From Chapter Eight: > Cool of the Evening: The 1965 Minnesota Twins

"That was a nice home run you hit, daddy."

  - Harmon Killebrew's son, Kenny


On Saturday, three days before the All-Star game in Minnesota, clever Calvin Griffith counted a double gate as the Twins won the opener of a day-night doubleheader before losing the nightcap, their first loss in 10 games.

Griffith had wisely lobbied to postpone the season´s second game during April´s rain and floods, despite protests from the Yankees, who claimed Griffith was more concerned about poor attendance than unplayable conditions. The league went along with Griffith, and that decision put a bulge in his wallet because Major League Baseball had a directive that stated postponed games could be made up as part of split doubleheaders.

The postponed April game with New York was converted into the second game of the Saturday day-night doubleheader, so what might have been a crowd of perhaps 3,000 in April resulted in a huge mid-summer gate attraction, with more than 36,000 fans turning out for each game that Saturday.

There was a break of a couple hours between games to clear the crowd, wait for the parishioners from Church of the Assumption to sweep out the stands as they had since the club moved to Minnesota, and then admit ticket holders for the nightcap. The downside for the players was they had to spend more than 10 hours at Met Stadium, so the players hoped for a short day at the yard when Sunday arrived. It was getaway day for the Yankees, and players on both teams were eager to start the three-day All-Star break.

It was 78 degrees, and another crowd of about 35,000 appeared for the series finale that soft Sunday afternoon, settling into the stands to watch a pre-game ceremony in which Oliva received his Silver Slugger Award for winning the 1964 league batting title. Fans were in an upbeat mood over the presentation, the sun, and the fact New York had lost two of the first three games and was more than a dozen games behind the Twins in the standings, but the Yankees took the lead in the top of the ninth on a controversial play that disgusted the hometown crowd and caused the fans to drum long and hard on the umpires.

The game had been tied three times, first when Versalles hit his 10th home run of the season to make it 1-1 in the third. The scoring seesawed from that point before coming to rest at 4-4 in the top of the ninth when, with two out and Yankees on first and third, New York rookie outfielder Roger Repoz chopped a high, bounding ball down the first-base line.

Pitcher Jerry Fosnow raced over and lunged for the ball as Repoz sped down the baseline, making contact with Fosnow en route to first base. The ball fell to the ground and home plate umpire Ed Hurley called Repoz out for interfering with Fosnow´s ability to field the ball. It was the third out and the Twins ran off the field, hoping to stage a ninth-inning rally and go home.

Yankee manager Johnny Keane charged out of the third-base dugout and insisted Fosnow had possession of the ball but dropped it, an interesting assertion in that Keane lacked an ideal view of a play on the first-base side of the field from the visitors´ third-base dugout. If Fosnow had dropped the ball, it would mean Repoz should be safe and the run that crossed the plate would count.

Umpires rarely reverse a call, but Hurley did just that after a conference with the first-base umpire. Hurley decided his view of the play had been blocked and deferred his call. Fosnow was ruled to have been in possession of the ball before it fell to the ground, and Repoz was called safe. New York´s Elston Howard scored from third on the play, the run stood and the Yankees led 5-4.

Mele charged out and argued with more animation than Keane, but lost the argument. Fosnow maintained he never had control of the ball when Repoz brushed him, and that Repoz unquestionably had interfered. Hurley dismissed the Twins´ appeal, and Mele told the umpires his team would continue the game under protest as the players were ordered back onto the field. Minnesota got the final out of the inning for what fans believed was the second time, and those customers remained agitated and dismayed as the team left the field again. Didn´t the Yankees always get these kinds of breaks?

The specter of Yankee championships remained with many baseball followers, who still considered the franchise a threat. Could this open the door? American League president Joe Cronin was in the stands, so fans howled at him in addition to the umpires and the Yankees.

Keane brought in six-foot-two, 220-pound Staten Island native Pete Mikkelsen to finish the game. As was the case with many players around the league, Mikkelsen was familiar to avid baseball fans in the region because he had pitched for Fargo-Moorhead in the Northern League as a 20-year-old in 1960.

