"I liked him. He snapped the ball out in left field, a rocket. Really quick feet over there, quick action. A live body, for sure. Took some good rips up there.” Twins Manager Ron Gardenhireon his one-game fill-in Eduardo Nunez. Nunez is normally an infielder, and was purchased from the New York Yankees because of his greater proficiency as a hitter over the incumbent Twins SS, Pedro Florimon. Time is likely ticking on the Florimon Era as the starter.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Game Of The Week: Second-Guessing Harmon Killebrew, Aug. 6,1961

This is the latest in a series honoring the late, great Harmon Killebrew, who died on May 17, 2012.

NOTE: eventually, all killers
end up with their mug shot
on the post office wall, or
in the newspaper sports section .
I recently came upon this 51 year-old clipping, found in the subterranean archives at Classic Twins. Though incomplete, it was found on the back of an AP photo and news story of Warren Spahn, celebrating his 300th win. Its central figure is the dominant icon in Minnesota Twins history, and it's scant detail allows a glimpse at one of the few instances in which he was the receiver of something besides glowing endorsement. That it occured as it did could be attributed to the fact that he had only two full seasons under his belt, and was earning his stripes as a 25 year-old star for the fledgling '61Twins. Of course, it's happening in the media capital of the world helped make it water cooler fodder around the country. That criticism alone made it absorbing for me - a lifelong citizen of Twins Territory.

It was the last time the Twins would play in New York during the 1961 season. In a deflating series, the Twins lost four games that weekend to the eventual World Champs; the last three were by one run. The game in focus was the first of a Sunday doubleheader, which the Twins lost in extra innings on a fielding decision by Harmon Killebrew.

The Game

The Aug. 6, 1961 box at BBRef is a fine stop to catch the sequence of events. In short: right hander Ray “Old Blue” Moore was pitching for the Twins in the bottom of the 15th inning, the game tied at 6 each. The Yankees had loaded the bases for Yogi Berra with one out, following a walk to Mickey Mantle. The eventual Hall of Fame catcher slapped a grounder at fellow future Hall inductee Killebrew at first. The conventional play would have had him throwing home to cut off the winning run (Bobby Richardson).


The game record at BBRef says Killebrew, instead, chose to go for the inning-ending double play. It is likely he factored the old-timer Berra into the split-second decision;  the left fielder that day was playing his 1,927th game since 1946, the majority of which he played as a catcher. But the Baseball Gods made Killebrew pay for that...his throw to shortstop Zoilo Versalles forced out Mickey Mantle, but the gamer Berra wrested every bit of energy he could from his 36 year-old legs to beat the return throw. Richardson scored the winning run. The Bombers basked in their accustomed glow while the upstarts from Minnesota limped down the coast to begin a weekday series in Boston.

Killebrew with The Mick, Jim Lemon and Roger Maris at Yankee Stadium,
in August of 1961. I'm getting a Mount Rushmore effect!
In the process, it unleashed the Monday morning quarterbacks of the press, questioning Killebrew’s “wrong play.” The game and series helped propel New York to its winningest month that season, and dropped Minnesota to 25 games back of the Evil Empire. It was the “TC” boys sixth straight loss. Yes, for Twins fans accustomed to the Yankees seemingly endless domination in the 2000s, nothing much has changed under the sun in 50 years (1987 and 1991 notwithstanding...). The discussion lasted into the next weekend, at least, when the Spahn photo was published in the Minneapolis Star.


In Case You Were Wondering...

Killebrew's 1961 Fielding / Lifetime Statistics As First Baseman

YearTmLgAgePosGGSCGInnChPOAEDPFld%RtotRtot/yrRF/9RF/GlgFld%lgRF9lgRFGAwards
1961MINAL251B119115102997.11053972671491.987119.388.73.9909.459.34AS,MVP-11
14 Seasons1B9699296267810.28145752155569678.992-6-19.318.33.9919.719.57
Generated 2/18/2012. Rtot: total zone fielding above average; RF/9: range factor per 9 innings RF/G: range factor per game. You are encouraged to match like-colored columns for comparison. Big chart! Try clicking on "original table" if partially obscured.

The "lg" prefixes  denote league averages for the same sets of criterion. These stats seem to suggest the idea that while Killebrew had average to poor range; on the other hand, he also made relatively few errors, was sure handed with the balls he could reach, and probably compensated for his deficits with good positioning the longer he was in the league.

