LOFFLIN: Hall of Famers spent final year in Royal Blue

It sounds like a great trivia question, the sort of question you can make a little money with in certain barrooms. It’s a question like, “Who was playing bass guitar for Buddy Holly on the night he died?” The question is this: What three Hall of Famers played their last season for the Kansas City Royals but went into the Hall wearing a different cap?

Their stories, and the stories of their last year in the Major League sun, are much more than trivia. They’re stories, as Annie Savoy puts it, of ballplayers just trying to finish the season. And, she’s right, you just have to respect it.

Behind door number one, Harmon Killebrew.

*****

Harmon Killebrew played his last major league baseball game underneath a Kansas City Royals cap. The year was 1975. He had been released by the Minnesota Twins in early January and he signed with the Royals seven days later, Jan. 24. Nineteen seventy-five would be his 22nd season in the big leagues. When he went into the Hall of Fame in 1984, he went in under a Twin City’s cap.

A quarter century later, at 74, the Killer is in big trouble. He announced last Thursday he has esophageal cancer. His life is in the hands of the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix where he now makes his home. He told the Associated Press Thursday, “With my wife, Nita, by my side, I have begun preparing for what is perhaps the most difficult battle of my life.”

Indeed, his battles on the ball field, though prodigious, pale by comparison.

Harmon Killebrew
Harmon Killebrew spent the best years of his Hall of Fame career in a Twins uniform...

Seems like everyone who ever wrote about Harmon Killebrew noted the contradiction between his hulking figure and intimidating nickname – Killer – and his gentle demeanor. Sitting beside Mark Scott on “Home Run Derby” in 1959, he seems politely bemused, like a man who hasn’t had his morning coffee yet but already knows this will be a beautiful day. This will be a beautiful day is not anything like “I’m gonna kick some ass today.” It’s more like “Well, Sir, looks like it’s gonna be a good year for the corn.” Genteel, you might say, in a country way.

On this episode of “Home Run Derby,” episode number 4, the genteel Mr. Killebrew stands in contrast to the great Mickey Mantle’s pent up energy. Sitting beside the host watching his opponent hit, Mantle always seemed ready to grab the microphone and take over, fiddling with troublesome specks of dust on Scott’s desk, almost looking over his shoulder as the host kept score. When Mantle met Killebrew at Wrigley Field west, he had drilled through three of the best homerun hitters of his generation on the show – Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Jackie Jensen. The Killer just seemed like the next chump in line.

Harmon Killebrew 2
...but in the Killer's final season, he wore this uniform.

He was, until the ninth inning. The game had been, as Mantle predicted during the first inning, a real battle. Mickey led all the way, up 6-3 in the 6th, 7-5 in the seventh, then 7-6 in the eighth. But in the top of the ninth, the Killer emerged. He belted three homeruns, no-doubters all, over the 340 ivy in left field to go up 9-7. Mickey hit the first pitch out in the bottom of the ninth but could do no more. His string was broken.

Mantle’s combination of laid back and manic on “Home Run Derby” was palpably different from Killebrew’s polite amusement – as different as their childhoods seemed to have been. Jane Leavy, in her new book on Mantle, describes the kids of Commerce, Okla., playing ball on lead-laced chat piles dug up from the mines beneath their homes. She writes about young Mickey batting against father Mutt at precisely 4 p.m. every day after his father trudged home from the mine and how Mutt stationed the kid in front of an always falling-down corrugated shed where he forced him to become a switch-hitter. Contrast the scene in Mickey’s backyard to Harmon’s boyhood home. Killebrew’s mother grew concerned one day because her sons practicing their footwork in their front yard in Payette, Idaho, were tearing up the grass. Harmon described the scene for Denver Post writer Adam Schefter in 2004.

“Clay, the boys are digging holes in the yard,” she said. His father, Harmon remembered, answered, “Kate, we’re not raising grass here. We’re raising boys.”

