SI Vault
Barbara Heilman
April 08, 1963
Minnesota's Harmon Killebrew, the loudest bat and quietest mouth in baseball, goes doggedly about the business of leading the major leagues in home run production and ice cream consumption
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 08, 1963

Out Of The Park On A Half Swing

Minnesota's Harmon Killebrew, the loudest bat and quietest mouth in baseball, goes doggedly about the business of leading the major leagues in home run production and ice cream consumption

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

In 1958, in a game with Kansas City, Harmon was playing third. Calvin Griffith, now the Senators' owner, had told Cookie Lavagetto, the Senators' manager, that he wanted Killebrew to play, and Eddie Yost had been left in training camp. There were two outs, Hal Smith was running toward Killebrew from second, and shortstop Rocky Bridges yelled at Harmon to tag him. Bridges was a respected veteran, and Harmon tried to tag Smith but Smith got by. Both runners were safe, and Kansas City went on to win the game. The next day a Washington paper said that Eddie Yost had won back his third-base job while sitting in Orlando. They played it up in the headline and, all in all, it was a pretty tough article to take. Bridges went to the writer and tried to take the rap, explaining that he had intruded on the play. But there was nothing to be done. Harmon had to swallow hard and get it down, but some observers said the incident knocked him out for the season, and conceivably it has had something to do with his rather fatalistic attitude toward the press. So, also, may the fact that of the few even moderately personal bits about Harmon in the press over the last few years, many have been inaccurate. For example, the story that his paternal grandfather, Harmon Clayton Killebrew, was the strongest man in the Illinois regiment of the Union Army has been seized upon by innumerable newspapers and magazines, and has run for two years in the Twins' own yearbook. But Harmon's grandfather's name was Culver Killebrew. "Harm," Herb Heft said when somebody pointed it out, "is the yearbook really wrong?" "Been wrong for two years," said Harmon, who had never bothered to tell anyone.

It is certain that Harmon was born June 29, 1936 in Payette, Idaho, fourth child and third son of Katherine May and Harmon Clayton Killebrew. His father, who was at that time a house painter by profession and something of a painter in oils for amusement, had wrestled a little and had played football at West Virginia under Greasy Neale. He took an active interest in Harmon's athletic endeavors until he died, when Harmon was 16.

Harmon began playing golf in high school, played basketball and a lot of football, along with some baseball. He was called Killie then. He graduated from Payette High, in a class of 54 students—"You know the top 10? I was 11th"—and in 1955 he married Elaine Roberts, who had been his girl there since Junior High. They have three children now, Cameron, Kenneth and a little girl, Shawn, who is newly one year old, and they have moved from Payette to Ontario, Ore. "As far as the house is concerned," says Harmon, plunging into a classic Killebrew description, "it's just a house. We have a place outside of town—it's about two acres. A lot of flowers and a pasture for the horse (Elaine's sister's pony, which is visiting), and I don't know what to tell you. It's a house.

"People ask me, 'How do you like it over there in Oregon, Harm?' And the local Kiwanis Club back in Payette wrote me a letter saying I could no longer be an honorary member, since I didn't live in Payette anymore. Ontario," says Harmon, shaking his head, "is six miles away." When he's home—whether it's Idaho or Oregon—he does a little hunting—deer and pheasant.

During the baseball season Killebrew has a television show and a daily radio program, which he tapes. "I work with another fellow—we don't have a script. We just have somebody on, and talk to him. Like we might have Bobby Richardson, and we'll talk about playing second base. No, it wasn't too easy at first, being on TV."

One bets it wasn't. Only a few years ago Harmon was well known for being shy to the point of awkwardness. Now, though he is still reserved, it is a very poised reserve. He has turned into a quiet but unmistakable take-charge man in restaurants, for example, and people who follow his television show say he has an easy manner and a natural talent for interviewing other people.

Interviewed himself, Harmon will say conscientiously that he doesn't think those two years on the bench did him too much damage. He points out that he was working out, after all. "I just wasn't in game competition. I don't think that this actually should have anything to do with midseason slumps. One thing about a slump," it is Harmon's unarguable opinion, "is not to have a long one. You're going to have a slump, but I think there are things you can do. I did the opposite things from what you ought to do last season—I took advice from everyone. Everyone means well, but if a player has been playing for a while I think he should know the fundamentals of hitting. Unless he's doing something radically wrong with his body, he shouldn't take too much advice." The size of Harmon's swing, of course, is the factor linking his home-run record and his achievements in the strikeout department. "The bigger swing is the thing. Some people just tap it around, and it doesn't go anywhere." He adds politely, "but everybody has his own style of hitting."

"Harmon can hit a ball out of the park on a half swing, he's that strong," a sportswriter observed. "When he slumps, it's his timing that's off. He swings with his whole body, and once he starts he can't stop."

Harmon is reported to be unconcerned about brushbacks, but "I can't say yes to that," he objects. "Somebody's liable to stick one in my ear. I think a batter expects to be brushed back—it's not necessarily that they're throwing at you." As to the Babe Ruth record, Harmon says, "I didn't know any of that stuff until I read it in The Sporting News ."

At spring training in February big Jim Lemon, Harmon's best friend, sat on a bench outside the clubhouse, smoking his pipe and kindly addressing himself to the problem of a little colorful-ness for Harmon Killebrew. Harmon himself came by. "Now, Harmon," Lemon said to him, "you've got to think of something. He doesn't like ice cream, of course," Lemon added, in reference (it turned out) to the fact that Harmon could consume a gallon of ice cream a day. "I like steak," Harmon offered. "Medium." That didn't seem to set him off enough from the rest of the population, unless one could make a point of its ineffable ordinariness. But Harmon shortly stood revealed as also liking Chinese food, Polynesian food, pizza, tacos and extremely hot mustard.

Continue Story
1 2 3