“When I learned the news about Harmon today, I felt like I lost a family member. He has treated me like one of his own. It’s hard to put into words what Harmon has meant to me. He first welcomed me into the Twins family as an 18-year-old kid and has continued to influence my life in many ways. He is someone I will never forget and will always treasure the time we spent together. Harmon will be missed but never forgotten.” — Twins catcher Joe Mauer (credit: The Associated Press)
At the Metrodome, Killebrew’s number #3 hung there with his picture, out in center field, right between Jackie Robinson and Rod Carew. Now the Twins have a statue of Hammerin’ Harmon and one of the gates, Gate 3, is number in his honor. To say that Killebrew was a beloved Twin would be sheer understatement, his number was the first number ever retired by the Twins and his name is synonymous with the Minnesota Twins organization. If you define “patriarch” as “the oldest or most venerable member of a group”, then the Twins definitely lost their patriarch today, with the passing of Harmon Killebrew.
At the age of 17, Harmon Killebrew was playing baseball for a semi-pro team in Idaho when Clark Griffith got wind of him and ultimately signed him to a Major League contract. In 1954, still age 17, Killebrew started in his first big-league game for the Washinton Senators, collecting 3 hits. Though he didn’t have a full-time Major League gig until 1959, he played in at least a few Major League games during every season between 1954 and 1959. Had he gone the “normal” route (minors to majors), his rookie season probably would have been in 1959 and he almost assuredly would have won the Rookie of the Year award because during that season he hit 42 homeruns, drove in 105 runs and scored 98 runs. His Hall of Fame career continued from there and saw Killebrew go on to hit a total of 573 homeruns.
In 1961, when the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins, Killebrew was the first ever team captain, and he responded by hitting 46 homeruns that season kicking off the best 4-year stretch of his career in which he hit 188 homeruns and drove in 455 runs. Killebrew and the Twins won their first-ever AL Pennant in 1965, but lost in the World Series to Sandy Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers in 7 games. Killebrew played for the Twins from 1961 to 1974, but after struggling at the plate for a couple of seasons in ’73, the Twins knew his career was coming to a close and offered Killebrew the choice of being released or staying with the team as a coach. Killebrew opted for release and played one season with the Kansas City Royals in 1975 before calling it a career. He was induced into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984, his 4th year of eligibility (83.1% of the vote).
For those of us in our 20’s, 30’s and 40’s even, we don’t have much (if any) of a memory of Killebrew as a player, but the Twins organization has already held him in high regard and I know he meant a lot to the players and to the older fans who first fell in love with the Twins when they relocated from Washington back in 1961. I know that he has been a visible presence at the stadium over the years, talking with young players and offering encouragement to them and overall he has been a great ambassador for the Twins. He was, by all accounts I’ve heard, a great person and he will be missed by all, both young and old alike. In closing I offer another quote, this one from another former Twins-great, Rod Carew.
“This is a sad day for all of baseball and even harder for those of us who were fortunate enough to be a friend of Harmon’s. Harmon Killebrew was a gem. I can never thank him enough for all I learned from him. He was a consummate professional who treated everyone from the brashest of rookies to the groundskeepers to the ushers in the stadium with the utmost of respect. I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for Harmon Killebrew. He was a Hall of Famer in every sense of the word.” – Former Twins star Rod Carew (Credit: The Associated Press via Atlanta Constitution Journal)