Of course, the Killer did kick Mickey Mantle’s aw-shucks ass that day on “Home Run Derby.” Even if his nickname contradicted his demeanor, hitting home runs was just what he did. No similar contradictions emerged in his play. He was a basher, pure and simple. Casey Stengel spent a spring trying to teach Mantle the butcher boy swing – god knows why – but in 22 seasons in the sun Killebrew was never asked to bunt. He told Baseball Digest he practiced the art of bunting everyday in batting practice like everyone else, but he was just never asked to demonstrate his skill in a game.

Killebrew took a wide stance at the plate, feet set pretty much straight away. He held his hands way back and about letter high, and he clenched his bat down around the knob. If you ever saw him hit, you knew that, like Mantle, he never got cheated. He might strike out but he never got cheated. He was the American League most valuable player in 1969, the Sporting News player of the year from 1969 – 1970, first baseman on the Sporting News American league All-Star team in 1967, third baseman on the Sporting News All-Star team 1969 and 1970 and an outfielder on the Sporting News All-Star team in 1964. None of those selections, by the way, were for fielding prowess.

He played in 11 All-Star games between 1959 and 1971. According to Baseball Reference, he was first among American Leaguers six times in the average number of at-bats he took for each homerun. Today he stands 11th on the all-time homerun leaderboard but considerably higher if you eliminate the seven steroid-era sluggers ahead of him.

In 22 seasons, Killebrew amassed 573 home runs with a .509 slugging percentage and a .256 batting average. He drove in 1,584 runs and walked almost the same number of times. Nineteen sixty-nine may have been his finest season for the Twins. He played in every game, hit 49 dingers, drove in 140 runs, walked another 145 times, batted 20 points above his usual average with a .427 on base percentage, more than 50 points higher than his career average.

Killebrew never hit more than 49 homeruns in a season – the only steroids he said he knew about were in the cortisone shots he got in his knees – but from 1959 to 1970 he belted 476 homeruns, an average of 40 home runs per season. He went into the Hall of Fame in 1984 at the behest of baseball writers, nine years after his last game at Royals Stadium.

In 1990, Killebrew told Bill Ballew of Baseball Digest his three favorite parks to hit in were Fenway, Tiger Stadium and Clark Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C., where he broke into the big leagues. Fenway is understandable and so is Griffith Stadium — despite its cavernous size, you always love the one who brought you to the dance. Tiger Stadium is understandable, as well, since he authored one of the longest home run every hit there.

But Killebrew should have read his statistics more closely before he chose. He shouldn’t have left out Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. He lit up the Kansas City A’s there brighter than the Plaza lights at Christmas.

Take, for example, a steamy weekend in late June 1961. On Friday night at the iron double-decker on Brooklyn Avenue, in front of just 7,000 fans, the Killer went one for three with a triple. The Twins beat the A’s 8-1. Saturday night, in front of 5,000 fans, he went 4 for 5 with a homerun and five RBI. The Twins won 9-3. Sunday, he went 3 for 4 with another homerun and two more RBI.

When the Twins came back in September, he was just as lethal. On Friday night, Sept. 8, he was 2 for 3 with a homerun, and – finally – a hit-by-pitch. He tallied two RBI Friday night. Saturday night he was 1 for 3 with another homerun and two more RBI. On Sunday he was 1 for 2 in the first game with a homerun and three RBI. In the second game he was 2 for 4 with another home run and another RBI.

Those two home runs were blasts over the 430-foot centerfield fence at Municipal Stadium. One 13-year-old boy in particular watched both games from the right field bleachers and wondered at such power, then walked the warning track on the way home, banged up against the fence a few times snagging imaginary line drives before they could put more dents in the dark green sheet metal, then left through the gate just below the spot where the Killer’s doubleheader drives had cleared the wall by plenty. Across the years, the feat swelled in his memory to two homeruns over the centerfield fence in EACH game, but the reality is actually no less impressive.

So, in the two series the Killer played in Kansas City in 1961, he was 14 for 24, a .583 clip, with six homeruns in six consecutive games and 17 runs batted in. When the Kansas City Royals picked up his contract 14 years later, Jan. 24, 1975, he should have been overjoyed.

