The Minnesota Twins’ inaugural season began a few days after my 8th birthday. I knew nothing about baseball and neither did any of my friends, but we all signed up to play little league that spring. I still remember going to the registration night with my dad, new glove on my hand, as if we were going to hit the field right after we filled out the form.
I also brought my baseball glove on my first visit to Metropolitan Stadium a couple of months later. My memory tells me that the Twins beat the Kansas City Athletics 4-3 and Harmon Killebrew hit a home run. We sat in the 2nd deck on the first base side. You can probably look it up and prove me wrong, but it’s my memory and I’m sticking to it.
The Twins were Minnesota’s only major league team at the time — the Minneapolis Lakers had left for L.A two years earlier, and the Vikings wouldn’t arrive until September. We 8-year olds didn’t know squat about playing baseball, but we knew we had a big league ball club and the bonus was that it came with an established star player — Harmon Killebrew.
Harmon was never flashy, never cocky, never sexy. He and Minnesota were a perfect fit.
He was also not particularly large in stature, although he seemed like it to us kids. At 5’11”, and a bit over 200 lbs, other big hitters tower over him in old photos. But his stocky frame and muscular legs, coupled with that memorable extension when he swung the bat, turned out to be a perfect combination for hitting a baseball a long distance. He was a power hitter — period. He even later admitted that he never paid much attention to his batting average. He drew a lot of walks and also struck out a lot, but he also gave us plenty of thrills.
Possibly the oddest tribute in all of sports is the red stadium seat that hangs high on a wall above the “Log Chute” ride inside the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. The mall was built over the old Met Stadium site. The lone seat marks the approximate landing spot of Harmon’s longest home run at the Met, estimated at 522 feet.
Harmon’s greatest attribute was not his ability to play baseball, however. When you listen to all the tributes to him over the coming days, I guarantee you will not hear a single one that doesn’t mention his character — who he was as a person. Of course it was a different era, and sports stars hadn’t yet become the rich, ungrateful, “don’t-give-crap-about-being-a-role-model”, jerks that seem all too prevalent today. But even in those innocent early ’60s, we all knew Harmon was someone special, someone we could look up to, to emulate. He might strike out with the bases loaded now and then, but he would never let us down. And he never did.
Twins baseball was a big part of my life in elementary school and Harmon was the biggest Twins’ star. To be honest, I had a lot of “favorite players” in those early years – Tony Oliva, Bob Allison, Zoilo Versailles and a little later, Rod Carew. I remember trying to start a Lennie Green fan club during that first season. But Harmon was who I imagined I was when I was at the plate.
In recent years, Harmon showed us all how to grow older. He did it by staying busy, making himself useful, caring about others and teaching younger people to appreciate the sport he loved so much. He mentored many of the current Twins players, too young to remember his playing days — and became their hero, too.
I watched the sports on a local news channel this evening and they showed a press conference with a bunch of former ballplayers. Teary-eyed Hall of Famer Paul Molitor said, “I picked the right guy to be my hero”. Jack Morris was completely choked up and said that it was Harmon’s quiet strength and kindness that he will remember. The TV sports reporter, who is about my age, concluded with, “He was my childhood. He was our superstar.”
In the past few weeks and months, Harmon also showed us how to die. His straightforward, 3-paragraph statement just last week began with this sentence, “It is with profound sadness that I share with you that my continued battle with esophageal cancer is coming to an end.” No sugar coating, no false hope, just the truth.
Let the tributes roll in. Harmon deserves all of them.
An aging Mickey Mantle once said something like, “Ah, to be 25 again and the star of the Yankees”. I say, “Ah, to be 8 again and pretending to be Harmon Killebrew”.