THE BLOG
05/22/2011 09:34 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2011

Killebrew's Death Highlights Obscure Idaho Senator

He was a one-term Republican senator from Idaho in the 1950s whom hardly anyone remembers today, but if you Google his name, you'll get almost 400,000 hits, far more than for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

His name was Herman Welker, and the reason he's suddenly a search engine star is not because he was an outspoken ally and fierce defender of anti-Communist crusader Sen. Joe McCarthy, but because he was instrumental in bringing Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew to the Washington Senators.

Almost every media report about Killebrew's death on May 17 from esophageal cancer at the age of 74 mentioned Welker's key role in launching his major league career, during which Killebrew hit 573 homeruns for the Senators and Minnesota Twins -- the fifth most is baseball history at the time.

Welker, who served in the Senate from 1951-57 before losing to Democrat Frank Church, told Senators owner Clark Griffith in 1954 that there was a 17-year-old boy from his hometown of Payette "who is the greatest slugger since Mickey Mantle."

Griffith, who had challenged Welker to find him a good player from Idaho because "the last one we got out of Idaho was Walter Johnson," sent a scout to Idaho to check out Killebrew, who watched him hit several tape measure homeruns for his semi-pro team and urged Griffith to sign him.

Killebrew signed with the Senators for a $30,000 bonus but rode the bench until 1956 because bonus babies were required to remain on the major league roster for two years. In one of his few appearances, he hit his first big league homerun on June 24, 1955, against the Detroit Tigers at Washington's old Griffith Stadium.

Killebrew, only 18 at the time, told Baseball Digest in 2004 that Tiger catcher Frank House said, "Kid, we're going to throw you a fastball." After hitting a gargantuan 476-blast that landed almost 100 feet beyond the left field fence, House told him as he stepped on home plate, "Kid, that's the last time we're ever going to tell you what's coming."

Welker, who often attended Senators home games, once almost came to blows with Senators manager Charlie Dressen when he shouted during a game at Griffith Stadium, "You, Dressen, why aren't you playing my boy?" Dressen responded, "Why don't you run your U.S. Senate and let me run the Washington ball club?"

By 1959, two years before Griffith moved the Senators to Minnesota, the mild-mannered Killebrew had earned the ironic nickname "Killer" by hitting 42 homeruns and being named to the All Star team. In one 17-day period in May, he hit two homes in each of five games.

Killebrew was not the first major league ballplayer Sen. Welker discovered. Several years earlier, he told Griffith about a pitcher from Idaho named Vernon Law, but Law signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates after Bing Crosby, who owned stock in the Pirates, wrote to Law's mother praising her son. Law, now 81 and lives in Provo, Utah, played 16 seasons for the Pirates and won the Cy Young Award in 1960.

But until Killebrew's death vaulted Welker to Internet fame, the Idaho senator was known mainly for his outspoken defense of Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy's sensational claims of Communist infiltration of the U.S. government, which earned Welker the derisive nickname "Little Joe from Idaho."

Welker was one of the most vociferous opponents of the Senate's historic 1954 vote to censure McCarthy following a Senate subcommittee investigation that accused the Wisconsin senator of abusing its members and insulting the Senate itself. According to the New York Times, Welker dismissed the proceedings as a "mock court" and threatened to file counter censure resolutions against the three senators who led the effort to censure McCarthy.

When McCarthy died in May 1957, Welker, who had returned to Boise to practice law, was one of three senators who attended his funeral in Appleton, Wis. Five months later, in October, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the National Institutes of Health, and died later that month. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

There is a bizarre footnote to Welker's Senate career. In 1954, Democratic Sen. Lester Hunt of Wyoming, a bitter enemy of McCarthy, fatally shot himself in his Senate office, ostensibly because of despondency over poor health.

But muckraking columnist Drew Pearson later reported that shortly before Hunt killed himself, Welker and Republican Sen. Style Bridges of New Hampshire met with Hunt and warned him that if he ran for reelection that fall, Republicans would disclose that his 20-year-old son had been arrested for soliciting prostitution from a male undercover police officer in Lafayette Square.

Pearson's allegation was never proven, but the incident was believed to have been the inspiration for Allen Drury's 1959 best-selling novel, Advise and Consent, in which a senator who opposes a nominee for secretary of State who has lied to conceal his past Communist association, commits suicide after receiving anonymous threats that his past homosexual affair will be exposed unless he stops blocking the nomination.

Seldom if ever has anyone helped change the history of baseball and American politics as did Sen. Welker.