Commentary

Harmon Killebrew was a treasure

Hall of Famer remembered by generations for long home runs, humility, kindness.

Originally Published: May 17, 2011
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Before there was Joe Mauer, before there was Kirby Puckett, there was Harmon Killebrew, a quiet but powerful block of a man who led the Upper Midwest in annual goosebump production by slamming home runs as far as the eye can see -- and you can see a long way in Minnesota.

"When Harmon and the Twins moved to Minnesota in 1961, I was 5 years old. When they went to the World Series in 1965, I was 9 and more aware,'' St. Paul native Paul Molitor said. "I got to go to one game a year on my birthday and I collected all the Coca-Cola player bottle caps. I loved all the Twins but Harmon was the guy. He was the guy I pretended to be when I played baseball in the backyard and No. 3 was the number I wanted to wear when I played Little League.

"Not many people are able to have the chance to be friends with their boyhood hero but I was lucky. And I couldn't have picked a better man. The fact that Harmon played baseball -- it's like the cliche about the Hall of Fame: That he was a Hall of Fame player is way down on the list of what made him special. He was one of the most unassuming, humble men. He was a great ambassador for the Twins and a great ambassador for baseball.

"And that's why, for a lot of people, this has been a tough time.''

[+] EnlargeHarmon Killebrew
AP Photo/Jim MoneHarmon Killebrew was loved by Minnesota for all those home runs and all those years of kindness.

Killebrew passed away Tuesday morning at the age of 74 after a battle with esophageal cancer. The Hall of Fame slugger who hit 573 career home runs (11th all-time) had been fighting the disease since December. After all treatment failed, he decided to enter hospice care to surround himself with family and friends.

According to one famous story, when Killebrew was a boy growing up in Payette, Idaho, he and his brother were playing baseball with their father in the yard when Harmon's mother yelled to complain that they were ruining the grass. "We're not raising grass,'' his father yelled back, "we're raising boys.''

However much grass was ruined, it was for a good cause. The Washington Senators signed Killebrew to a $30,000 contract after he graduated from high school in 1954. Under the existing bonus baby rules, the Senators were required to keep him on the major league roster for two years. Killebrew spent two seasons on the bench (batting only 93 times) before getting needed experience in the minors in 1956-58. He returned to the majors in 1959. That was his first real season in the majors and he led the league in home runs (42). He led the league another five times over the following 11 seasons. In the 12-season span from 1959-70, Killebrew averaged 40 homers -- back in the days when 40 home runs were a lot.

Although Carl Yastrzemski famously won the Triple Crown in 1967, he and Killebrew tied for the league lead in home runs that season with 44.

When the Senators moved to Minnesota in 1961, Killebrew instantly became the face of the Twins and was easily their most popular player. An 11-time All-Star, he finished in the top four of MVP voting five times, winning the award in 1969. That season, he hit 49 home runs with 140 RBIs (still Twins records), and scored 106 runs, walked 145 times and had a .427 on-base percentage in leading the Twins to the division title. Minnesota was swept in the ALCS when the Orioles walked Killebrew six times in the three-game series.

Former Twins catcher Earl Battey once said that the team without Killebrew was "like dressing up for a formal affair with a white tie and tails and then wearing muddy shoes.''

But eventually the Twins did put on those muddy shoes. The last season Killebrew hit 40 home runs was 1970. By 1974, his numbers were down to .222 with 13 home runs, and the Twins released him. He signed with the Royals, hitting .199 with 14 home runs before retiring.

His nickname was Killer, but that was simply a play off his last name and as much of a misnomer as calling a bald guy "Curly.'' Killebrew was one of the nicest, gentlest men you could ever meet in baseball.

His 573 career home runs are more than Mickey Mantle hit and more than all but four players had hit at that point (only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson had more). Killebrew's stroke was so powerful that many -- including Harmon -- believed it was the basis for major league baseball's logo, though the designer said that isn't the case.

Killebrew's nickname was "Killer," but that was simply a play off his last name and as much of a misnomer as calling a bald guy "Curly.'' He was one of the nicest, gentlest men you could ever meet in baseball.

"There are so many Harmon Killebrew stories that are all positive. There was not a negative with Harmon. There can't be. Can't be,'' Bert Blyleven, his former teammate, said. "That's what I'll miss most about Harmon. Not his playing but his personality and the way he treated people.''

