TORONTO - The first time I saw Harmon Killebrew was 1961 when he was in our living room at the corner of College and Johnson in Kingston.
He looked huge on the black and white TV.
It was an 11-year-old’s first look at the Minnesota Twins, who had re-located from Washington D.C., with a lyrical roster of names:
Camilo Pascual, Pedro Ramos, Zoilo Versalles, Jose Valdivielso and Reno Bertoia.
But ‘HAR-man Kil-uh-BRU’ ... that sounded like a car door slamming on your hands.
Or a butcher’s meat cleaver whacking on the cutting table.
His nickname, Killer, sounded like bad news for an opposing pitcher.
And it was.
Only Babe Ruth had more 40-plus homer seasons in his career.
Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, 74, died Tuesday, in Scottsdale, Ariz., four days after deciding to end cancer treatment.
The first time I met Harmon Killebrew was in 1999 in Cooperstown, N.Y., as George Brett, Robin Yount, Orlando Cepeda, Nolan Ryan and umpire Nestor Chylak were inducted.
It was my turn to be behind the velvet rope as president of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. I was waiting in line at a Friday reception behind two Hall of Famers when Bob Feller, who died last December, walked by yelling and arguing with someone.
“Well,” said the first Hall of Famer, “we’ll see who the Hall thinks is the second most ornery person Sunday. They’ll sit him beside Feller.”
“Or,” said the second Hall of Famer, “who is the nicest to put up with him.”
When we headed to the stage Sunday the three-seat, back row consisted of Feller on the left, Harmon Killebrew in the middle and me on the right.
And Feller gave a running commentary out the side of his mouth in a loud whisper:
“Harmon, can you believe this bull?”
And Harmon Killebrew would reply “Now, Bob, it’s OK.”
We don’t cover Cooperstown inductions every year, but often we’ll ask a Tony Gywnn, Andre Dawson, Paul Molitor, George Brett and others we’ve known over the years “who was the most impressive Hall of Famer on their induction weekend?”
The runaway leader is Harmon Killebrew, with Bobby Doerr, the former Boston Red Sox, second.
Watching Sportsnet on the weekend we were shocked to see that Harmon Killebrew and Jose Bautista were the same size: (six-foot) and played at the same weight (195 pounds).
Harmon Killebrew was like Cincinnati Reds slugger Ted Kluszewski. When players began wearing their names on their backs, most names were stitched across the shoulders. Their names would begin at one arm pit and end at the other.
Harmon Killebrew was a slugger of his era with the ego of a 25th man. If someone knew both men they’d say “you know John MacDonald reminds me of Harmon Killebrew.”
Harmon Killebrew was the type of man to regularly attend Twins FanFests and call Justin Morneau or Joe Mauer over to the side after and explain how people had waited a long time in line for autographs and say “don’t scribble, write your name so people can read it, so they can show it to their friends.”
What impact did the man have on people? Twins on-deck hitters drew his uniform No. 3 in the dirt with their bats while pitchers drew his No. 3 at the back of the mound when the Jays were at Target Field this weekend. Tough cookie Jack Morris broke down in tears Tuesday saying “I lost a hero.”
In 1967, Harmon Killebrew hit the longest homer at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn., off California Angels’ Lew Burdette, measured at 530 feet by a scribe the next day.
Five years earlier he became the first of only four batters to hit a ball over the left-field roof at Tiger Stadium.
“Harmon was baseball’s version of Paul Bunyan, with his prodigious power,” said Jeff Idelson, Hall of Fame president, who was in Kansas City, about to fly to Phoenix to see Killebrew when informed of the news.
“Off the field, he emanated class, dignity and warmth, he was so down-to-earth, you’d never realize he was a baseball legend. It’s ironic that his nickname was ‘Killer’. He was one of the nicest, most generous individuals to ever walk the earth.”