On the theory that everyone has a little bit of Washington Senator in him, the rise of Harmon Clayton Killebrew as the American League's leading home run hitter can be regarded as the most pleasant surprise of the 1959 baseball season. Killebrew's barrage of May home runs, 12 thus far, has stirred Washington's interest in baseball. It has also made Killebrew a celebrity.
Until May, Killebrew's performance had never matched the elegance of his name. He had been a professional for almost five years, with nothing to show for it except the modest bonus he got for signing with Washington and the knowledge that major league pitchers are better than those around Payette, Idaho, his home town. As a schoolboy athlete, he had attracted the attention of the late Senator Herman Welker. Welker told the Washington front office about him. They took a quick look at Harmon's power and signed him. For two years (mandatory for bonus players) the young infielder stayed with Washington. Then he was shipped to the minors. Each year he returned to Washington briefly, always ending up back in the minors. He could hit far, but not often. And his fielding was poor.
This spring Manager Cookie Lavagetto gave him a crack at the third-base position vacated by Eddie Yost, who after a decade with the Senators had been traded. Harmon opened the season, and although he hit the first home run of 1959, he was hitting under .250 with only three home runs when May arrived.
On May 1 Killebrew hit two home runs. He hit two more the next day. On May 5 he hit one, then two again on May 9. Three days later he hit another two, and two more still on the 17th. On May 20th he hit one. Babe Ruth, the record book reveals, when he hit his 60 home runs in 1927, hit two home runs in one game eight times. Harmon Killebrew had hit two in one game five times in 17 days.
May 31, 1959
Killebrew's swing is designed for the home run. He stands deep in the batter's box. He grips his 33-ounce bat at the end and holds it high. When he swings, it is a brutal stroke. His home runs are long ones. But he also strikes out a lot. In the past he has often been attracted to the chin-high fast ball that sends so many promising hitters back to the minors. This year he has been trying to wait for strikes, but even so he has struck out frequently. One night against Cleveland, he struck out three times, then hit a 430-foot home run.
There are various opinions about Killebrew's defensive ability at third base. Ellis Clary, a Senator coach, says he is 100% improved, which could mean anything. George Kell, the Detroit radio announcer who for years was the best third baseman in the league, says Killebrew "gets by." Harmon himself admits "I'm no Pie Traynor." And his manager, Cookie Lavagetto, concedes that "he pays his way with his bat." And he does.
It is easy, looking at Killebrew from handshaking distance, to see where the power comes from. From years of helping his father paint houses in Payette, Harmon has developed thick forearms and wrists. His shoulders are wide. He weighs almost 200 pounds, even though he is only 5 feet 11.
"He's 5 feet 10 and 3/4 inches," his wife Elaine corrects.
"I'm 5 feet 11," repeats Harmon. "I measured myself against the door this morning."
Killebrew will be 23 in June. With his cap off he looks older, for his reddish-brown hair is fading in front. He has an expression around his eyes of continuous surprise, delighted surprise, and no wonder. His nose is sharp and his mouth wide. No one would call him handsome, but his appearance is pleasant.
Killebrew has been married for four years. He has two sons, Cameron, 3, and Kenneth, 1. He has had little chance to see them lately, however, for, as he is discovering for himself, heroes are public property. Everybody wants him for something; interviews, endorsements and how-do-you-dos. Since he is an agreeable sort and new at the business of being a celebrity, he rarely says no.
One day recently, for instance, he met Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy at the Pentagon in the morning, then hustled over to a Kiwanis Club lunch at noon. Everyone in the room was excited about the Senators. Washington had beaten Detroit the night before, and they were in the first division. Killebrew had hit two home runs.
After the lunch came speeches by members of the club: Lavagetto, Bob Allison, the rookie centerfielder who looks like a .300-hitting fullback, and Roy Sievers, the team captain. Killebrew spoke in the cleanup spot.