Former Twins media relations director Tom Mee said Killebrew treated everyone "as if they were his next-door neighbors.'' Blyleven agreed: "If you came over for milk, he would give you milk. He would give you coffee. Whatever you need. Harmon was that type of guy.''

"He didn't differentiate how he treated other people based on their status or social standing,'' Molitor said. "Whether you were an 18-year-old minor leaguer or a clubhouse worker, you got the same Harmon. And that was a pretty good Harmon to get.''

"I didn't have evil intentions but I guess I did have power,'' Killebrew once said.

Boy, did he ever. And what was most impressive about his power is that it came from such a compact body (in "Ball Four,''Jim Bouton refers to him as "the Fat Kid''). While he had massive upper body strength -- in perhaps his most extraordinary show of power, he was able to extract a $125,000 salary from Twins owner Calvin Griffith -- Killebrew was short by today's standards. He was charitably listed as 6-foot on his Baseball Reference page. Seeing him later in his life when he was shorter than that, it was astounding that he had been capable of so many tape-measure home runs -- his longest was estimated at 520 feet.

[+] EnlargeHarmon Killebrew
AP Photo/Marty Lederlander Harmon Killebrew might not have looked physically imposing, but the man hit 573 home runs, some of which were remarkable tape-measure shots.

"I have that same feeling when I see guys like him or Hank Aaron compared to the sluggers we have today,'' Molitor said. "McGwire, Sosa, Bonds. Whatever your feelings about them, there is just a totally different physicality. And it adds to the lore of Harmon as a hitter. He was known for his towering home runs -- it seemed like he didn't hit many low line drives -- and he hit them so high and far the ball looked more like a Titleist than a Rawlings.''

"He was a lumberjack type of a player,'' Blyleven said. "He was 5-11 but he was burly chested … just naturally strong. He had that short, compact swing and when he hit the ball, it just jumped off the bat.''

Killebrew's bat thundered but he was about as loud and ostentatious as an acre of corn growing on Minnesota farmland. Paul Dickson's "Baseball's Greatest Quotations'' is a 524-page collection of quotes about and related to baseball. Reggie Jackson has five pages of quotes. Mickey Mantle has six pages of quotes. Even Henry Kissinger, Groucho Marx and The Chicken are quoted. There is not a single quote by or about Killebrew. He hit 573 home runs, won an MVP, took the Twins to their first World Series and is in the Hall of Fame, but he apparently never said anything memorable enough for the book.

"It's because he didn't say anything controversial,'' Mee said. "He would give a direct answer but not necessarily the one the writer was looking for. He didn't belittle any pitcher. He didn't belittle any fielder or management. He just gave a direct, fair answer."

Indeed. Asked by a Sports Illustrated writer in 1963 whether he had any unusual hobbies, Killebrew replied, "Just washing the dishes, I guess.''

That personality fit in superbly in Minnesota, where fans don't much care for people who call attention to themselves. And despite that final season with Kansas City and coaching jobs with other teams, Killebrew will always be associated with the Twins, who retired his No. 3. He was a broadcaster for the team for several years and frequently appeared at spring training to provide instruction to Minnesota players.

"He epitomized the history of the Minnesota Twins,'' manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Harmon and Tony Oliva. He's a Hall of Famer and one of the kindest people you could ever meet in your life. And we want our players to emulate him. There aren't too many people who met Harmon and walked away disappointed. He means everything to the organization.''

The Twins have been hanging his No. 3 jersey in their dugout ever since he announced he was entering hospice care and entering the final days of life.

You can still see the fold-down seat where Killebrew's longest home run landed an estimated 520 feet from home plate some 44 years ago. Take the Killebrew Drive exit to the Mall of America, built on the original site of old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. Park your car, enter the mall, go inside to the amusement park at the center, look up three stories to the southeast wall and you'll see the seat attached above the Paul Bunyan Log Chute ride. It's an appropriate spot. Harmon Killebrew, Paul Bunyan … both strong men who produced prodigious feats while swinging a hunk of wood. Bunyan chopped down entire forests. Killebrew chopped down opposing pitchers, hitting home runs and bringing Minnesotans to their feet applauding with joy.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com