Success does not always come easy, even to the most talented and the most touted. The struggles along the way often turn a man bitter and vengeful, and he is unable to grasp his chance at greatness when it finally arrives. Other, better men transmute the goodness of their soul to enable the way, overcome early struggles, and achieve lasting fame. Slugger Harmon Killebrew died yesterday after a brief and tragic battle with cancer, and he was a man who overcame early frustration and always remained a decent, friendly man.
Killebrew arrived in the big league as a 17-year-old power-hitting phenom and expensive bonus-baby with the Washington Senators. He hit his first home run 1 calendar year later, and had only 2 total homers by the end of his second season in the bigs. He was sent back and forth between the minor league and major league roster numerous and plentiful times during his first 5 seasons, and by the still tender age of 23 he was considered, by most, to be an abject failure. After 5 seasons, he had less than 300 plate appearances and a total of 11 home runs as a Senator.
In his 6th year, the Senators gave him a last, sustained chance to succeed. For the first time in his career, Kellebrew was installed in the starting lineup and given consistent at-bats. The quiet, gentle, friendly and down-to-earth man with the formidable frame responded. Beginning on May 1 of that season, he hit 11 homers in the next 17 games, and he stayed close to that record pace for the next 12 seasons. He retired, after 22 total seasons, in 4th place in total homers and 2nd place (behind Babe Ruth) in home runs per at-bat.
He played in a notorious dead-ball, pre-steroid, pitcher’s era; and still smashed homers as often and as far as almost anyone in history. He hit for a relative low batting average, but never stopped working to improve his contact ability. To compensate, he developed an eagle eye and drew walks at a rate that perpetually put him near or atop the leaders in on-base percentage. “If it isn’t a strike, don’t swing,” he said. And when you swing, swing for the fences!
Killebrew was known for his amazing strength. Numerous times he hit a home run whilst breaking his bat during a swing. He hit some of the farthest, tape-measure shots in almost every stadium in which he played, and he was feared for his long drives and his hot smashes down the line. Third-baseman cringed in fear of this pull-hitting behemoth. But his lasting legacy in the game will always be his kind, gentle soul. This powerhouse of a man was known for his genial, kind benevolence toward anyone he met and, because of his life-long down-to-earth demeanor, he was revered by fans everywhere.
When Killebrew announced, one week prior to his death, that he was entering hospice, the stories poured forth about his small, continual acts of kindness. He complimented umpires, he thanked fans, he greeted kids, he said “please” to sportswriters, and he was a genuine, kind person to everyone he met. He was a great hitter, and he was a better man. May his memory, and his deeds, live on in a new generation of successful sluggers and decent men.