Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Harmon Killebrew (1936-2011)

There is an evolution in the enthusiasms of a baseball fan as he grows up and then grows old. I now enjoy baseball as a more cerebral game than I did 40 years ago. I appreciate the good decisions (and excoriate the bad decisions) of managers in a way I never took the trouble to do in my youth, before I appreciated how central those judgments are to the outcome of a game. I never paid much attention to pitchers when I was young either, because just throwing the ball never seemed as interesting to me as hitting the ball. I've changed my mind about that too, now that I understand more about how the way the ball gets thrown affects the way the ball gets hit.

Above all, baseball gives us a chance to revel in the particular physical endowments we most lack ourselves. I now admire the speed and mobility of shortstops more than I ever did when I was young (and not quite so conscious of how fleeting speed and mobility are). And as a scrawny little 12- and 13- and 14- (etc., etc.,) year old, it was big brawny sluggers that I idolized more than anybody else in the game -- Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and above all during those years of the early 1960s, Harmon Killebrew. I checked the stats today, and he did not in fact hit a home run every time he came to the plate, but it sure seemed that way to me at the time. On August 3, 1962, he hit a home run over the left field roof of Tiger Stadium. Years later, recalling the feat in an interview, he said matter-of-factly, "I'd never seen anybody do that before."  That's because nobody had ever done that before.

And that one statement of his shows just how thoroughly he combined the complementary virtues that nothing can foster better than sports: the opportunity to be supremely good at something and humble about it all at the same time. Harmon Killebrew was the consummate sportsman, even in an era when sportsmanship had not yet become the rare commodity it is today. It is not recorded that he ever feuded publicly with a manager, or spoke ill of a teammate, or yelled an obscenity at an umpire. He simply went out every day and played baseball; and he played it very, very well. This passage from The Ballplayers, an indispensable reference now incredibly lacking an update and out of print, shows how much of Harmon Killebrew's vision of the game is missing in this age of temperamental baseball divas.

Throughout his career, Killebrew changed positions frequently. He came up as a second baseman, was soon moved to third, then to left field for a few seasons, over to first base for a while, then back to third, back to first, and finally off the field altogether to DH. He would often shift between two positions in the same game. But he never groused, and his lack of a permanent defensive spot never seemed to affect his power.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon him.

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