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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
TERRE HAUTE —
My dad’s father worked in a foundry. By 1970, his hearing had faded, and he needed dentures to eat.
- Mark Bennett B-Sides
MARK BENNETT: First BaconFest sure to cure your salty fried meat cravings
Bacon taught me a life lesson.
I wrapped strips of it around chicken livers and secured the cold, gooey bundles with toothpicks to earn money.
MARK BENNETT: New public-access point begins quest to create more spots to experience river
Fairness holds no power over the Wabash River.
MARK BENNETT: People spaces
Demolition machinery chipped away at the buildings on the 500 block of Wabash Avenue. I stood and watched awhile, last week. By July 2015, a new $18.7-million structure will replace those relics.
MARK BENNETT: City sparkles during premiere of ‘The Drunk’
William Tanoos and Paul Fleschner cast their hometown in a starring role in their debut effort as filmmakers.
MARK BENNETT: ‘Notes on a River’ exhibition brings Wabash scenes to gallery
The best views of the Wabash come with wet, muddy feet.
MARK BENNETT: Quest for the perfect Valentine’s Day gesture may not involve gifts
You’ll need a broom, a pickup truck, trash bins, shop hooks and aspirin.
Filming a “Sanford and Son” remake? Preparing for the apocalypse?
MARK BENNETT: Illinois officials content their state has its business advantages, too
Most people count the Wabash River as an economic asset for Terre Haute. Of course, economic development officials in the Land of Lincoln beg to differ.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana should revisit its time-zone classification
Mister Spock would look at the situation in Indiana and, in that dispassionate “Star Trek” voice, utter a firm conclusion.
“That is illogical,” he’d say.
MARK BENNETT: Young at heart
Imagine an alternate ending to the old Life cereal commercial.
MARK BENNETT: The Drunk: Making peace
Terre Haute grew fond of Eugene Debs.
The process took time.
Debs film to debut at Indiana Theatre
Set in Terre Haute, based loosely on the legacy of a Terre Haute icon, the movie “The Drunk” has one appropriate place for its premiere.
MARK BENNETT: Album turns memories into musical Christmas message for Terre Haute’s Dave Frey, band
In a way, Dave Frey walked in the footsteps of Charles Schulz.
Both men worked hard to let Linus Van Pelt explain the “true meaning of Christmas.”
MARK BENNETT: ‘Longest Night Service’ a time to reflect, remember
Holiday images rarely depict hurt or struggle.
Raising the bar
Around coffeeshops, kitchen tables and office watercoolers, Hoosiers have cussed and discussed the federal health care law.
John bypassed by Hall of Fame again
Baseball Hall of Fame electors have bypassed Tommy John again. The Terre Haute-born pitcher, who won 288 games in 26 big-league seasons, didn’t receive enough votes from the Veterans Committee as it cast ballots on Sunday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., at the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings.
Tim Meadows: SNL cast member knew he was prime time
If you watched the first broadcast of “Saturday Night Live” on Oct. 11, 1975, raise your hand.
That gives you something in common with Tim Meadows.
MARK BENNETT: Walk of Fame inductee would stand tall in any era
Unlike most of us, Amory Kinney didn’t let the wall around his comfort zone grow taller as time passed.
MARK BENNETT: Words, and what they mean, is what we remember
I remember scanning the granite wall at the grave of President John F. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery, looking for those words.
MARK BENNETT: Tommy John getting another shot at Baseball Hall of Fame
Go ahead, circle Dec. 9 on your calendar.
Filling our void: Terre Haute artist Bill Wolfe poured his heart and soul into the project of a lifetime
Bill Wolfe thumbed through a series of photographs documenting his sculpture of basketball legend Larry Bird.
MARK BENNETT: Keeping Terre Haute a vibrant city ‘worth doing’
The past, present and future had just converged at the Crossroads of America.
The moment was made possible by the gutsy spirit of 1920s Terre Haute. Without it, the city would look starkly different.
MARK BENNETT: Tommy John’s Field of Dreams
A kid pedals a bicycle, a ball glove looped over the handlebar, headed to a sandlot game.
It didn’t get much better than that for a 10-year-old in summertime.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana’s Donnelly part of ‘The Middle’ that got deal done
Hanging out in the middle isn’t cool.
Its occupants don’t attract a captivated circle of listeners at parties, their comments don’t inspire hell-yeahs on Facebook, and they don’t pretend to always be right.
MARK BENNETT: ISU professor’s book on Churchill to be TV period drama
Somewhere, Winston Churchill is lighting a celebratory cigar in Michael Shelden’s honor.
MARK BENNETT: Restoration improves courthouse top’s standing in skyline
Terre Haute has a skyline.
From some angles, it consists of billboards, restaurant marquees and convenience-store signs. From other spots, the outlines of historic buildings, church steeples, college dorms and old industries jut into the horizon.
MARK BENNETT: Inspiring project connects Blues Festival, B&G Club members with music
Think a decade into the future. You’re relaxing amid a sea of fellow lawn-chair sitters at Seventh and Wabash, watching the 23rd annual Blues at the Crossroads Festival. Suddenly, the guy on stage starts playing your old Fender guitar. He sounds like the next B.B. King. Then, the guitarist dedicates a song to the person who donated that worn Telecaster to the youth music program in which he learned to play it.
MARK BENNETT: Even Marty McFly wouldn’t want to go back to those paydays
Reliving the 1980s may sound tempting.
Ah, simpler times. Then again … hair styles as big as mushroom clouds, “Miami Vice” jackets, the trickle-down theory, New Coke, Yugos.
OK, “Back to the Future”-style nostalgia obviously has its limits.
MARK BENNETT: Hoops film focuses on life of ‘Slick’ Leonard
Many Americans connect basketball with Indiana.
MARK BENNETT: Rose-Hulman bridge design would let people walk, run, ride across Wabash River
Four months, 500 miles and 18 towns.
In the course of compiling the “500 Miles of Wabash” series, which concludes this Sunday, Tribune-Star photographer Jim Avelis and I heard valuable insights from dozens of people who live, work and recreate along Indiana’s state river. One comment seems particularly relevant to Terre Haute, especially as the ongoing 2013 Year of the River celebration stirs ideas. The quotation affirms the potential of a stellar proposal this community ought to consider.
MARK BENNETT: When did athleticism surpass skill in sports?
Baseball has gotten too athletic.
- More Mark Bennett B-Sides Headlines
- MARK BENNETT: First BaconFest sure to cure your salty fried meat cravings