How many more home runs might Harmon Killebrew have hit playing in Fenway Park?
Years ago Hall of Famer Eddie Collins, who was general manager of the Boston Red Sox at the time, took a trip West to scout a young Pacific Coast League shortstop, who reportedly could put handcuffs on lightning.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Unimpressed by the boy's range, Collins's trained eye began to stray, eventually resulting in the Red Sox buying the contracts of both outfielder Ted Williams and second baseman Bobby Doerr.
What triggered this reminder was the recent election of slugger Harmon Killebrew (Washington, Minnesota, and Kansas City) to baseball's Hall of Fame.
Back in 1954, Boston had a chance to sign Killebrew and blew it. While Harmon was still in high school, a golf course friendship had grown between himself and Red Sox scout Earl Johnson. They had agreed that if Killebrew ever received an offer from another major league team, he would contact Johnson so the Red Sox would have a chance to match it.
''When the Washington Senators offered me a three-year contract for $30,000, I called Earl on the phone and he said he'd take it from there,'' Harmon explained. ''I'm sure he tried his best, but the Red Sox weren't buying. The major league minimum was $6,000 a year then, so that extra $12,000 was sort of like a bonus, which most clubs tried hard not to pay.''
Although Killebrew, a right-handed pull hitter, had a career total of 573 home runs, second only to Babe Ruth in the American League, there is no telling what he might have done in Boston's Fenway Park. As almost everyone who has a television set knows, the left field wall there is only 315 feet from home plate.
''I still remember the first time I went to Boston with the Senators and walked out onto the field,'' Killebrew told reporters after being elected to the Hall of Fame. ''Until then, I figured all big league parks were built along the lines of Griffith Stadium, where you had to hit the ball a country mile to reach the left field stands.
''I took one look at that Green Wall and right away it occurred to me that maybe I'd signed with the wrong club,'' he said. ''I mean that left field wall was so close it looked as though you could reach out and touch it.''
You do have to wonder how many routine fly balls at Griffith Stadium, where Killebrew played half his games for the first few years, would have been home runs in Boston. Even when the Senators moved to Minnesota, and Harmon had an a better hitter's park to play his home games in, it still wasn't as cozy a spot as Fenway.
Still, Harmon hit more than 40 homers eight times in his 15-year career while playing 545 games at first base; 485 at third; 470 in the outfield; and 11 at second base.
Although Killebrew was never known for his glove, he seldom messed up routine plays in the field - a fact that more than satisfied most big-league managers.
The only time Harmon ever fought the establishment was over its belief that as a hitter gets older his swing slows down.
''I could never buy that theory because nobody knows you better than you know yourself, and even in my late 30s I could still get around on the best fastball pitchers in the league,'' Killebrew said. ''That was proof enough for me.
''You know, there was a time when rival teams used a shift against me,'' he continued. ''They would put the second baseman on the shortstop's side of the bag, move the shortstop into the hole to his right, and have the third baseman hug the foul line. The idea was to build an infield wall against a known right-handed pull hitter.
''But in creating that shift they opened a huge hole between first and second base that I was able to exploit after a little practice. My secret was improved bat control. It wasn't too long before I was beating the shift, so naturally they stopped using it.''
Even though people often have the idea that once a man gains a reputation as a fastball hitter all he's ever going to see are breaking pitches, Killebrew says this isn't necessarily true.
''Pitchers are smart,'' he volunteered. ''They know they are much better off if they mix things up and keep you off-balance. I wish they had thrown me breaking stuff all the time, because I soon would have adjusted to it.''
Harmon admitted, however, that the one pitcher who gave him the most trouble during his long career was that virtuoso of junk - Stu Miller of the Baltimore Orioles.
''I don't know whether it was his motion or his slow delivery or both, but those off-speed pitches he used to throw ruined my rhythm and timing,'' Killebrew said. ''I'd have much rather faced a pitcher who gunned the ball.''