, Killebrew worked hard to recondition his injured leg. That included weightlifting, stretching exercises and even hunting around his home in Ontario, Ore.
“It was a good excuse to go hunting,” Killebrew said, laughing. “I like to hunt anyway, and this way I could exercise my leg by doing a lot of walking up and down hills.”
“He was an excellent patient,” added Dr. O’Phelan. “He did everything we asked and had to put up with pain at first. He was serious about coming back and came to the Twin Cities several times so we could check his progress.
“Still there was pain and trouble in spring training and we still were seriously concerned for his future. But he deserves all the credit because he did all the work.”
All Killebrew did, despite some pain, was play in all 162 games, something no other Twin did and a feat that less than a half-dozen other American Leaguers accomplished.
Led in Homers and RBIs
In those 162 games, he was one of the team’s most consistent hitters and helped power the Twins to the West Division championship. He finished with 49 home runs, 140 runs batted in, both major league highs.
On that bad leg, he even stole eight bases in 10 attempts. His previous stolen base total in 10 years was just seven.
His batting average was .276, or 66 points higher than in ’68. The 49 home runs tied his career high and his 140 RBIs broke a club record.
He also walked 145 times while striking out only 84. Those walks cost Killebrew many more chances at RBIs. In fact, he received 20 intentional tickets. Runners were in scoring position 61 times when he took the walk. In sweeping the A.L. pennant playoff from Minnesota, Baltimore walked Killebrew six times in three games.
TSN Archives: Vikings QB Fran Tarkenton named 1975 NFC Player of the Year (Jan. 31, 1976)
“Taking a base on balls depends on the situation,” Killebrew explained. “A walk can change the complexion of the game. I know a lot of times I could swing at pitches that were just a little out of the strike zone, but I felt this wasn’t fair to the other players.
“A lot of times you get overanxious when you get nothing but bad pitches. But when you do start swinging at the bad ones, then there is less chance you’ll see any good ones.
“I also could cut my strikeouts down a lot more, but I think I help the club more by swinging. You’ve got to swing the bat to make contact. The way I feel is to take a good rip.
No Bad Slumps
“What I’m really happy about is that I played every game. That had to mean I was healthy. I had no real slumps, but yet I like to feel I could have done better. You never should be satisfied.”
One goal Killebrew would have liked to have reached was the 50-homer mark. Only 10 players ever have joined that select group. They are Roger Maris, 61: Babe Ruth, 60, 59 and 54 twice; Jimmie Foxx, 58 and 50; Hank Greenberg, 58; Hack Wilson, 56; Ralph Kiner 54 and 52; Mickey Mantle, 54 and 52; Willie Mays, 52 and 51, and Johnny Mize, 51.
“The funny thing is that on the last day of the season (against Chicago) I had more good pitches to hit than I’d seen in a long time,” Harmon said. “I just got under the ball too much.”
A factor in naming a player as the league’s finest has to be the number of times he has won games.
Killebrew had 20 game-winning hits during the regular season. Of his 153 hits, 57 could be counted as key ones. He put the Twins ahead 28 times, tied the game eight more times, gave the team an insurance run eight times, pulled the team within a run three times, in addition to the 20 game-winners.
Against Oakland, the Twins’ only serious challenger for the West Division title after the first month, Killebrew was at his best. In the 18 games, 13 of which the Twins won, Harmon had a fantastic .435 average (30-for-69). This included 11 home runs, 30 runs scored and 34 RBIs.
In the final nine games of that series, the Twins belter had 24 RBIs and nine of his homers while going 16-for-32 at the plate.
It’s little wonder that the Athletics’ Reggie Jackson said:
“If Harmon Killebrew isn’t this league’s No. 1 player, I’ve never seen one. He’s one of the greatest of all time.”
There is no denying what Killebrew does with his bat, but what is often overlooked is his play in the field. Harmon played most of the last half of the season at third base once Rich Reese took over at first.
Standout at Third
“Everybody told me not to play Harmon at third,” said Manager Billy Martin. “Well, he’s done a helluva job there. Admittedly, there is only one Brooks Robinson and Harmon’s no Brooks. But then who is?”
Killebrew made 22 errors, 20 at third base. But only one actually cost the Twins a game and only seven of those runners scored. His number of game-winning hits gave him a 20-1 margin in games he won over games he lost.
The season didn’t go by without several injuries, none of which kept him out of the lineup.
“He has had just about everything in the way of injuries,” said team trainer Doc Lentz. “He never complains. He’s had bruised ribs, a pulled muscle, banged up his knee, a swollen arm, bad elbow, etc. But he plays every day because he’s your money player.”
“His arm swelled up once so much I thought it was going to bloom,” said Martin of one of the five pitches that hit Killebrew. “He had an awful lot of blood in there and very few guys could have played the next day. But Harmon did, and he hit a home run.”
But Killebrew’s value isn’t just in what he does on the field. Although he is quiet and reserved and far from being a holler guy, he has the respect of his teammates,
“He passes out congratulations to any player getting a key hit,” said Frank Quilici, Harmon’s defensive replacement at third. “That’s his way of making the players feel good. He shares in the excitement, but he doesn’t show it outwardly. The emotion is there. And if he starts fielding any better at third, I might be out of a job.”
Harmon probably receives the most mail of any of the Twin players and he tries to answer it all. Before most games, he can be found going through a large box in front of his locker reading letters. He also is one of the most sought-after players by kids hunting for autographs.
Favorite of the Kids
“Hey, here comes the big guy,” yeiled one youngster in Seattle. “You try to get him on this side and, if he gets by, I’ll be waiting over here. Some day it might be worth something.”
It is already.
Undoubtedly Harmon will be a desired speaker on the winter banquet circuit, but he prefers to remain at home with his family.
“I’m not too keen on those banquet tours,” he said, laughing softly. “I’m going to relax for a while, do some hunting. I also have my Killebrew Enterprise business headquartered in Salt Lake City and I’ll be doing work there. Among other things, we have the Power Stride Batting Trainer for youngsters that we sell.”
It would be quite an endorsement if Killebrew could say he learned to hit home runs off that Power Stride, but it’s too new to be true.