Between the Lines / 'The Killer' leaves the ballpark
Published 10:16 am, Tuesday, May 24, 2011
When we were kids back in the '60s, our father would take us to Yankee Stadium once a year to watch the Yankees knock the stuffing out of some pathetic team.
He planned it that way. Dad couldn't put up with the long car ride and the expense of the tickets if there was any chance his Yankees might lose. We did see some good Baltimore teams play in the Bronx, but I think Dad preferred the sure thing. Kansas City and Cleveland were minor league outfits. Detroit could be trouble but they usually were done in by the Yankee brilliance. The Washington Senators, later the Minnesota Twins, were a walk in the park. As long as the Yanks could get Harmon Killilbrew out, that is.
A funny thing happened on our way to the ball park. Although we were going to root for the machine-like dominance of the Yankees, I sometimes found my thoughts straying to the other teams. I loved the oriole insignia on the Baltimore uniforms and caps. The Cleveland Indians were always just plain fun, and Rocky Colavito was a one-man show, who often tore up the Bronx. The Tigers were loaded with sluggers and had the picture-perfect right fielder, Al Kaline.
And Washington had Harmon Killibrew, who passed away this week at the age of 73. My father disdainfully called him "farm boy" and "butcher boy" yet was in awe of "The Killer's" natural attributes. Dad never tolerated ball players who weren't Yankees, no matter how good they were. If you didn't wear pinstripes, you just weren't in the same league as his Bronx Bombers. You were a hayseed, a poser, a homer or just plain lucky. Especially if you played well against the Yanks. And if you happened to beat them, you were his enemy for life.
Killibrew was one of those players who had the temerity to hit outrageously long home runs against Yankee pitching. Since he was on the Senators, those homeruns generally wouldn't put a dent in the invincible Yankees. But you never knew. So when "The Killer" came to the plate Dad would try to put a hex on him. "This guy is a one-dimensional player. He's a butcher in the field and if he doesn't hit a homerun, he strikes out."
My favorite player back then was Mickey Mantle. Mantle hit soaring home runs and also did his share of whiffing. I never saw anyone hit the ball harder than The Mick, but I have to say that Harmon Killibrew hit it just as hard. Mickey was wedge-shaped and built like a god. Before he was injured he could run like a deer. "The Killer" was built like a Frigidaire with the broadest shoulders I had even seen on a man. He wasn't wedge-shaped; he was square like Sponge Bob. Both men were free-swingers at the plate, but Harmon's swing was hardly a work of art. The bat looked small in his powerful arms and his swing was like a slash at anything coming his way.
In my mind's eye I can still see him up at bat. Oddly, what distinguished Harmon Killibrew was his ordinariness. He was a classic farm boy with a Louisville Slugger resting on his massive shoulders. Despite his prodigious talent for whacking a baseball, he had no ego at the plate. He slipped into the batter's box, shook his shoulders around and raised his bat. Nothing fancy, no statements made. If he wasn't a baseball star, you wouldn't pick him out of a crowd. He had none of Mickey Mantle's charisma or Roger Maris's moodiness.
When I was a kid, I just idolized professional baseball players, and Harmon Killibrew taught me one of the great lessons of my boyhood. We were sitting in our usual box seats about thirty rows in on the right field side when Harmon came to bat. "The Killer" came to the plate filling the batter's box like a Mack truck. He had hit a ball to deep center in his first at bat, far enough to clear most outfields with room to spare. The game was still close, so the fans gave him the Bronx cheer.
It wasn't a great at bat for "The Killer." He swung at everything except hot dog wrappers and was quickly in the hole on the count. He stepped out of the box, took a deep breath, adjusted his helmet, and then stepped back in. On the next pitch he took a brutal short swing and missed the ball by a foot. "The Killer's" helmet flew off from the force of that tremendous exertion. I was amazed to suddenly see his shiny head, as bald as a baby's. He sported only a little fringe of hair above his ears. I couldn't believe that Harmon Killibrew was as bald as some accountant or bank manager. How could this be? Baseball players were supposed to be perfect. They were like demi-gods with nothing in common with ordinary mortals.
The shocking sight of Mr. Killibrew's baldness was a revelation to me. I realized that baseball players were human, too. They were real men much like my father or the other dads in the neighborhood. I hardly knew what to make of this. It seemed to shift my inner universe on its axis. Perhaps there were more things in life that I had yet to learn. After all, I was just a kid at the ballpark with his dad.
In his final at bat Killibrew hit a ball that was last seen heading due west. "The Killer" was a legendary slugger, who launched the round ball with his tremendous power and desire. Ultimately, he racked up 473 homers in his Hall of Fame career. With the Yankees well ahead even my father had to appreciate the farm boy's strength. It was a great day all around, and we'd have plenty to talk about on the drive home.
Barry Wallace's "Between the Lines" column runs every Wednesday in the Fairfield Citizen.