The question, of course, is what the Royals expected when they signed the aging basher in the last light of his day?

They couldn’t have, or shouldn’t have, expected much. It was certainly a head scratcher. Killebrew had been in decline long enough for anybody to see he was a shadow of the hitter he was in Washington and Minnesota. His last 40-homerun season was 1970. He hit 28 round trippers in 1971 and 26 in 1972, which might have been encouraging. But in 1973 he hit just five homeruns in 290 at bats and just half a season’s worth of games. In 1974 he hit only 13 homeruns in 122 games and 382 at bats. Worse, his RBI totals fell from 119 in 1971 to 74 RBI in 1972, just 32 in 1973 and 54 in 1974.

In fact, you have to scratch your head double hard if you just look at the Killer’s 1974 numbers, the year before the Royals picked him up. His batting average had fallen to just .222, 36 points under his career average. His on-base percentage was just .312 and his slugging percentage was just .360, 154 points lower than his career average.

The answer to why the Royals picked him up is probably the designated hitter. That infection entered the rules of the American League two years before Killebrew signed with the Royals. Apparently the brass thought the safest place for Hal McRae would be on the bench between times at bat. He DH’d 90 games in 1974. They signed Killebrew and took their chances with McRae’s health in left in 1975 where he played 114 games and DH’d only 12. But after the Killer was released, McRae became Mr. DH, logging 117 games at the “position” in 1976.

But, 1975 for Killebrew was no surprise. The Royals got exactly what they should have expected. The once great basher hit 14 homeruns in 369 at bats, batted .199 with a .375 slugging percentage and drove in only 44 runs. Those were, obviously, not the numbers of a Hall of Fame ballplayer.

His best games with the Royals, according to the fine number crunchers at retrosheet.org, came early in his tenure. On May 11, 1975, the Royals beat the Milwaukee Brewers 4-0. Killebrew was the DH batting sixth behind left fielder Hal McRae and two spots in front of shortstop Frank White. He was 2 for 3 with a walk, a strikeout, and, amazingly, a stolen base off catcher Darrell Porter, whose best work would come later for the Royals and Cardinals. Brett and White were beginning their third seasons in the Bigs. Buck Martinez was the Royal’s catcher that day.

On April 14, the Killer showed just a glimmer of his younger self. He hit two doubles against the Oakland A’s. And in late May, the Royal’s brass could dream a little when he hit two homeruns and contributed four RBI to a 10-1 victory over the Orioles.

The rest, frankly, was forgettable. His last major league chance came Sept. 26 against the Texas Rangers at Arlington. Whitey Herzog’s young Royals were in second place, five games back of Oakland in the American League West. In the top of the ninth, ahead just one run, Herzog sent Killebrew up to pinch hit with two out and the bases loaded. White had singled, advanced to second on a single by Vada Pinson, and moved up to third when John Mayberry walked. Killebrew hit a ground ball to short which was booted by Toby Harrah scoring White from third and leaving the bases loaded for Amos Otis, who walked to drive in Pinson and seal the win.

On your scorecard, of course, that’s 0 for 1, no RBI. Not what he wanted in his last trip to the plate, but, then again, he came through. In fact, when Marty Pattin gave up a run in the bottom of the ninth, Killebrew’s non-RBI was the difference in the game

Harmon Killebrew, who told Schefter he had met seven presidents, became a broadcaster after his short stint with the Royals. He described Angels, A’s and Twins games until 1988. Then he returned to Idaho to open an insurance business in Boise, according to Baseball Digest. He told Schefter he played golf for fun, but didn’t get to the course often enough to be good. “So, I go in for steaks,” he said.

To close Schefter’s 2004 question and answer piece on Killebrew, the Denver Post writer asked the Killer about the greatest gift he had been given. Reading it today, the answer defines pathos.

“My mother used to say the most important thing is to be healthy,” he said. “Being healthy is the most important gift I’ve got right now.”

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