(This is Day 13 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
Harmon Killebrew was born in Payette, ID, in 1936.
Eighteen years later, he made his Major League debut with the 1954 Washington Senators … at age 50.
For visual evidence of this, take a quick gander at his 1955 Topps rookie card:
Seven years later, Killebrew — at age 50 — moved closer to home as the Senators became the Minnesota Twins before the 1961 season.
Twenty years after that, Killebrew played in final last game, for the Kansas City Royals, at age 50. (See his 1975 Topps card below.)
In between, Killebrew crafted one of the most underrated legendary careers of all-time.
Consider his accomplishments:
- 573 career home runs
- 1584 RBI
- 1969 American League MVP award
- 11-time All-Star
- Played in the 1965 World Series with the Minnesota Twins
And all of this was accomplished at the age of 50.
In the Shadows
Yet, all along the way, Killebrew was overshadowed …
- … by Mickey Mantle as an up-and-coming American League slugger in the 1950s
- … by Roger Maris among white-haired AL power hitters in the 1960s
- … by Zoilo Versalles as the Twins marched to the 1965 AL pennant
- … by the Miracle Mets during his MVP campaign in 1969
- … by Hank Aaron and Willie Mays as record-chasing sluggers in the 1970s
- … by a young, hungry core of future stars in Kansas City
And later on …
- … by Gil Hodges on the 1981 Hall of Fame ballot
- … by Aaron and Frank Robinson on the 1982 HOF ballot
- … by Brooks Robinson on the 1983 HOF ballot
- … and even by Luis Aparicio on the 1984 HOF ballot, when Killer finally gained entry into Cooperstown
Even in the cardboard realm, Killebrew had to play second (or third) fiddle.
That 1955 Topps rookie card still lags behind the Roberto Clemente rookie card in popularity and price.
Killebrew’s 1969 and 1970 Topps cards, both of which might be considered a celebration of his ’69 MVP, are buried by piles of higher profile players and cards — Reggie Jackson, Mantle, Pete Rose, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and on and on and on.
Even Killebrew’s last regular-issue card, his 1975 Topps pasteboard, is relegated to the bargain bin by the likes of the Brett, Robin Yount, Fred Lynn, and Gary Carter rookie cards. That Killer card is maybe the best-ever issued of a 50-year-old player, but it’s available for a song most of the time.
Second to None … at Last
For all the diamond dissing that Killebrew endured so stoically during and after his career, there was one place where he took a backseat to no one: the 1972 Topps set.
Not only does Killebrew grace one of the more active “In Action” cards in the set on #52, he also makes a cameo at first base on John Ellis‘s IA card.
But it’s Harmon’s base card from the 1972 set that is truly something special.
On that magical piece of cardboard, 50-year-old Harmon Killebrew is swinging a massive hunk of lumber toward the camera from behind home plate, back tot he field. His steely gaze falls somewhere between the photographers lens and the bat barrel, and it looks as if the slugger might be about to utter a snippet of hitting advice.
In the background is a netted backstop against a gorgeous blue sky that perfectly complements the normally psychedelic color scheme of the 1972 Topps Twins motif.
And the card back is pure gaudy simplicity. Killebrew had played for so many years that all Topps could do was scrunch down their typeface and splatter the orange background with enough tiny black numbers to make an accountant sweat.
Even though those digits showed Killer was clearly in decline as he moved through his middle 30s (er, 50s), he had still clubbed 28 home runs in 1971 and already had 515 for his career.
Mysterious Icing on the Cake
The 1972 Killebrew card also offers a small mystery, as Number 8 bends over to pick up something behind Killer. We can’t see that player’s face, but we know:
- Paul Ratliff wore #8 for the 1971 Twins until he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers on July 8.
- Coming over in exchange for Ratliff that day was Phil Roof, who wore #8 for the Twins until they released him in 1976.
Killer is wearing long sleeves on this card, so the photo likely was snapped in either fall or spring. If it was fall, #8 is probably Roof. If it was spring, #8 was probably Ratliff.
That’s because Killebrew’s card is #51, and it would have been tough or impossible for Topps to squeeze a picture from that year’s Spring Training action into it’s low-number series.
That early seeding also helps keep prices down for this beautiful piece of baseball artwork — you can usually find nice copies on eBay for a few dollars.
Quite a bargain for the most accomplished 50-year-old hitter in history, don’t you think?
And also quite a bargain for the best baseball card of 1972.