COMMENTARY: Killebrew was old-fashioned, head-down hero, by gosh

ST. PAUL Harmon Killebrew stood next to the Minnesota Twins' batting cage in Fort Myers on a warm, crystal clear Florida afternoon. "Gosh," he said. "Herb Score threw harder than any pitcher I ever faced. And I faced Sandy Koufax, too." Killebrew...

Killebrew and Jim Thome (2010)
Hall of Famer and former Twin great Harmon Killebrew, left, embraces newest Twin Jim Thome during spring training drills at the Lee County Sports Complex in Ft. Myers, Fla., on Saturday February 27, 2010. Killebrew died of cancer Tuesday, May 17, 2011, in Arizona at age 74. (Pioneer Press: Richard Marshall)


Harmon Killebrew stood next to the Minnesota Twins' batting cage in Fort Myers on a warm, crystal clear Florida afternoon.

"Gosh," he said. "Herb Score threw harder than any pitcher I ever faced. And I faced Sandy Koufax, too."

Killebrew enjoyed talking about the golden age of baseball. Not so much about his accomplishments, but about his contemporaries, which included everyone from Ted Williams to Whitey Ford.

When those memories became so vivid, when he could visualize himself young and strong and swinging a bat in front of thousands of bespectacled, crew-cut fans, many of whom were sporting their best thin ties, he'd just shake his head.


"Gosh," he'd say.


In the days of trash talk, flash poses and general strutting by so many professional athletes, Harmon Killebrew remained an old-fashioned, head-down, toe-in-the-dirt hero. Few athletes have been blessed with such extraordinary amounts of both ability and class.

I'd tell you that Killebrew was my friend, but that would be self-aggrandizement. Killebrew was everyone's friend. Minnesota is filled with people whose chance meetings with the Killer left them convinced they had made a permanent connection with a kindred spirit.

To me, he never looked quite right standing there in living color, be it next to a batting cage or in the clubhouse. Harmon Killebrew became known to all of us by way of a small, black-and-white TV screen. Sometimes the picture on that screen would flutter up and down

or roll on a diagonal until someone got up and twisted a small knob attached to the console. But after that slight adjustment, Harmon again would look larger than life.

In his book "Ball Four," former big-league pitcher Jim Bouton noted that one of his teammates, Fritz Peterson, nicknamed Killebrew "the fat kid" because he reminded him of that one overweight boy on every Little League team. But after his playing days had ended, nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, Harmon was rather short in stature and very trim. It was difficult to envision him as the powerful, feared home run hitter he once had been.

Though he left behind some of that heft once he retired, he brought with him so many of the good things from his years in baseball. Harmon came from an era when boxscores were the primary source of baseball information. He came from a time when salaries were negotiated in private. He came from a time when every ballplayer considered it his duty to at least try to be a role model.


In other words, it was a simpler time. Some would argue that it was better. He once said to me:

"We need to get the kids talking about stats again instead of how much money guys are making. That's the worst part of the whole thing."

In 22 big-league seasons, Killebrew never was ejected from a ballgame. He never was fined by a manager. Instead, he was a gentle soul with a murderous bat.

On this particularly gorgeous day in spring training, he recalled a game at Metropolitan Stadium.

"I remember Camilo Pascual was going for his 20th win on the last day of the season and it was snowing!" he said, laughing so hard that a couple of current Twins turned around and smiled. "I knocked in the winning run, so I remember."

For a baseball lover with an interest in the game's glorious past, Killebrew was a treasure trove of information. Imagine playing during the time of Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Not just playing but also excelling. He was a wonderful liaison between baseball past and baseball present. And he wore that mantle with grace and dignity. Killebrew was not one to denigrate the modern ballplayer, although there were times he wished some would be a bit less self-centered.

In 2004, Paul Molitor was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Molitor grew up in St. Paul idolizing the Killer. On the day of Molitor's induction, the Hall also honored Killebrew on the 20th anniversary of his induction. So Killebrew walked to the microphone on stage to say a few words. In front of him, baseball fans sprawled on the sun-splashed Cooperstown grass. Behind him, fellow hall of famers sat shoulder to shoulder in several rows of bleachers under a canopy.

Killebrew looked around, took it all in and then shook his head.


"Gosh!" he said.


Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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