ECM Online Managing Editor
Minnesota Twins Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew was asked recently how many home runs he thought he could hit if he were playing in today’s game. Harmon quickly answered, “Oh, about 30.” Someone pressed him saying, “Only 30?” Harmon said, “Yeah, I’m 74 years old.”
Harmon Killebrew, one of Major League’s most respected baseball players ever, died early Tuesday morning, May 17, at his Scottsdale, Arizona home after a long-running battle with esophageal cancer. Harmon just made the announcement three days ago that he was entering hospice.
Since the hospice announcement was made last Friday, many members of the Minnesota Twins organization were offering tributes to this mountain of a man.
In the community, Harmon and Nita Killebrew founded the Killebrew Foundation which helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for many charitable organizations across the country. Among those local organizations benefitting from the Killebrew Foundation was the Minnesota Twins Community Fund and Miracle Leagues of Minnesota. The first Miracle League field was built in Blaine in 2006.
I am fortunate to say that I saw Harmon play for the Twins, seeing him club mammoth home runs while leading his team to victory. I also have the recollection in memory and in film of the day that Harmon’s Minnesota Twins No. 3 jersey was retired by the Twins. Killebrew, in 1975 clad in a Kansas City Royals uniform, had his Twins number retired by owner Calvin Griffith.
Son Troy was six at the time and was with me. As I slipped onto the field with my press pass, I asked two elderly lady Twins fans if they would watch my son while I took some photos of the historic moment of Harmon getting his jersey retired. That photo is still making the rounds as son Troy now makes it available to baseball memorabilia collectors.
My grandson Ryan, now 8, has known Harmon for a good portion of his young life. Ryan has accompanied dad Troy and grandpa Howard to many autograph signing parties featuring Harmon Killebrew.
Troy would outfit all of us with photos or a bat to have Harmon sign. Once at the Twins Autograph Party at the Metrodome, Ryan was in liine to get Harmon’s autograph on a photo but began to cry saying he wanted Ryan to sign his shirt, not a photo. Harmon heard him crying and asked him his name. “Ryan, there’s no crying in baseball.” Harmon then invited Ryan to slip underneath the autograph table. “I’ll sign your shirt (no ticket required),” Harmon told Ryan. The tears went away quickly as Harmon placed his beautiful signature on Ryan’s shirt.
I am very thankful to Troy, even though I grumbled at times, for allowing me to accompany him to get Harmon’s autograph on many occasions. Troy and I also shared some photos I had taken of Harmon when he played with the Twins in the 1960s and 1970s. Harmon loved to see his old photos and always obliged to sign them.
Some of my most favorite Harmon photos came from a home run hitting contest in May of 1974 between him and Home Run Hitting King Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves. Aaron and the Braves were in town for an exhibition game at Metropolitan Stadium. Aaron had just broken Babe Ruth’s home run record a month earlier.
I was allowed on the field with a press pass and managed to get some classic photos of Aaron and Killebrew. One of the pair sharing a laugh is autographed by both and adorns by living room wall.
In recent times when Troy and family including me would see Harmon at a signing, I was honored to hear Harmon call me by first name. He had an unbelievable memory and loved all of his fans.
Harmon will definitely go down as a giant of the game of Major League Baseball, both as a player and also as an ambassador for the Minnesota Twins.
Soon after I learned of Harmon’s death, I contacted two of my newspaper colleagues at ECM Publishers, Gary Larson and Luther Dorr of the Mille Lacs County Times. Both are in my generation and saw Harmon play often. Larson said he believes there are sluggers and home run hitters in baseball. “I define Harmon Killebrew as a slugger because every time you saw him come to bat, you thought he was going to hit a home run. You just thought about how long it would be.”
On June 3, 1967, Killebrew blasted the longest home run ever hit at Met Stadium, a shot that landed in the second deck of the bleachers, 520 feet away from home plate. I had the chance to interview Harmon five years ago at the Minnesota History Center when he was viewing a Hall of Fame baseball display on loan at the Center. Coming to the sign commemorating his long home run, Harmon laughed, “I think it was more like 800 feet.”
Luther also saw Harmon play often and recalls him hitting two long home runs to right center in a game against the Boston Red Sox. Harmon’s home runs “were majestic,” recalls Luther. He recalls seeing the spot the next day where Harmon hit the longest home run ever hit at Met Stadium. “That was a shot,” Luther said.
“He was a classy guy and a person who conducted himself well on and off the baseball field,” Luther said.
Let’s read what Wikipedia says about Harmon: Harmon Clayton Killebrew, nicknamed “Killer” and “Hammerin’ Harmon,” was a Major League Baseball first baseman, third baseman, and left fielder. During a 22-year baseball career in which he played for the Washington Senators, Minnesota Twins, and Kansas City Royals, he was second only to Babe Ruth in American League (AL) home runs and retired as the AL career leader in home runs by a right-handed batter (since broken by Alex Rodriguez). He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984.
Killebrew was a stocky 5 ft 11 in (1.80 m), 210-pound (95.3 kg) hitter with a compact swing that generated tremendous power. He became one of the AL’s most feared power hitters of the 1960s, belting 40 homers in a season eight times. In 1965, he helped the Minnesota Twins reach the World Series, where they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He had his finest season in 1969, hitting 49 home runs, recording 140 runs batted in (RBI), and winning the AL Most Valuable Player Award. Killebrew led the league in home runs six times and in RBI three times, and he was named to 11 All Star teams. He hit the most home runs for any player in the 1960s.