When we were kids, we would spend hours wheeling and dealing, trading baseball cards with each other. The values listed in our tattered issues of Beckett were mostly taken as gospel truth, except when it came to Harmon Killebrew cards. Those were worth more than any other card, because we knew our dad, Chief Hrbeki himself, would grossly overpay for cards featuring his childhood hero. When Killer died Tuesday morning, I asked Dad if he’d write something up for the blog. This is what he sent me this morning.
I was saddened to hear that my boyhood hero, Harmon Killebrew, died Tuesday, May 17, at the young age of 74, succumbing to the effects of esophageal cancer. My immediate sadness, however, was tempered by the many memories that helped shape my boyhood years, and even affected my later adult life.
I was first a Harmon Killebrew fan, and then much later, a Minnesota Twins fan. That Killebrew played for the Senators, Twins, and later the Royals, was, to me, an irrelevant fact.
Being born and raised in Idaho, of course I liked potatoes. I also enjoyed all sports in general, particularly baseball. I especially felt hometown pride for anything — or anyone — associated with Idaho. Idaho sports personalities were my favorite. In football I rooted for St. Louis Cardinal’s safety, Larry Wilson (raised in my hometown of Rigby), and Green Bay Packer’s guard, Jerry Kramer (raised in northern Idaho). In baseball I followed the careers of Pittsburgh Pirate’s pitcher, Vernon Law (born and raised in Meridian, Idaho), and, of course, Killebrew (born and raised in Payette, Idaho), an all around good guy and killer of baseballs, hence the nickname, “Killer.” My connection to Killer was made greater by the fact that Harmon’s spiritual faith was the same as mine.
Like me, Harmon was raised in a small Idaho farming community. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t consider him like a family member. I religiously followed Killer’s stats daily in the newspaper box scores. I would check to see if he hit a home run, and how many hits he managed. I sorrowed when he struck out. I paid attention in 1962 when he hit 48 home runs and drove in 126 RBIs. I rejoiced in his 11 all star designations. I felt vindicated when he achieved MVP status in 1969, and following his retirement, I appreciated his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984. One funny thing, however, I don’t remember ever checking out the Senator’s or the Twin’s scores or ever knowing or even caring about his teams’ records. As I noted earlier, in the beginning I was a Killebrew fan, not a Twins fan. The Twins would become a part of me many years later. When I attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota, I became a natural Twins fan, a passion I would pass on to the next generation of Piepers. I enjoyed attending the games at the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. I would drive down Killebrew Drive, with reverence, remembering my childhood hero. Most importantly, my first meaningful date with my future wife was at a Twins baseball game, huddled under a make-shift tarp during a rain-delay to keep dry. (Tee. Hee.) [Ed. – Gross] And so, in a way only a true fan can, I give Killer credit for helping me choose my wife. How can you not love the man?
Only once do I remember ever seeing Killebrew in person. A couple years ago, our family snagged some invites to the Hall of Fame induction festivities at Cooperstown. While strolling the walkways of the downtown shops, we came upon a table, and I found myself, face to face, with Killer himself. He was seated, grinning, chatting and signing autographs. I was awestruck. I just stood there with my mouth hanging open. Here he was, in living color, my childhood idol. My son, urged me to get an autograph. But the line was too long, the cost was too great, and my 50 plus year old heart was beating far too furiously. Alas, I didn’t take advantage of that opportunity. I wish now that I had.
As I look back on my memories of Harmon Killebrew, I recall his own account, recorded in one of my dog-eared books on my shelf, of his decision to play professional baseball. About these early years, Harmon wrote, “I had been able to do pretty well at slugging the ball, and there were about twelve major league ball club scouts out Idaho way making invitations to me.”
Harmon was leaning towards playing football and baseball at the University of Oregon when he was visited by Ossie Bluege, the Washington Senator’s farm director. Bluege made the trip to Idaho at the request of Clark Griffith, the owner of the Senators. Mr. Griffith was a personal friend of Senator Herman Welker, of Idaho, who frequently bragged about one of his constituents, “a boy in Idaho who … could hit the ball pretty well”. Pretty well, indeed! Harmon was only batting .847, at the time. Mr. Griffith decided to have Mr. Bluege check this young phenom out.
Of this event, Harmon Killebrew recorded, “The night Mr. Bluege arrived in Idaho the game was being threatened by rain. He talked to me before the game, and after shaking my hand he told me I had strong hands and he thought I could be a good infielder… Finally the rain stopped, and after the crew had worked over the diamond to make the field as playable as possible, I stepped up to the plate… I tested the bat across home plate and eyed up the pitcher. When the right ball came spinning towards me, I uncoiled my wrists, swiveled my hips for extra power, and connected with the hickory. The ball sailed up, was momentarily lost to sight when it went above the range of the lights, then, still soaring, sped over the left field fence. I had been in that particular park a good deal of my life up to that point, but I had never before seen a ball go over that part of the fence. Mr. Bluege was a little interested, I suppose, in just where that ball landed, so the next morning he set out to find out. The ball had landed in a potato field. Mr. Bluege stepped it off from home plate to spud field at a distance of 435 feet. He thought that was a pretty good hit for a seventeen-year-old boy, so he left a contract for me…”
After consultation with his family, Harmon decided that schooling could wait, and that same day, he signed a contract into the major leagues. Harmon later recalled, “It has been a decision I have never regretted.”
And, it was a decision I, and many other baseball fans, have never regretted either. Good-bye, Killer. You will be missed.