Harmon Killebrew, Baseball's Humble Slugger, Dies

Originally published on May 17, 2011 5:53 pm

Baseball fans are mourning a legend — Minnesota Twins Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew died Tuesday, ending his battle with esophageal cancer. Killebrew was a top power hitter in the 1960s. And he helped the fledgling Twins put down roots in a place that until 1961 had never had a major league team.

Back in the summer of 1954, word had spread that a 17-year-old in a semipro league was hitting baseballs out of the park in tiny Payette, Idaho. Ossie Bluege, a scout for the old Washington Senators, came to check it out. But it was pouring rain.

That same day, young Harmon Killebrew was thinking that he'd forget baseball and take a college football scholarship instead. But 30 years later, and without a hint of boasting in his voice, Killebrew recalled the Hollywood moment when his future changed.

"And the skies cleared, and that night Mr. Bluege stayed for the ballgame — and I'd been going to that ballpark since I was a young boy, and had never seen anyone hit a ball over the left field fence, it was so far. And that night I hit one, over the left field fence."

That ball flew 435 feet, and Killebrew signed with the Senators. But he struggled at first, warming the bench for two seasons and spending a few more in the minors.

The team struggled, as well — but then Killebrew hit his stride, joining baseball's power-hitting elite. In 1960, he squared off against Rocky Colavito on a short-lived TV show called Home Run Derby.

The next year, the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins. But they needed to start winning to get fan support in a new city. And Killebrew was the key.

"He was almost the perfect athlete, as it turned out, for the upper Midwest," says former Star Tribune sportswriter Doug Grow. He says Killebrew never once yelled at an umpire, or argued with a manager.

"He didn't pound his chest when he did something well. He didn't pout," Grow says. "He didn't grumble in the clubhouse. Yet, he could hit these incredible home runs."

And Killebrew kept pounding them out. Though he had a middling (.243) batting average in 1962, he whacked 48 home runs that season. In 1965, Killebrew helped the Twins win the American League pennant.

A decade later, bad knees and a contract dispute led Killebrew to the Kansas City Royals for his final season. Still, he retired with 573 homers, among the all-time greats.

But Killebrew was not a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. Many sportswriters considered him a one-dimensional power hitter. True to form, Killebrew kept a stiff upper lip in 1983 when he was passed over for a third time.

"This, to me, was the toughest one," he said, "because I was really more hopeful maybe this year than last and maybe that's the reason it was a little more difficult."

But he did make it to Cooperstown the next year. And among baseball fans today, Grow says, the slugger's achievements glow brighter than ever, as the steroid scandal continues to reverberate.

"Now everybody looks at those numbers and they raise an eyebrow," he says. "And they look at Killebrew's numbers and they say, 'Gee, he did that eating cheeseburgers and drinking milkshakes.' He looks pretty good by comparison."

Besides his achievements on the field, fans will also remember Killebrew for his sportsmanship and humility — qualities that can't be measured in the record books.

Copyright 2018 MPR News. To see more, visit MPR News.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Matt Sepic of Minnesota Public Radio reports that when the team moved to Minnesota, it was Killebrew who helped the fledgling Twins put down roots in their new home.

MATT SEPIC: That day, young Harmon Killebrew was thinking that he'd forget baseball and take a college football scholarship instead. But 30 years later, and without a hint of boasting in his voice, Killebrew recalled the Hollywood moment when his future changed...

HARMON KILLEBREW: And the skies cleared, and that night Mr. Bluege stayed for the ballgame, and I'd been going to that ballpark since I was a young boy and never had seen anyone hit a ball over the left field fence, it was so far. And that night I hit one over the left field fence.

SEPIC: The team struggled, too, but Killebrew hit his stride and soon joined baseball's power-hitting elite. In 1960, he squared off against Rocky Colavito on a short-lived TV show called "Home Run Derby."

KILLEBREW: High fly ball going way back, deep into left center field. This could go. It's going, going, gone over the left field wall. Herman Killebrew out in front one to nothing here in the last half of the first.

SEPIC: The next year, the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins. But they'd to start winning to make it in a new city. And Killebrew was the key.

DOUG GROW: He was almost the perfect athlete, as it turned out, for the upper Midwest.

SEPIC: That's former Star Tribune sportswriter Doug Grow. He says Killebrew never once yelled at an umpire or argued with a manager.

GROW: He didn't pound his chest when he did something well. He didn't pout. He didn't grumble in the clubhouse. And yet, he could hit these incredible home runs.

SEPIC: But Killebrew was not a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. Many sportswriters considered him one-dimensional, only a power hitter. True to form, Killebrew kept a stiff upper lip in 1983 when he was passed over for a third time.

KILLEBREW: This was, to me, the toughest one because I was really more hopeful maybe this year than last, and maybe that's the reason that it was a little more difficult.

SEPIC: But he did make it to Cooperstown the next year. Writer Doug Grow says the slugger's achievements glow brighter than ever today, as the steroid scandal continues to reverberate.

GROW: Now everybody looks at those numbers and they raise an eyebrow and say they're really not so good. And then you look at Killebrew's numbers and say: Gee, he did that eating cheeseburgers and drinking milkshakes. He looks pretty good by comparison.

SEPIC: For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in St. Paul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.