Yet there’s a lesson in proper prodigy grooming in the Killebrew tale. When he got to Washington for good at 22, he was ready, tying for the American League lead with 42 homers his first full season. And he wasn’t prepared just when he was in the batter’s box. Killebrew, who died Tuesday at 74, not only hit 573 homers but will be recalled as one of the finest gentlemen in all of sports, not just baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Whatever can possibly be meant by the word “maturation,” Killebrew achieved it. We are left with the memory of a magnificent career and a man who was loved for his humility, kindness and charity with his “Miracle League” for children with physical and mental challenges. He was at ease and open, almost ego-less, whether with the biggest stars, a U.S. president who came just to see him play or the guy picking up his dirty uniform.
Once, asked what he did for excitement, Killebrew said, “I like to wash the dishes.”
When the Nats think about Harper’s career and life arc over the next few years, they should remember Killebrew.
“There couldn’t be two more opposite people,” one veteran baseball executive said. “I can guarantee you Harmon Killebrew never wore eye black above his shoe tops.”
As opposite as ’50s Idaho and 21st-century Las Vegas, but both in need of time. Harper has had shows of temper or pride and hasn’t rubbed everyone the right way. His base running, like Killebrew’s fielding, is zany. Is he adult enough to handle what’s waiting for him?
Such skepticism is nothing compared to what Killebrew faced. At 17 he got $30,000 — more than the Senators’ Roy Sievers earned ($26,000) after winning the ’57 home run title. Sievers was not jealous, but plenty of players, making peanuts in ’54, were.
From little Payette, Idaho, where his dad was the sheriff, Killebrew was forced by “bonus baby” rules to be on the Nats’ big league roster for two full years.
As a result, he was high-paid teenage baggage, dragged all over America, holding a job that somebody in the minors craved. Killebrew hit only .205 in 127 at-bats in those two years. Now, hecklers yell “overrated” at Harper. Killebrew heard it, too.