Archive for the ‘Harmon Killebrew’ Category

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Harmon Killebrew (1st row, 2nd from right)

May 18, 2011

“I think I should take the hardest swings I can every time I’m at the plate.” – Harmon Killebrew

A while ago I wrote about how much Harmon Killebrew’s 1975 baseball card meant to me, but I don’t think I mentioned that one of the reasons I was drawn to it so much was that it was my only Harmon Killebrew card, a singular tangible connection to the unusual, powerful name and the staggering statistics reaching back toward the dawn of time, or at least to the pre-expansion days of the original Washington Senators. I saw Killebrew, towering in my mind among the whippet-thin, polyester-clad, Astroturf-skittering rank and file of the mid-1970s, as some kind of miraculous survivor from a prehistoric age of giants.

Just this morning I discovered that I had one other trace of Killebrew in my collection, and it seems to suggest the other side of the man who was both a giant and a regular guy, a mensch. He’s off to the side in the first row, number 3, looking like he could just as likely be an older fellow on the coaching staff as the greatest player in the history of the franchise.

He didn’t hold himself above anybody else on his team or in life, and he made the most of his at-bat.

***

The Sports Illustrated archive offers some excellent glimpses of Killebrew through the years.

Below is an excerpt from a 1959 piece on Killebrew as a young slugger:

Killebrew’s swing is designed for the home run. He stands deep in the batter’s box. He grips his 33-ounce bat at the end and holds it high. When he swings, it is a brutal stroke. His home runs are long ones. But he also strikes out a lot. In the past he has often been attracted to the chin-high fast ball that sends so many promising hitters back to the minors. This year he has been trying to wait for strikes, but even so he has struck out frequently. One night against Cleveland, he struck out three times, then hit a 430-foot home run.

A few years later, he had matured into a Buddha of the long ball:

Killebrew has grown into a proud, private man whose approach to hitting, he says, is a good reflection of his life-style. Killebrew puts on his hard hat one turn before he is due in the on-deck circle and stands motionless next to the bat rack, staring at the pitcher. When his time comes, he moves to the on-deck area, takes three or four bruising swings and then kneels motionless, again staring at the pitcher. In the batters’ box he makes one cursory swish with his bat between pitches. Then he simply stands, again stock still, with the bat resting on his shoulder. He waits to cock his bat until the pitcher, whose hands Killebrew has been concentrating on, begins his windup. The whole process is done with a let’s-get-down-to-it air. “That’s pretty much the way I am,” says Killebrew. “I’m not a fidgety person. I try to stay as calm and relaxed as I can. It helps me concentrate, which I think is the most important thing about hitting.”

And then, in 1999, many years after his playing days were over, he got so sick that doctors believed there was nothing to be done and that he should go home to die. He went into hospice care but recovered, miraculously, and this glimpse of what comes next for all of us caused him to respond with kindness and compassion:

“Hospice is such a tremendous thing,” Killebrew says. “Patients seem to reach an inner peace. Society doesn’t like to deal with death, but it’s a natural part of living.” Never a big talker, Killebrew, 63, developed excellent listening skills, which helped him conduct a pregame radio interview show for 12 seasons while he was playing for the Twins. Now he listens to patients, providing happy memories for them in their final days.

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Harmon Killebrew

February 24, 2007

I don’t know much about baseball card collecting, but I am familiar with the term mint, which is used to describe cards that have been held to the greatest degree possible away from life and its universal slant toward deterioration. I think there are other gradations below this topmost designation, but I doubt there are any so far removed from mint that they could be applied to this 1975 Harmon Killebrew card. My incessant childhood pawings have pushed it beyond the limits of the language of commerce. In a monetary sense, it has been ruined. Handled too much, clung to too tightly. It’s now the opposite of mint. I fear leaving nothing behind when I pass from this earth, so please allow me to offer a new term to serve as the baseball card collecting omega to the alpha of mint: Wilkerized. If this term catches on, maybe years from now, after I myself am deteriorating in a potter’s field grave, perhaps I will live on in a conversation something like the following:

Young man hoping to sell his baseball cards to buy some weed: So, how much can I get for this Ken Griffey the Fourth (With I-Tunes) card?

Sports Memorabilia Store Owner: Are you shitting me? Look at it. I mean, the fucking thing’s been completely wilkerized. (Author’s note: I don’t even require that the word be initial-capped.)

Young man hoping to sell his baseball cards to buy some weed: God damn it.

Anyway, while the specific contours of most of my long ago baseball card daydreams are lost to me, I do remember the draw this wilkerized 1975 Harmon Killebrew had on me. There were three reasons why I kept going back to it, handling it, memorizing it, gradually making it begin to disappear:

1. The name. Every good religion needs a way to move toward the ecstatic unsayable via the pathways of sound. Chanting, singing, speaking in tongues, rhythmic prayer: all these things help take a person out of their everyday self and into another state of being. Not having a religion of my own, I unknowingly invented certain quasi-religious elements around my fascination with baseball cards. In the case of the Harmon Killebrew card, I not only seized on the fascinatingly unusual name but eventually began chanting it to myself at times, pronouncing it not as Harmon Killebrew himself probably did but in such a way that every syllable was stressed: Har! Mon! Kill!Eh!Brew! Har! Mon! Kill!Eh!Brew! I chanted it again and again in my head, the name like drums going faster and faster.

I was an odd little boy.

2. A sense of greatness. I was just learning the basic language of baseball statistics in 1975, and so took in Harmon Killebrew’s long litany of 40-homer, 100-plus RBI years with the pure and enthusiastic fascination of the true beginner. I have an attraction to anonymous players, to failure and ignominy, to the fallen and the wilkerized, but I am as drawn to the players whose feats stand in bold opposition to the general entropy of the universe as any other baseball fan. I am sure that I found this card soothing. There is greatness in the world. There are things that won’t be forgotten.

3. A sense of age. This may have been the most important of all the elements that drew me to this card. The picture on the front of the card hints of what struck my seven-year-old self as great age, in both the gray hair poking out from the cap and in the name that I probably figured must have only existed in a time long before the current era. But it is on the back of the card that this sense of time and history has its most powerful expression. Unlike most other cards, which fill up the empty spaces on the back left by the brief list of years in the major leagues with minor league stats and large-type bullet-item lists containing such information as “Tommy led Eastern League First-Sackers in Putouts,” this Harmon Killebrew card only had room to list in unusually small type a line for each of Harmon Killebrew’s many, many seasons in the major leagues. Harmon Killebrew had basically been playing baseball forever. The first few years, which occurred long before I’d even been born, were spent on a team, the Senators, that no longer even existed. They were, like the wooly mammoth and tyrannosaurus rex, long extinct. And yet, here was one of them, an Original Senator, alive and well and still grayly slugging home runs. I was drawn to this not only for its mysteriousness but also for the odd feeling of comfort it gave me. I sensed at times that I was an infinitesimally small speck, inconsequential and frail in an unfathomably large expanse not only of space but of time. The universe went on forever and time stretched forward and backward forever and I was an almost-nothing within it. But Harmon Killebrew was something, and I could hold onto Harmon Killebrew.

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