The statistics show what we already knew by the eyeball test: Killebrew’s record as a fielder in 1961 and for his career confirms he was sub par in range (as compared to the league’s other first basemen) and foot speed. BBref and Fangraph's are in accord in assigning him a TZ (total zone) of 1 in 1961, which places him in the "extremely average/low average" in that oh-so-convoluted-yet-encompassing fielding construct. And I while I wasn’t around in ’61 (only being familiar with the Harmon of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s), it’s hard to imagine he’d been Juan Pierre-like in foot speed ten years earlier. Quite the opposite; think of a latter-day  Benjie Molina (whom, it has been said, runs “like he’s got a bear on his back”). I recall seeing Harmon with binoculars, during a game in the early '70s; the image of him sitting on the dugout steps, eating potato chips is etched upon my mind. That and that vicious swing of his.

Suffice it to say, while he was an exceptional athlete with superior throwing arm strength, he was sub par in those other, essential attributes.

Doing what comes naturally: Harmon being harmful on the Senators and catcher Gene Green, 1961 (Sports Illustrated Archive Photo). I can watch video of him regularly from the '60s and still feel awe at how hard he swung. Paul Bunyan indeed.
OK, I'm A Homer, But...

While there was no mistaking Harmon’s role as Minnesota's slugger extraordinaire, there is that other issue which has been part of the Killebrew story – his defensive position in the field. Killebrew played 119 games at first and 65 at third in 1961. Then, he was shuttled, more or less continuously during the 1960’s, between third, first, and left field. The only exception to this was 1967, when he played160 games at first.  After ’61, Harmon didn’t play first at all (save for 4 games in ’62) until 1965, when Manager Sam Mele penciled him in for 72 at first, and 44 at third. The presence of slick fielding Vic Power on those early Twins teams, Don Mincher in mid-decade, and Rich Reese at the end of the 1960’s made it incumbent on Killebrew to help other teammates find a position spot to add either a stronger glove, or another helpful bat to the lineup. 

The point of this filibuster, you ask? The constant jockeying between positions had to affect his fielding instincts for the worse. Whether it’s licking envelopes, yelling at office subordinates, or driving a fork truck, it’s hard to gain the rhythm and instincts to be effective at what you do without the constant reps, the daily security of routine. Little things aren't so automatic, like positioning for certain game situations, or, say, choosing the best percentage play to get a putout.

Athletes are notorious creatures of habit. The Nick Puntos of the world, who can thrive defensively without positional security, are rare animals. Here was Harmon Killebrew, the dominant power hitter of his team and of the entire decade of the 1960’s moving around the diamond for the betterment of his team – It would be unthinkable to ask Albert Pujols to find another slot out of respect for Kendrys Morales and his glovework now in 2012. Not that Pujols has ever been compared to a Dick Dr. "Strangeglove" Stuart as a fielder.

No debate here. Harmon gets a posthumous pardon for his error in judgment.

If it was good enough for Herb Carneal, so it goes for me:
"So long, everybody." - TT

3 comments:

Douglas said...

I don't the Killebrew picture is from a game with Cleveland. Cleveland Stadium was totally inclosed, you wouldn't see trees or a gap between the outfield and third baseline seating. I beleive the picture is from Griffith Stadium and the team they played was the expansion Washington Senators.

TWINS TWINKLER! (so named as "TT" was title of player features in Minn. Twins game programs of 1960's) said...

Ah, yes! Here's a perfect case in which I'm glad to be second-guessed! Totally agree with your description, Douglas. Am recollecting the layout of old "Mistake By The Lake" Municipal Stadium in Cleveland vs. pictures I've seen of old Griffith Stadium in D.C. There, the outfield stands were at a steep grade, which would conform with the photo depiction. The link (http://exhibits.baseballhalloffame.org/dressed_to_the_nines/detail_page.asp?fileName=al_1961_washington.gif&Entryid=986) also matches the uniform appearance. Next time when I have qualms, I'll heed that small voice - appreciate the correction!:)

Douglas said...

You're welcome. I saw your corrected photo on the Baseball fever web site. So I decided to return to your posting. It's a really cool photo of baseball the way I remember it.