I’ll never forget, we used to play a lot of ball out in the front yard, and my mother would say, “You’re tearing up the grass and digging holes in the front yard.”
And my father would say, “We’re not raising grass here, we’re raising boys.”
—Harmon Killebrew, Cooperstown, 1984
Early in my beverage magazine days, I was writing a story that had nothing to do with baseball, but my instinct, naturally, was to inject baseball into it. The subject doesn’t matter now, except that it involved something going on in Minnesota. I had two frames of reference for Minnesota: The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the Minnesota Twins. I wanted to drop them both into my story, but I wasn’t certain of their universality.
So I checked with my editor, who had established his lack of familiarity with baseball for me when I casually mentioned Lenny Dykstra and Bobby Ojeda in my job interview and he stared at me blankly (in the late 1980s, when most New Yorkers’ faces lit up in recognition at those names). Hey, I said, if I mention “Mary Richards” in this story about that bottle bill in Minneapolis, you think people will know what I’m talking about? Sure, he said. Mary Tyler Moore was iconic that way. OK, I thought, I already knew the guy watched a lot of TV, but this is one of those guys who, although I liked him a lot, “didn’t care for sports”.
“What about ‘Harmon Killebrew’? Do you know who that is?”
“Of course I know who Harmon Killebrew is,” my editor — who once watched a World Series ticker-tape parade go by with no idea what the commotion was all about — assured me. “Harmon Killebrew. The Minnesota Twins. Everybody’ll get that.”
With Harmon Killebrew widely and lovingly recalled in the wake of his passing, I thought of that moment specifically and, more generally, how one ballplayer sometimes stands for an entire genre of ballplayer. Harmon Killebrew was The Slugger. Harmon Killebrew was The Slugger from the Minnesota Twins. Harmon Killebrew showed up on American League Home Run Leaders cards. Harmon Killebrew kept working his way up the all-time Home Run Leaders chart. When people who loved baseball talked about slugging, they brought up Harmon Killebrew. When you brought up Harmon Killebrew to people who barely knew from baseball, they understood what Harmon Killebrew meant.
He was synonymous with home runs, and he was synonymous with Minnesota, especially if you had never been within 500 miles of the state. The name “Harmon Killebrew” suggested singles were accidents and triples were unlikely. You’d look up home runs in the dictionary, and you’d find two things: Harmon Killebrew’s picture and a notation to “See also, MINNESOTA.”
That’s what used to happen when players settled in with teams. Tony Oliva was the Minnesota Twins. Jim Kaat was the Minnesota Twins. Rod Carew was the Minnesota Twins. But really, no doubt about it, Harmon Killebrew was the Minnesota Twins. Never mind that he started with the Twins when they were the Washington Senators and that he finished up as a Kansas City Royal. Just as there was no debate over what cap Harmon Killebrew would wear when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, there would be no question whose face would be pictured on the plaque if the Hall of Fame decided to induct a Minnesota Twins cap.
Harmon Killebrew. Slugger. Minnesota Twins. If I didn’t know a whole lot more about him when he was playing, it felt as if that gave me the entire picture.
Though, eventually, you couldn’t talk about Harmon Killebrew without also at least mentioning beverages.