News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

May 19, 2011

B-SIDES: 'Killer,' really a gentle giant on — and off — the field

TERRE HAUTE — My dad’s father worked in a foundry. By 1970, his hearing had faded, and he needed dentures to eat.

But Grandpa Bennett hadn’t lost his interest in sports, particularly baseball. His oldest son (who earned the nickname “Slugger” at Aurora High School) and grandsons (including me) were pretty fond of the sport, too.

In the summer of ’70, I got my only opportunity to watch a big-league game with my dad and grandfather, together. Our family made one of those classic, cross-country trips, driving in a station wagon from Terre Haute to southern California to visit my grandparents. They lived in Santa Ana, just south of Anaheim. Somehow, my elderly grandfather — probably through my uncle or one of my cousins — landed tickets for us to see the California Angels play the Minnesota Twins in Anaheim Stadium.

Everything about the night was rare. As staunch, lifelong Cincinnati Reds fans, the Bennetts got little exposure to the American League. Back then, the two leagues didn’t intermingle. Backers of National League teams paid scant attention to “the other league” until the All-Star Game and the World Series.

It was the least likely scenario for Dad, Grandpa and me to watch baseball together, but I’m forever grateful we were among the 22,106 people in the Angels’ ballpark that night.

Memories of that game stirred up in my mind Tuesday, when the wire services reported that former Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew had died at age 74. Some recollections are vivid; the fuzzy ones were cleared up by revisiting the box score online at baseball-reference.com. (Incredible website, by the way.)

Killebrew was the biggest star on the field, both in stature and talent, when the Twins played the Angels on July 10, 1970. When he retired five years later, only one American Leaguer ever had hit more home runs than his 573 — Babe Ruth. Even as a 10-year-old Reds fan, I was well aware of Killebrew’s power. What I wouldn’t know, until years later, was that Killebrew possessed strong character, something far more important than long-ball skill.

As a kid leaning over the third-base dugout railing at Anaheim Stadium, all I saw was the most prolific home run hitter of the 1960s taking warm-up swings before the opening pitch. His jersey number “3” looked tiny on his back. He stood a modest 5-foot-11 and weighed 213 pounds, but few humans — at least those unaided by steroids — ever hit baseballs farther. Reading about him in the newspaper and seeing him occasionally on NBC’s “Game of the Week” (this was pre-ESPN), I became a casual follower of Killebrew and the Twins.

During batting practice, I hollered at “Mr. Killebrew” a few times, hoping he’d autograph my baseball, but alas he didn’t respond and kept taking cuts. His All-Star teammate, Tony Oliva, walked over with a big grin, said something in a thick Cuban accent, grabbed my ball and signed it. Instantly, Oliva became my favorite Twins player.

But the only Twin who threatened Angels pitcher Andy Messersmith that night was Killebrew. Messersmith struck out 13 batters (including Oliva twice) and gave up just six hits, pitching all nine innings of a 2-1 California victory. Messersmith couldn’t get an out, though, on Killebrew, who doubled in Minnesota’s only run, singled and walked twice.

We stayed the entire game, a pitcher’s duel, with all of the runs coming in the first inning. Dad didn’t give up on ball games “until the last batter’s out.” He lived by that motto.

Killebrew lived by good character, too. After he died of esophageal cancer Tuesday, his family, friends and fellow players reminded the world of his special qualities.

My failed autograph attempt, it turns out, was a fluke. Killebrew took extreme care in accommodating fans, and practiced his signature so every letter was legible, friend John Boggs told USA Today. He even coached Twins rookies to sign each autograph so a kid could read it.

And those tape-measure homers? Killebrew rarely spoke of his own exploits, even at his Baseball Hall of Fame induction at Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1984. Most of his seven-minute speech, the Tacoma News-Tribune reported, was devoted to his family. A country boy from Payette, Idaho, who made the big leagues at age 17, stayed humble. He didn’t stand at the plate, admiring his homers as they soared into the upper deck. Killebrew trotted the bases with his head down. He didn’t yell at umpires or argue with his managers, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

Apparently, humility and success can coexist within a person.

“He was just a fierce competitor and a perfect gentleman at the same time,” fellow Hall of Famer and third baseman George Brett told the Arizona Republic. “You don’t see that a lot. Sometimes you get fierce competitors who are bad people. You see guys that are not fierce competitors but nice guys. You don’t see the two of them together very much.”

His nickname was “Killer” but that was what Killebrew did to baseballs, not the souls of others.

After baseball, Killebrew became an advocate for hospice care, and turned to that resource in his final days.

He walked the walk. Knowing that now, the trip to Anaheim Stadium alongside my grandpa and dad 41 years ago seems even more special.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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