"People have been comparing me to Joe Hardy, the hero of the musical Damn Yankees," Killebrew told the group, referring to the George Abbott-Douglass Wallop hit show of a few years back. "You might be interested to hear what Bob Addie told me the other night after I had struck out against the Yankees to end the game. 'You may look like Joe Hardy to some,' Addie told me, 'but today you were more like Andy Hardy.' "
When the gathering broke up, Harmon hopped into his red-and-white Ford station wagon and made the half-hour drive to his apartment in Alexandria, Va. In the kitchen Elaine Killebrew, tall and blonde, was preparing spareribs. Harmon greeted her and sat down in the living room. It was sparsely furnished: a couch, a few chairs and a portable television set which was tuned in on a courtroom drama. There were no rugs.
"One writer who came out here wrote that the reason our apartment has so little furniture is that I didn't expect to stick with the team," said Harmon. "That just isn't so. This is a furnished apartment and this is all they give us."
Elaine came in from the kitchen. Harmon told her that Bob Wolff, the radio announcer, had asked him to attend a father-son softball game the next day. She looked displeased.
"Cammy cried for an hour after you left this morning," she said.
Elaine served the spareribs. Harmon ate; she didn't. Presently the Killebrew boys awoke from their naps. Cammy was sent outside to play. Kenny, eyes and nose red from a cold, stayed inside. Harmon and Elaine visited a few minutes more. Then it was 4 o'clock, time for Harmon to leave for the ball park.
"Drop around again some time," Elaine said to him.
Outside, Cammy spotted his father and raced over. "Where you going, Daddy?" he asked eagerly.
"To the ball park," Harmon said.
"Oh. O.K." The little boy turned and walked away.
A group of Harmon's teammates live in the same apartment area. They form a car pool and drive to work together. It was Killebrew's day to drive. One of the pool members was Russ Kemmerer, who is possibly a better comic than pitcher. Kemmerer had phoned Elaine while Harmon was out and, speaking in a foreign accent, had pretended to be a hi-fi dealer.
"We vish to install stereophonic equipment in your leeving room," he had said. "Forty-two speakers. No music. Just the sound of ball meeting bat." Elaine had fallen for it, to Kemmerer's delight.
On the trip to the park the passengers gave Killebrew the business.
"My wife was going to come out to the game tonight. Wanted to see the Killer hit one."
"Killer don't hit one any more. He hits two."
"You should have seen Narleski the other night. He was looking pretty good. Then the Killer swishes his bat once. Bam! I've never seen anybody look as sick as Narleski did."
"Yeah, when Killer's up, it's brute strength against brute strength."
Through all of this, Killebrew kept trying to change the subject, with no result. His teammates are getting a kick out of his success. Harmon, as the Killer, has become the symbol of the Senator's new prosperity.
KILLER AND BABE
When Killebrew dressed and came on the field the kidding continued. Roy Sievers, looking for a bat to use during hitting practice, ran about trying different ones. "Got to get me a Killer model," he yelled. "Where's a Killer model?" And finding one, letting out a lion's roar, "Ah ha, a Killer model!"
A Detroit player, standing beside Ellis Clary as he hit ground balls to Killebrew, said loudly, "I thought Babe Ruth played the outfield."
People with requests stopped Killebrew every five feet. "Harmon, I'm from a weekly newspaper in Maryland." An A.P. photographer wanted a shot of Harmon holding his bat right at the camera. When the game began, a host of photographers gathered several feet away from home plate when Harmon came to bat, oblivious of foul-ball perils. And when Harmon went to third, the photographers went to third.
The time will come, of course, when the photographers leave, for certainly Killebrew cannot continue to hit home runs at his current pace. When he cools off, the furor will subside. There will be fewer Kiwanis luncheons, fewer Pentagon rendezvous. There will be more time for home, and Killebrew's family won't mind that too much. Meanwhile, though, Washington and its Killer are having themselves a grand time.
KEY SCENE FROM 'DAMN YANKEES'
MEG: Did the Washington Senators win, dear? (He grunts) Oh, I'm sorry. Well, maybe they will next time.
JOE: Damn Yankees.
MEG: What, dear?
JOE: I'd like to lick those damn Yankees just once.
MEG: But how can you if they're the champions?
JOE: If we had just one long ball hitter—just one...Wham! I'd sell my soul for one long ball hitter. (There is eerie music.... At this instant, APPLEGATE appears on the porch as if by magic)