Ten Who Missed: No. 6, Harmon Killebrew
Happy Friday! Today we continue our “Ten Who Missed” series. “Ten Who Missed” is a companion to The Baseball 100 — it will feature 10 players who just missed The Baseball 100 (those 10 players were chosen by you in a survey that Tom Tango and I did a while back). We’ll have a new “Ten Who Missed” essay every Friday. Here are the ones we’ve had so far:
Bonus essay: Zack Greinke
No. 10: Vladimir Guerrero
No. 9: Eddie Murray
No. 8: Shoeless Joe Jackson
No. 7: Turkey Stearnes
The gentleman whom sportswriters (a bit too obviously) called “Killer” was just 23 years old in 1959, when he played his first full season in the major leagues. He led the league in home runs. But it’s not like Harmon Killebrew just burst on the scene suddenly. He’d already played parts of FIVE big-league seasons by then. It had been a long climb.
See, Killebrew was what they called a Bonus Baby. If you ever want to fully appreciate the extremes that baseball owners have gone to avoid paying players their market value, you should take a quick look at the whole Bonus Baby saga. It’s quite something.
Before the Bonus Baby Rule was instituted in 1947, teams actually bid against each other for the best amateur players. These were the days of the reserve clause, when MLB teams essentially had total control of a player once he signed. Sure, the player could ASK for a raise after a good year, but the team had no obligation whatsoever to give it to him.* The players’ choices were, let’s just say, limited.
*You’ve probably heard the story about Ralph Kiner leading the league in homers for the last-place Pirates and, when he asked Branch Rickey for a raise, was instead told that his pay would be drastically cut. “Son,” Rickey said, “we could have finished last without you.” It turns out that story does not exactly go like that … and I wrote a full Rabbit Hole essay on the subject that will come out this weekend.
The only time that players had negotiating power was BEFORE they signed with a team. That’s when they could pit one team against another, whey they could choose the highest bidder. The owners didn’t like that. And the smaller-market teams didn’t like bidding against wealthy teams like the Yankees.
So they came up with this cockamamie Bonus Rule in 1947 (and revived in 1952) to prevent each other — and particularly the richest owners — from spending too much money on players.
But they did it in the most convoluted way. The rule stated that if a team signed a player for more than a certain amount of money (it started at $4,000), the player was required to be on the big-league roster for two full seasons. The idea was to prevent teams (particularly the Yankees and Dodgers) from stockpiling top prospects in their minor league systems. The idea was also to make it so teams would think twice about bidding too much money on a player.
The first Bonus Baby was pitcher Johnny Antonelli in 1948. They called him Mr. Strikeout, because he averaged more than two strikeouts per inning while at Jefferson High in Rochester. He threw a 17-strikeout no-hitter in his last high school appearance, with dozens of scouts watching, and the Boston Braves won the auction for his services by bidding a reported $55,000.
Because of the price tag, Antonelli went right to the big leagues — where he kicked around as an 18- and 19-year old pitcher, wasting his developmental years. Then he went to fight in Korea.
Antonelli did overcome all that — he became a star for the Giants in the 1950s, playing in six All-Star Games. He never played a single game in the minor leagues.
You’d have to say Antonelli was one of the few Bonus Baby success stories. There were others — Sandy Koufax did all right, as did Al Kaline, Dick Groat won an MVP award, Lindy McDaniel had a solid career, Clete Boyer* won a Gold Glove, etc.
But there were so many others — Nick Koback, Bob G. Miller, Tom Qualters, the O’Brien twins (there’s a story!), Laurin Pepper, Frank Leja and on and on and on — who were not so lucky. Dozens of top prospects were ruined because they were forced to skip the minor leagues and spend their formative years sitting on the bench, getting hazed and ignored by major league players.
*Clete Boyer’s Bonus Baby experience was a sham, actually. He signed a Bonus Baby contract with Kansas City, sort of — it was always the Yankees who wanted him. But the Yankees just did not have room on the big-league roster for him — the Bonus Baby Rule was essentially created not only to limit how much players got paid but also to stifle the Yankees from hoarding players.
So instead, Kansas City signed him, gave him some playing time in 1956 and ’57, and then, when Boyer turned 20, the Athletics dutifully shipped him to the Yankees for a bunch of players. The Yankees then sent him to the minor leagues to complete his training, and he became their brilliant defensive third baseman throughout the early 1960s.
Harmon Killebrew’s Bonus Baby story is truly wild. He grew up in Payette, Idaho, and he was probably a better football player than baseball. He was recruited to play quarterback for the University of Oregon (they wanted him to take over for All-American George Shaw), and that was his tentative plan. The only thing holding him back was: He liked baseball better. He really hoped that over the summer a major league team would make him an offer.
A few teams looked at him — the Red Sox showed more-than-casual interest — but teams were reluctant to make him an offer and have him flame out as a Bonus Baby.
Enter Herman Welker.
Who was Herman Welker? Well, he was an arch-conservative, one-term Senator from the great state of Idaho. Politically he is known, if known at all, for his close relationship with the much-reviled Joseph McCarthy (they called him “Little Joe from Idaho”) and for their disgusting plot to blackmail rival Democratic Senator Lester Hunt by threatening to have Hunt’s son prosecuted on charges of soliciting sex from an undercover male officer. Hunt refused to back off his efforts to combat McCarthy, his son was charged and convicted, and shortly after that Hunt committed suicide in office.
Welker ran for reelection soon after that and was stomped by a Democrat. In Idaho. This might give you a small idea of how unpopular he had become. He died of a brain tumor a few months later.
Welker’s baseball acumen was much more admirable than his political sense. The story goes that in 1948, when he was a lawyer in Payette, Welker attended a high school baseball game and saw Meridian High’s Vern Law pitch a dazzling game.
Law was no secret — several major league teams were recruiting him — but Welker was so blown away by what he saw that he called an old Gonzaga college friend and said: “Bing, you’ve got to get this kid.”
Bing was the legendary Bing Crosby — who, in addition to his life as a crooner and movie star, was part owner and vice president of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Crosby and the Pirates signed Law shortly afterward, and Law went on to a fantastic career that included the Cy Young Award in 1960.
Welker apparently LOVED telling this story, especially in Washington after he became a Senator. One of the people he loved telling the story to was Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith. Welker apparently nagged Griffith with the story so many times that finally Griffith said to him, “Well, why don’t you find me a good player?”
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