He was OUR first superstar. Even though we didn't really use that word in the early '60s, one of the things that made Harmon Killebrew so beloved in Minnesota was that he finally put us on the major league sports map.
It seemed like the big cities had all the big names. Best baseball player? Most people said Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, who played in San Francisco and New York. Best running back? Jim Brown or Gale Sayers, who played in Cleveland and Chicago. Basketball? Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain, in Boston and Philadelphia.
But here on the prairie, in flyover land, suddenly we had a big name on one of OUR teams. Killebrew gave us a major league identity.
He came to Minnesota in 1961 when the Twins moved here from Washington, D.C., and it didn't hurt that his personality was tailor-made for Minnesota. Strong, quiet, stoic, he had all the qualities we would like to see in ourselves. He began pounding out home runs - 46 the first season, followed by 48, 45 and 49 through the 1964 season - and when fans went to Met Stadium to see the Twins, they were mostly going to see Harmon.
As mentioned in an earlier post, I was four years old when the Twins set up shop in Bloomington, so my growing years were consumed with all things Killebrew. My t-ball teammates and I tried to swing like him, we all wanted to wear #3 and - best of all for a kid like me who wasn't particularly fleet of foot - it was okay to be slow "because Harmon isn't fast either." We even wanted our dads to buy their suits at Foreman & Clark, because that's who Harmon did TV ads for.
The Killebrew family legend has it that his grandfather was the heavyweight wrestling champion of the Union Army, and size and strength were in the Killebrew genes. Growing up in Payette, Idaho, he was a multi-sport athlete, even named an All-American quarterback at Payette High.
But my favorite part of the story involves a Republican senator from Idaho named Herman Welker. Welker liked his baseball, and he told Senators owner Clark Griffith about this huge kid back home who could hit a baseball 500 feet. Griffith send a scout out to Idaho, and the reports came back that this kid was the real deal. Griffith - as tight-fisted with a buck as his son Calvin would become - authorized a remarkable signing bonus of $50,000, and so Harmon became a Senator, which put him on the path to Minnesota.
My dad and I each had our favorite Killebrew homer. For dad, it was the 1965 walk-off homer against the Yankees in the last game before the All-Star break. The Yankees were at the tail end of their dynasty, and the Twins were gunning for their first pennant, when the Yankees came to Minnesota for a three-game series. We had an uncle living with us at the time, and my dad bet him a dollar that the Twins would win two of the three games. They split the first two games, and it looked like the Yankees had the third game won when Killebrew hit a two-run, bottom-of-the-ninth homer to give the Twins the win and propel them on to their first pennant.
For me, it came when I was sitting on the floor of my aunt and uncle's home in Pine City, watching a small black-and-white TV on May 2, 1964. We were watching the Twins play in Detroit, and Killebrew became the first man to hit a ball over the left-field roof in Tiger Stadium. Years later I finally got to Tiger Stadium myself, and the first thing I did was stand behind home plate and look at how far away that roof was, marveling that anyone could hit a ball that far.
(My good friend Gary Russell recently sent me a column by a Detroit writer who met Harmon in 2008 and asked him about the home run. Harmon told him that the ball had ended up in a gutter on the back of the roof, and was given to him after the game by one of the stadium workers. The next day, however, Harmon got several phone calls from folks who said they had "the ball" and were willing to sell it to him. Harmon politely declined.)
In the winter of 1977-78, I was a sophomore in college, writing sports for the student paper at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and happened to be in the office one day when a phone call came in from a local PR guy: Harmon was going to be in Duluth the next day to speak to a group, and would be available to the media afterwards. Did I want to attend?
Of course I did, and there I got one of the luckiest breaks of my life. The local TV stations got their footage during his speech, and the News-Tribune writer must have had enough quotes as well, because suddenly I found myself sitting in a small room that included just me, my notebook and Harmon Killebrew. If he was offended by the tiny turnout, it didn't show, and he quickly put me at ease. We spent 20 minutes talking about all of the things I remembered, and he was happy to reminisce. When I told him about my dad winning a dollar bet on his Yankees homer, he smiled and said, "Tell him I want 50 cents." He was gracious, charming, funny...everything you would want your hero to be.
We met a couple other times over the years, and he was always the same: Warm, gracious and able to put everyone else at ease. He's signed a couple baseballs for me at different times, and the one pictured here sits on my office bookshelf. I went to Cooperstown for his Hall of Fame induction, and he told a wonderful story about growing up, when his mother complained to his father that the boys were ruining the grass around their house with all their ballplaying. "We're not raising grass," his father said. "We're raising boys."
Later on, Minnesota had its share of national sports figures. Tarkenton, Carew, Puckett, Garnett, etc., but Harmon was our first, and like so many other firsts in life, he'll be the one we never forget.