Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Late Memorial to "Killer"

This past season Jim Thome became only the sixth Major League ballplayer to reach the 600 home run plateau, 604.  Thome, who now plays with the Cleveland Indians, was in his second year with the Minnesota Twins when this season started.  On route to reaching the plateau while with the Twins, Thome surpassed the team’s leading career home run hitter Harmon Killebrew who hit 530 and is ranked #11 on the Major League career home run list.  Killebrew died this year on May Seventh of esophageal cancer at 74 years old.
To me and my friends growing up in Kansas City, Harmon Killebrew was “Killer”.  Being in an American League city, we did not get the opportunity to personally see National League sluggers Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, and Eddie Matthews.  By the time we started attending Kansas City Athletics’ games, Ted Williams had retired and injuries had begun to slow Mickey Mantle.  But the Hall of Fame career of Harmon Killebrew was in full blast.

When playing sandlot ball we tried imitating our favorite ballplayers.  Some tried Mays’ basket catch or the batting stance of Rocky Colavito (pointing the bat straight at the pitcher before coming set).  When imitating “Killer”, we swung the bat as hard as we could to hit the ball as far as we could.  With his bulging arm biceps and compactly built torso (6’0, 195 lbs.), Harmon Killebrew to us was the ultimate personification of strength and power in a ballplayer.  We knew Aaron, Mays, and Mantle had power.  But no one looked stronger or more powerful than “Killer”.

Killebrew was 18 years old when signed right out of Payette (Idaho) High School in 1954 by the Washington Senators.  Splitting time during his first five seasons between playing in the minor leagues and the Senators, he had only 11 home runs by the end of 1958.  However, in 1959 Killebrew hit 42 home runs and tied for the league lead with Cleveland’s Rocky Colavito.  He hit 31 home runs in 1960 and continued his power surge after the Senators moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul to become the Minnesota Twins the next year.  From 1959 to 1972, Killebrew hit 530 home runs.  He won 6 American League home run titles, including three straight (1962-1964).  The only player to hit more home runs during that period was Hank Aaron, 533.  Killebrew won three league RBI titles and was the American League’s 1969 Most Valuable Player (MVP).
I witnessed Killebrew hit a massive home run on the Fourth of July; 1965, at Kansas City A’s old Municipal Stadium.  He had been bothered with injuries the first half of the season and had just returned to playing every day.  The crowd went silent when Killebrew hit the ball.  I watched it spin like a satellite, high in the clear blue sky and land in the parking lot far behind the stadium.  It was awesome!

There was a sudden weather change later that day which brought rain and dampened our fireworks celebration of the holiday.  I knew it was scientifically impossible, but I still kept saying it rained because “Killer’s” home run disturbed the atmosphere.   It was awesome!  

What is your favorite recollection of Harmon Killebrew?   

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