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Killebrew shined on one of TV’s oddest nights

(Jim wrote this for the Rochester Post-Bulletin May 20, 2011.)

It took repeated pleas from producers to convince Harmon Killebrew to make a brief film for “Late Night With David Letterman” in 1985.

liberace and harmon killebrew seated in chairs on the david letterman show

Liberace captivates Harmon Killebrew with a Barbra Steisand story on David Letterman's NBC television show in 1986.

“I think some of the writers were fans of mine,” Killebrew would say in 2004, so he agreed, reluctantly.

Letterman’s NBC show was just three years old, and the host had already scared off some big Hollywood names with his acerbic approach to celebrity.

Killebrew seemed insulated from disaster, however, because he was scheduled to be part of the show’s “Film Fest.” He would appear in a brief segment on a night that featured films from other celebrities, such as Bette Midler and Michael Keaton.

When Killebrew’s film was bounced because the show ran long, NBC didn’t want the cost of the film wasted, so producers created “Harmon Killebrew Night,” which was taped live the evening of Feb. 11, 1986.

It was potential embarrassment: A retired baseball player with small-town sensibilities spending an hour as guest of TV’s perceived bad boy. No one counted on Letterman’s “hey, we’re just guys on TV” attitude blending with the self-effacing Killebrew.

No one counted on something else: Killebrew shined from the start.

'This is Your Life,' with Liberace
Letterman brought Killebrew’s former teammate and close friend Bob Allison onto the stage using a “This is Your Life” device, with Allison behind a curtain reading a few lines and leaving it to Killebrew to recognize the voice.

liberace and harmon killebrew seated in chairs on the david letterman show

When artist LeRoy Nieman said this work would go for $200,000, David Letterman suggested "the fumes are getting to LeRoy."

Haltingly, Allison’s voice entered the studio. “Hi, Harmon. We played together (pause) on the Senators and Twins (longer pause) for 12-plus years. (Pause.) We were friends and roommates.”

Killebrew looked to Letterman. “Is he reading that?”

Letterman and the studio audience erupted, and from that point it was clear that Killebrew was hip enough to hold his own on a show that featured Liberace, who wore white pants and white suit coat with oversized mink lapels. The glittery pianist also entered the studio after a “This is Your Life” bit, even though he had never been part of Killebrew’s life.

It could have been awkward, but as Liberace went into a decades-old story about Barbra Streisand, Killebrew chimed in, well aware of how she had broken into show business.

If the night hadn’t been enough of a carnival, Killebrew’s favorite singer, Charley Pride, came on to sing “Mountain of Love.” Well, Pride couldn’t get a flight from Dallas to storm-sequestered New York, so he sang it over the telephone.

Oh. All the while, artist Le Roy Neiman painted a billboard-sized mural of the proceedings.

The highlight of Killebrew’s brief film was the re-creation of 17-year-old Harmon heading by train from Payette, Idaho to Chicago for his big-league debut. It didn’t matter that Killebrew had flown to Chicago, partly because the crew member who played the young Killebrew was a grown man with a mop of hair and a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

The evening closed with Letterman asking Killebrew to remove his blue blazer so it could be raised to the studio rafters to hang forever in “this shrine-like atmosphere.”

In the show’s only scripted moment, Killebrew protested, “I don’t know Dave, this is kind of an expensive sport coat,” as band leader Paul Shafer, wearing a red Twins’ cap, began his tribute song:

During Harmon's last night in this dimension, son Ken said, "We put on a tape of the David Letterman show that we hadn't seen since Dad was on it, when they had 'Harmon Killebrew Night.'

"Dad got a good kick out of it."

Har-mon Kill-e-brew ...
Just say the name ...
And I start to think ...
Of that long home run ...
A sharp line drive ...
A dislocated elbow ...
Back in ‘65 …

Killebrew had not only held his own, his elegance twinkled on a hour of TV that could have fallen flat. Letterman acknowledged it. As the credits were about to roll, the host held out his hand to Killebrew and said, “You’re a terrific gentleman, and quite a sport.”

Once again, Harmon Killebrew had hit it out of the park.


Harmon Killebrew biography

Killebrew's road to Cooperstown was anything but smooth

The night belonged to Killebrew: His night at the Metrodome

Crunch time: Killebrew home run vs. Yankees

A "bonus baby" in 1954, Killebrew had to remain on the Washington Senators' roster for two years or be exposed to the waiver wire. There were four 1954 bonus babies, and one of them was Winona, Minn., native Paul Giel, a standout athlete at the Uniiversity of MInnesota who was a Killebrew teammate in 1961.

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