Posted: Tuesday May 17, 2011 11:50AM ; Updated: Tuesday May 17, 2011 2:47PM
Steve Rushin
Steve Rushin>RUSHIN LIT

Grace and humility defined the great slugger Harmon Killebrew

Story Highlights

Former Twins Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew died of cancer at 74

Many of Killebrew's 573 career home runs were epic, but he didn't like attention

Killebrew had very neat signature and felt fans should be able to read autographs

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Former Twins Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew hit 573 home runs in 22 seasons from 1954-75.
Former Twins Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew hit 573 home runs in 22 seasons from 1954-75.
TSN/Icon SMI

Nobody had more wrong names than Harmon Killebrew, whose nickname --Killer -- always seemed ironic, in the way huge bikers are called Tiny, or sweet puppies are called Mad Dog. When Killebrew retired from baseball in 1975, having circled more bases with his head down than any player in baseball history, he became the first Killer on record to sell insurance in Boise, Idaho.

Harmon's first name was no better, as it always got shortened to Harm, an ill-fitting verb for a guy who -- 30 years after teammate Danny Thompson died of leukemia -- kept alive a golf tournament in memory of the Twins shortstop. Killebrew died of cancer Tuesday in Scottsdale, Ariz., at age 74.

Worse still was that surname, Kill-a-Brew, which inspired a college drinking game called Harmon Killebrew. Never mind that the Killer's beer of choice was the one he marketed: Killebrew Root Beer, a phrase underscored on bottles by the words "Old-Fashioned," which would complete the public perception of Killebrew -- Loyal Friend, Insurance Salesman, Root Beer Aficionado -- if he weren't also a Hall of Fame Slugger.

There was something Old-Fashioned about the 573 home runs he hit, the second most of any righthander in American League history, behind the decidedly New-Fashioned Alex Rodriguez, who admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. Killebrew was Pez, not PEDs, square in body -- 5-foot-10, 213 pounds -- and square in spirit. Asked in a 1963 Sports Illustrated profile if he had any unusual hobbies, Killer replied: "Just washing the dishes, I guess."

"Killebrew is so quiet that sportswriters have given up trying to jazz up his image," Time magazine lamented the following season, in a brief, rare, never-to-be-repeated profile.

"There is nothing especially exciting or colorful about Harmon Clayton Killebrew," Baseball Digest concurred, the same summer, "except that he hits home runs farther and more frequently than any one else on the current scene." By then, Killebrew was averaging a homer every 12 at-bats, the best rate since Babe Ruth, and the nation's scribes could scarcely ignore him.

Though they both wore number 3, Killebrew was never going to be Ruth. He didn't go out, he didn't go ballistic, he didn't go anything but bald. And yard, of course. Killebrew went yard in ways that few hitters ever have. He was the first man to hit a ball over the leftfield roof at Tiger Stadium, three decks and 94 feet off the ground. He hit the longest home run in the history of Metropolitan Stadium, home of the Twins. When it finally landed in the bleachers, 520 feet from home plate, the Twins painted that seat red, which had the same effect on Killebrew's face.

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In 1969, when he hit 49 home runs and drove in 140, Killebrew was at once the league's Most Valuable and Least Voluble player. He even led by silence. A simple glare from Killebrew conveyed to Twins teammates that they shouldn't throw their bats, or helmets, or comport themselves in any way that was -- the worst possible word -- unprofessional.

The ridiculously long home run, then, was his sole expression of immodesty. His very first homer, as an 18-year-old rookie with the Washington Senators in 1954, was literally a tape measure shot: The team's p.r. director measured it out the next day. The Senators were getting killed by the Tigers -- Washington would lose 18-7 -- and Detroit catcher Frank House told Killebrew, in what was likely an effort at reverse psychology: "We're going to throw you a fastball." It says much about the square-dealing young Harmon that he took the catcher at his word, and sat on Billy Hoeft's fastball, which he promptly hit 476 feet.

CORCORAN: As a slugger, Killebrew ahead of his time

There would follow, over the next 22 seasons, 572 more home runs, 11th most in history. It's a happy coincidence that Killebrew grew up in Idaho to become synonymous with taters. He was born in Payette, the fourth child of Harmon, a housepainter, and his wife, Katherine, whose three boys often played baseball in the yard. When Katherine complained that they were tearing up the lawn, Killebrew's father told her: "We're raising boys not grass."

Killebrew was still a boy, just 17, when he signed with the Senators as a $30,000 bonus baby. In 1961, he moved with the team to Minnesota, to Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, where I grew up. By the time I was attending games at Met Stadium, Killebrew had retired, and so I remember him as an occasional Twins broadcaster, face framed by a fringe of white. I remember his soft voice, pronouncing the surname of Twins infielder Ron Washington as "Warshington."

Mostly I remember that the street leading to the stadium was renamed in his honor, so that I -- and a lot of other Minnesotans -- associate some of life's happiest memories with Killebrew Drive.

It is one of a handful of monuments in Minnesota to a man who -- without a bat in his hands -- never called attention to himself. There's a bronze statue of Killebrew outside the Twins' new home, Target Field, that is exactly what the 11-time All-Star never claimed to be: Larger-than-life. Killebrew knew, as he endured esophageal cancer, that life was larger than he, and released a statement on May 13 expressing his "profound sadness" that this "awful disease" had "progressed beyond my doctor's expectation of a cure."

In the end, that dignity and humility were what endeared Killebrew to Minnesotans. They will serve as his signature -- along with his actual signature, which was the cleanest in baseball. When he went into hospice care, several Twins and ex-Twins said Killebrew admonished them as young players for the sloppiness of their signatures. The fan that waits for a player's autograph, Killebrew believed, should be able to read it. And so the man with the imperfect name signed that name perfectly. Thanks to him, so do Joe Mauer and Torii Hunter and Justin Morneau. That legacy of class and quiet decency is the true measure of Killebrew's tape-measured life.

Which isn't to say that Minnesotans don't love the long ball. Of course we do. When the Met was razed, and replaced by the Mall of America, Killebrew's red bleacher seat was bolted high above the mall's central atrium, in roughly the same space it occupied at the ballpark. It is there to this day, a permanent testament to one man's baseball-crushing powers, on a street still called Killebrew Drive, now and forever a Boulevard of Broken Seams.

Steve Rushin is the author of The Pint Man, a novel. Purchase it here. Also check out steverushin.com.

 
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