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The night belonged to Killebrew

The Minnesota Twins honored Harmon Killebrew at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minn., on August 19, 1984. He had been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. days earlier. Here's Jim's account.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. - Harmon Killebrew generally enjoys a leisurely pre-game routine when the Minnesota Twins play at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome: a little conversation during a visit to the Twins' executive offices, a saunter down the dugout ramp to conduct an interview for the subscription television station that employs him.

harmon killebrew at metropolitan stadium

Harmon Killebrew, Camera Day at Met Stadium, Sept. 1969.

Tuesday night was different. Killebrew was the Most Valuable Player again. It could have been 1969.

Nearly every media outlet in the state wanted a piece of Killebrew, the National Baseball Hall of Fame's newest inductee - and the Twins' first.

Although Killebrew might have seemed fearsome to major league pitchers two decades ago, Tuesday he was more remindful of Ed Asner as Lou Grant during one of the character's more lovable moments. In a sharp blue blazer, the burly frame strode from camera to notebook to microphone, his gray, fluffy sideburns lending just the right touch of Hall of Fame distinction to his fringe of hair.

Later, 44,704 fans appeared to honor him in a ballpark in which he never played. If it could, Bloomington's Metropolitan Stadium was crying.

It was there that Killebrew hit the biggest share of his 573 home runs, the most ever for a righthanded American League player.

Indelible link with Twins
It was also there that Killebrew attained the same relationship with the Twins that Babe Ruth enjoys with the Yankees and Willie Mays with the Giants. Even nine years after his retirement, people recall the Minnesota Twins and Harmon Killebrew in the same memory.

They probably always will.

What many might not know is if one could reach the Hall of Fame on personality alone, Killebrew would not have had to wait until his fourth year of eligibility for last week's induction. Ask around the press box and there's not a bad thought about him.

Tuesday night was the culmination of a long-awaited, very warming time in the 48-year-old's life. Perhaps he remains so approachable and genuine because memories of his struggling self are as vivid to him as the triumphant times.

harmon killebrew 64 home run leaders baseball card

Killebrew calls the Twins' best season - 1965, when the team won the American pennant - among his most frustrating. After 49 home runs and 111 runs batted in during the '64 season, and a hot start in '65, Killebrew suffered a dislocated elbow.

"I dislocated my left elbow completely, that was at the middle of the season," he recalls as a Twins' official pushes the night's itinerary at him. Killebrew pauses to joke with him, then continues.

"It was frustrating because I wanted to be part of the club winning, and it looked like we were going to win the pennant and maybe I wasn't going to get a chance to play in the World Series. Fortunately for me, I played the last 10 games of the season at third, and the World Series at third."

Still drove in 75 runs
He finished the season with 25 home runs and 75 RBI, missing nearly 50 games. The Twins lost the World Series in seven games, and maybe it would not have been so had Killebrew been rebounding from injury as the Series started. He batted .286 with a home run and two RBI in the Series, which was not reflective of his production at that time in his career.

Killebrew vividly recalls even less fortunate aspects of his career, contending that no player forgets the times when Chattanooga beckons, as it did in 1957 and 1958, before Killebrew climbed to the big leagues and stayed.

"I think all players remember that," he says. "There are very few players that haven't had ups and downs in their careers. In fact, there's usually more downs than ups. That's just part of it."

But few players accept an invitation to potential failure, as Killebrew did.

harmon killebrew baseball game card

In 1965, the Twins hoped Killebrew would increase his batting average. He cut down his swing at the expense of home runs. The arrangement didn't last long, but Killebrew didn't bristle at a suggestion that could have diverted him from Cooperstown.

In those days, Killebrew also bounced from first base to third base to left field defensively, partly to accommodate the left-handed bat of first baseman Don Mincher, and always for the good of the team.

Got used to moving around
"It would have been nice to stay in one position my entire career, but that wasn't the way it was. I think it probably bothered me more early than later in my career. I think the biggest problem was the changing of gloves from first to third, and the different throwing. I think it did bother my hitting earlier, but I learned to adjust to that."

He also learned to adjust to the brushback pitch. He didn't handle it by charging the mound, though. Killebrew says he thought his method was better.

"In those days, there were probably a lot more of those pitches than there are today," he says. "I found that those players who let the pitchers know that it bothered them, well, those pitchers tended to throw near them a little bit more.

"I found the best way to handle a brushback pitch - and I certainly think that's part of the game, I think a pitcher has to pitch inside - is you just get up and hit a line drive somewhere. Then they're going to leave you alone."

When you're standing on a podium at Cooperstown delivering your acceptance speech, people don't think about the brushback pitches you faced, the frustrations and the slumps. Like everyone, the Twins' first Hall of Famer suffered through slumps, but again his remedy was pragmatic.

"I tried to approach slumps just like I did streaks. If I went 4-for-4, I tried to forget about it the next day. If I went 0-for-4, I tried to forget that and get some hits the next day. Slumps are tough, and everybody has their own way of getting out of them, I guess."

Killebrew kept out of them well enough to fill the Metropolitan Stadium seats, and it was fitting that Tuesday night's crowd pushed the season attendance at the Metrodome past the one million mark.

Harmon Killebrew's dramatic home run against the New York Yankees before the 1965 All-Star break.

He was showered with gifts in a pre-game ceremony - his baseball career didn't earn him much more than a million dollars - even getting a new set of golf clubs from the visiting Milwaukee Brewers.

The fans showered him with three separate 90-second ovations.

He gave a brief, genuine speech, minus the strong emotions his showed Sunday while accepting immortality at Cooperstown.

"I don't think it really sunk in until I was on the platform Sunday for the induction ceremonies," he said. "I said that I wasn't going to be emotional about it, but I really couldn't help myself. It was quite an emotional experience for me."


Related

Harmon Killebrew biography

Killebrew's road to Cooperstown was anything but smooth

Harmon Killebrew Night on David Letterman

Crunch time: Killebrew home run vs. Yankees

 


"Universally, people say about Harmon that he's such a nice guy. I also think of him as an intelligent guy. I have never spoken with Harmon without learning something about baseball, or more." - Jim Thielman


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