He became a standout high school pitcher after his family moved to California, but neither his fastball nor his breaking pitch seemed to be more than minor-league stuff. He threw a palm-ball for his change of pace, maintaining his fastball motion so as not to tip the pitch. He just held the ball so far back in his hand that the pitch did not have the velocity of his fastball and tricked the hitter into swinging early.

This had not been enough to gain him a major-league roster spot, but an arm injury in 1963 caused him to drop down from a straight overhand delivery. Suddenly his fastball started to dip most of the time. He was now a sinkerball pitcher, capable of inducing groundouts.

It was only Mikkelsen's second season in the major leagues, but he had confidence in his pitches and himself, and along the way he was offered some good advice, which quickly became ingrained: the edge was his when he entered a game in the late innings. Batters didn't make any money taking walks in those situations; they were up there to swing that bat and drive in runs, so they could drive better cars. Mikkelsen decided if batters swung at his sinking fastball, they would hit it into the ground. Of course, the ball had to sink.

In the fifth game of the '64 World Series, 23-year-old St. Louis catcher Tim McCarver clubbed the rookie's 3-2 fastball over Mickey Mantle's head for a three-run homer that won the game in the 10th inning. It was probably the undoing of Yankee manager Yogi Berra, who had left-handed options in the bullpen but let the right-handed Mikkelsen pitch to the lefty McCarver. The Cardinal catcher also happened to be hot as a flaming sunrise in the Series, with seven hits in 16 at-bats.

Keane was managing the Cardinals, so he was the beneficiary of McCarver's blast, which helped his team eventually win the Series in seven games. Keane sat in the dugout with a million-dollar view that day as Mikkelsen's fastball to McCarver failed to sink. During the offseason, Berra was fired, and Keane was offered the job of Yankee manager, a job that forced him to make some decisions regarding Mikkelsen.

Mikkelsen began the ‘65 season in a New York uniform before the Yankees demoted the bespectacled right-hander to Class AAA Toledo in mid-June with the idea of making him a starting pitcher. The demotion also occurred days after an incident in a Newark Airport bar in which Keane fined three Yankees and reprimanded two others following behavior that led to bartenders' refusing to serve the players further. The New York Times reported Mikkelsen was one of those reprimanded.

He had been used exclusively in relief in 1964 and was among the better relievers in the league that season, but he responded to the experiment in Toledo by winning three of four starts. That included throwing a no-hitter on July 4, exactly one week before he took the ball for the ninth inning in Metropolitan Stadium. The Yankees had flown him more than a thousand miles, from Florida to Detroit, just days before the series with the Twins. He started against the Tigers, pitching respectable ball through five innings, but the experiment as a starter didn't last long. Keane used him for nearly three innings of relief in the second game of Saturday's split doubleheader, and Mikkelsen got the win.

He was making his third appearance in four days when he entered the game following the controversy with Repoz and quickly retired Versalles to begin the bottom of the ninth inning. Working a walk had become rare for the next batter, Rollins, but he coaxed a free pass, to the delight of Martin, who in his Yankee career often used patience to get on base late in the game so one of the Yankees' big bats could send him around the base paths.

Pre-game honoree Oliva hit a fly ball to Repoz in center for the second out, with Rollins remaining at first base. Killebrew stepped into the batter's box. He had 15 home runs at the time, a low mid-season total for a man who was averaging 47 homers a season since the franchise had relocated to Minnesota, but he had worked hard to cut down his swing and drive the ball to the opposite field in Mele's go-go offense.

Mikkelsen had faced Killebrew twice during the Yankees' win Saturday and induced groundouts both times. Mikkelsen first developed deep confidence in his sinker against Killebrew while auditioning for the Yankee pitching staff during spring training in '64. Killebrew drove numerous sinkerballs into the dirt in one exhibition game, and if Mikkelsen could handle Killebrew with that pitch, he stood to be a valuable weapon in the Yankees' bullpen.

It was Killebrew´s habit to stand perfectly straight in the batter´s box and take one or two gentle half-swings, then bring the bat back to his shoulder, his hands tight against his chest in the manner of a man trying to keep himself warm. He used a 33-ounce bat, about the norm for a major-leaguer, even though Killebrew was stronger than most.

