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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Synonymous Harmon Killebrew

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.

5 comments to The Synonymous Harmon Killebrew

  • richie

    Don’t know why but his 1975 Topps Card was one of my favorites. R.I.P.

  • Florida Met Fan Rich

    The first major league baseball game he ever saw, he played in!

    When he hit a home run, you knew it was long gone! There was no doubt about it!

  • dmg

    my son asked me about killebrew and all i could say was slugger for the twins, induced terror in the hearts of pitchers (see: “ball four”), extremely well-known, extremely well-liked. not a bad send-off to have, actually.

  • Ken K.

    I always thought it was interesting how Killebrew’s early career sort of followed along the “Sandy Koufax Path”: Spends his early ML years as a bonus baby seeing little action, doesn’t blossom until the franchise relocates.

    Unfortunately my lasting image is him writhing in pain after that awkward leg-split stetch for a throw at first base in the 1968 All Star Game. For some reason I can still picture it today, and I sometimes cringe when I see Ike Davis trying the same thing.

    • Joe D.

      Ken,

      Before that all-star game began, Killebrew said how embarrased he was to be in Houston since he was only batting .205 and didn’t deserve the honor.

      He was always a humble and kind player. In a trip to New York in 1964 he visted a very sick boy in the hospital who idolized him. Harmon promised he’d hit a home run for him and instead he hit two. Next morning the picture of the boy in his sick bed with Killebrew made the front page of the Daily News.

      I saw him homer that year at the Stadium in a losing cause. I believe he tied the game in the eighth inning and Mantle put the Yankees back in the lead by homering in the bottom. Even after the expanded strike zone diminished the home run power of many hitters, Harmon was still the most prolific one of his era, at one point having the best home run per at bat ratio of any player, including Babe Ruth.

      I have an autographed baseball of his, the only one I sought out to purchase. I’m glad I have it. I’m glad I got to see him as a kid. I’m sorry that he’s no longer with us and was suffering.

      Rest in peace, Harmon, and take your place with the other greats now playing in that field of dreams.