“And here’s the pitch. Killebrew swings. And there’s a long drive to left field. Back. Back. Way back. It’s gone! Another home run for Harmon Killebrew.”
If you know anything about the career of Minnesota Twins Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, you would probably guess that those were the words of Ray Scott, Herb Carneal or Halsey Hall, the broadcast team that brought Twins games to life on WCCO radio during the 1960s.
But, no, those were the words of an imaginative and athletic 8-year-old boy whose family happened to live in St. Louis Park, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis, in 1961 when the Washington Senators relocated to the Twin Cities and became the Minnesota Twins. Something of a loner, this aspiring young ballplayer spent countless hours in a ballpark that doubled as a front yard, throwing a rubber ball against the gray concrete stairs, fielding the ground balls, catching the pop-ups and throwing out the runners as he played out entire Twins games, pitch by pitch, inning by inning.
All of this was done while meticulously and accurately announcing each Twins player as he came to the plate, as well as the players of the team that the Twins happened to be playing that day. When the greatest Twins player, Harmon Killebrew, came to the plate, our 8-year-old announcer understood the need to amplify the volume and enthusiasm that accompanied his hero’s arrival at the bat. And when our 8-year-old pitcher delivered the first pitch to Killebrew, he understood the need to rear back and fire the ball in such a way as to ensure the feared slugger would “hit” the ball as high and as far as any one of the 573 home runs his worthy hero would ultimately hit during his storied 22-year career, spanning three decades.
Just four days after announcing that he had decided to cease treatment and end his courageous battle with esophageal cancer, Harmon Killebrew died on May 17, 2011, at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the age of 74. While he will always be remembered for a Hall of Fame career that featured his powerful tape-measure home runs, Killebrew’s true legacy is that of a professional athlete who never allowed the fame and adoration with which he was gifted to cause him to forget his humble beginnings or to alter his commitment to conducting himself by the highest set of principles.
Harmon Clayton Killebrew was born June 29, 1936, in Payette, Idaho, a small town of some 3,000 residents. In 1954, at the age of 17, he was signed by the then- Washington Senators to a “bonus contract” that paid him $10,000 per year (about $80,000 today, adjusted for inflation). During his career he hit 573 home runs, which at the time of his retirement in 1975 was second only to Babe Ruth in the American League, and the most among right-handed hitters. Killebrew accomplished the feat of hitting 40 or more home runs in a season eight times, a record he shares to this day with Babe Ruth. He was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1969 after hitting 49 home runs and knocking in 140 runs. Killebrew led the American League in home runs six times, was named to the All-Star team 11 times and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984.
But despite the strength and power that he displayed at the plate, Killebrew exemplified a humble and gentle demeanor that has been all but lost in a modern era of baseball that is rife with ill-behaved, overpaid, egomaniacal athletes. Babe Ruth was a womanizer; Mickey Mantle was an alcoholic; Pete Rose was a gambler; Barry Bonds cheated with steroids. But Harmon Killebrew was the kind of heroic role model that every 8-year-old boy needs and deserves, and when compared to other stand-out ballplayers of any era he rises to the top more assuredly than the 520-foot, upper-deck shot he hit at Metropolitan Stadium on June 3, 1967, a shot that is memorialized at Minneapolis’ Mall of America, where the seat the ball hit still hangs.
The passing of Harmon Killebrew is not just a sad day for Twins fans, not just a sad day for baseball, not just a sad day for professional sports, but a sad day for our entire culture. Killebrew was a brand of sports hero that has come and gone from a time gone by. And not just a different time, but a better time. It was a time when professional athletes were more loyal to the team they played for and to the fans of that team than they were to the almighty dollar; a time when an average family could afford to attend a professional sporting event any time they wanted to; a time when ball parks were named after the community or the team that played there and not the highest bidder for “naming rights”; a time when the crowd clapped along to familiar tunes played on an organ between innings, rather than being held captive by an offensive commercial message on the Jumbo Tron; a time when you could bring your own food and water into a professional sporting event and didn’t have to submit to being searched upon entry; a time when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung true to form and with reverence by a common community member, not as an improvisational performance intended to glorify a celebrity recording artist.
It was a time when a 17-year-old kid from a small town in Idaho was happy to play the sport he loved simply for the love of the sport.
And it was a time when, at the impressionable age of 8, I wore out the grass in front of the gray, concrete stairs of my boyhood house aspiring to be just like one of the greatest professional sports role models of all time — Harmon Killebrew.