As the pitcher began his motion, Killebrew would push his hands and that narrow-grained bat away from his chest as if liquid had begun to leak from the bottom and he didn´t want it to drip onto his shoes. His knees would flex and the number 3 on his back would stretch tight as his back rounded, but he stood perfectly still in that pose as the ball left the pitcher´s hand. Then he brought his hands in and down and lashed at the ball, using his powerful hips to drive into the pitch. Unlike Henry Aaron or Ernie Banks, Killebrew was not a wrist hitter; he was more like Babe Ruth. Harmon Killebrew took a vicious, lumberjack´s cut at a baseball.

Mikkelsen worked a two-ball, two-strike count before Killebrew looped that swing through the strike zone and fouled off Mikkelsen's change-up. Mikkelsen had confidence in this pitch as well as his sinker, so he threw another palm ball, hoping the slugger would time the pitch incorrectly and swing too early. Killebrew took the pitch, which was called a ball, to make the count three balls and two strikes. The Yankees preferred not to walk Killebrew, which would move Rollins into scoring position and force right-handed Mikkelsen to face left-handed, streakhitting Mincher, who was sizzling.

Mincher had homered twice Friday and driven in three runs on Saturday. Keane had seen this situation before, last October, when Mikkelsen faced a hot-hitting left-hander with two runners on base. He certainly did not want to put Killebrew on for Mincher to recreate the scenario that led to McCarver´s blast the previous October. In addition, Killebrew was right-handed, so the matchup favored Mikkelsen.

Yankee catcher Elston Howard called for a fastball to end the three-and-a-half hour struggle. There was a healthy breeze blowing toward Killebrew from left field; otherwise the belt-high fastball that never sank might have gone farther than 380 feet. It was the agonizingly loud smack of wood on horsehide that hit Elston Howard's eardrums. The ball jetted toward the stands, almost as if Killebrew had lit a short fuse on a Fourth of July pop bottle rocket. It was not the typical “Killebrew Fly” that featured a majestic parabolic arch. The ball was still rising when it crashed into the left-field pavilion.

Silence.

Had this happened? Had Killebrew hit a two-out, two-run homer on a 3-2 pitch to beat the Yankees heading into the All-Star break? Was this team going to the World Series? The crowd erupted, screaming, applauding and stamping its feet on the stands, as had become the custom when the Met Stadium regulars wanted to display their appreciation enthusiastically. The cantilevered triple deck behind home plate shook from the thunderous pounding.

Killebrew circled third base as Rollins crossed home plate, then turned to wait and congratulate Killebrew. Two fans in straw pork-pie hats ran onto the field to aid the celebration as Killebrew planted a cleated foot onto home plate and headed for the dugout.

Seven-year-old Kenny Killebrew was often in the Twins clubhouse, and he greeted his father as the players marched in.

“That was a nice home run you hit, daddy.”

Killebrew enjoyed some watermelon as reporters surrounded him. He recalled hitting a game-winning home run a year earlier against the Yankees´ Al Downing at the Met. It hadn´t received much reaction. “I guess it´s where we are in the standings that makes the difference,” Killebrew said, but he did admit his 288th career home run was one of the “sweeter of the sweet. I knew when I hit it that it was going a long way.”

The home run was considered the most dramatic “big fly” in the history of the Minnesota Twins until Kirby Puckett deposited Charlie Liebrandt´s change-up into the Metrodome seats in the sixth game of the 1991 World Series against Atlanta.

Killebrew´s home run abruptly halted the days when fans called him “Harmless Harmon.” He became the most loved Minnesota Twin in club history until Puckett came along, but during Kenny Killebrew's seven years, his dad's career could hardly be reduced to numbers on the back of a baseball card. Killebrew´s career had twinkled and faded so often that carrying the team as a star ballplayer had to be simple compared to what he had carried since he left home in 1954 as a 17-year-old bonus baby.

For starters, he languished in the major leagues for two seasons on the Washington Senators´ bench.



       

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