Remembering Harmon Killebrew, who hammered homers in an innocent era
Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, who died Tuesday at age 74, played in a more innocent era when bulk wasn't suspicious and homers didn't come with baggage.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
Harmon KillebrewBorn: June 29, 1936 in Payette, Idaho
Height/Weight: 6 feet, 195 pounds.
Positions: 3B, 1B, left field.
MLB debut: June 23, 1954 at age 17, four days after signing with the Washington Senators.
Nicknames: Killer, Hammerin' Harmon.
Honors: 13-time All-Star, 1969 AL MVP (49 HRs, 140 RBI), inducted into Hall of Fame, 1984.
Homers: 573 homers ranks No. 11 all-time. When he retired, he was second to Babe Ruth in AL history and No. 5 overall. Hit 40 homers in eight seasons, tied for second in AL history, and led AL six times.
Misc: One of only three Hall of Famers born in Northwest (Earl Averill of Snohomish and Ryne Sandberg of Spokane are the others.) In 1999, was ranked No. 69 in The Sporting News' list of the 100 greatest players. Led Twins to three World Series. Played at Walter Johnson Memorial Field in Weiser, Idaho, the town where Walter Johnson, another Senators Hall of Famer, was discovered 47 years earlier.
He was a lumberjack of a man, from a more innocent era when bulk wasn't suspicious and home runs didn't come with baggage.
No one hit them farther than Harmon Killebrew, and his feats — 40 or more homers eight times, and 573 total, 11th most all-time — are all the more impressive when you consider the majority were accomplished in an era dominated by pitching.
There was no pitching good enough, or stadium big enough, to hold down Killebrew when he got a hold of one.
Orioles manager Paul Richards once famously said, "Killebrew could hit the ball out of any park, including Yellowstone." At a memorial news conference in Minneapolis on Tuesday that rightly turned into a Killebrew testimonial, Kent Hrbek called him "Paul Bunyan in a baseball uniform."
Whenever I go to a new ballpark, I like to find out a little history about the place. One of the things I want to know is who hit the longest ball, and where it landed.
In my early years of covering baseball, in stadiums that are mostly long gone, I heard the same two names, over and over. If it was a National League park, Willie Stargell. And if it was an American League park — old Cleveland Municipal, or Tiger Stadium, or, naturally, Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. — the old-timers would point to some impossibly distant seat and tell about the time Harmon Killebrew hit it out there.
Killebrew died Tuesday, at age 74, a mere four days after releasing a heart-rending statement through the Hall of Fame that he was ending his long battle against esophageal cancer and entering hospice care.
Even with that advance warning, it still hit hard when the news came down this morning that the great Killebrew had passed.
Perhaps that's because in the wake of his announcement last Friday, there has been a torrent of testimonials about what a wonderful person Killebrew was, above and beyond his baseball skills.
I had the opportunity to meet and interview Killebrew on a few occasions, and found him to be one of the most gracious, humble and down-to-earth superstars you'll ever find.
He was also, in a way, one of us, a Northwesterner from little Payette, Idaho, probably the greatest athlete to ever come out of the Gem State. Perhaps the most famous Killebrew quote came not from Harmon, but his father, Harmon Sr., as related often by Harmon Jr. when reminiscing about his youth in Payette.
Once when his mother came out to admonish Harmon and his brother for tearing up the grass in the yard playing ball, Mr. Killebrew replied, "We're not raising grass. We're raising boys."
As legend had it, it was an Idaho senator, Herman Welker, who clued in Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith about the slugger from Payette. The Senators — who moved to Minneapolis and became the Twins in 1961 — dispatched farm director Ossie Bluege to go to Idaho to watch Killebrew play.
The Senators saw enough to sign Killebrew for a $50,000 bonus — big money in those days, but necessary to outbid the Red Sox, who also pursued Killebrew. Bluege, in a quote I found on the Baseball Almanac website, once said of Killebrew:
"He hit line drives that put the opposition in jeopardy. And I don't mean infielders, I mean outfielders."
I suspect the real reason Killebrew's death made me so sad, though, is that he is from the generation I worshipped in my youth — one of the elites, the cornerstones, the hallowed names, right up close (in my memory, at least) with Aaron and Mays and Mantle. I used to pay Killebrew the ultimate respect by putting his baseball card in the special box I reserved for the most sainted superstars.
Killebrew's legend, of course, will live on, in the memories he provided those of us fortunate to witness him in his prime, and tangibly as the model for the MLB logo, according to legend.
That fact has been disputed by the artist, but I prefer to believe it is true. Killebrew said in interviews it was his understanding he was the model — as Jerry West is in the NBA — and that's good enough for me. Look at the MLB logo, and you can indeed see, in your mind's eye, Killebrew at the plate, with his bat cocked, ready to pounce on the baseball.
"I didn't have evil intentions, but I guess I did have power," Killebrew once said.
Killebrew could hit with the best of them, and that wasn't even his greatest strength. He was, by every account, a Hall of Fame human being.
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.