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He has more career home runs than Mark McGwire and Neifi Perez combined, he played in one World Series and 11 All-Star games, he has a plaque with his name on it enshrined at the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, and--here's the kicker--he will be leading a free clinic for youth aged 6 to 16 this Saturday at Sky Sox Stadium.
Colorado Springs youth baseball players have the chance of a lifetime Saturday, to spend a day on the diamond with legendary slugger Harmon Killebrew, the leading home run hitter of the '60s, surpassing the likes of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Willie McCovey, Ernie Banks and Ted Williams and trailing only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson on the all-time home run list with 573.
"I started playing ball when I was about eight years old," Killebrew told The Independent, speaking from his home in Arizona. "They didn't have Little League in those days, so I was playing what they called Knothole Baseball. It wasn't as organized and not as far reaching."
As a youth in Payette, Idaho, Killebrew didn't get a chance to see major-league baseball up close. "In those days there were no television games. I listened to the games on the radio every day. The Cleveland Indians were a really good ballclub, and I liked the Indians. But when I signed and played against them, I learned not to like them very well. They had a pretty good pitching staff."
He went on to play both American Legion baseball and high school ball in his early teens, moving on to semi-pro baseball during his last two years of high school. He was prepared to get his college education on a football scholarship, setting his sights on a career in baseball after graduating. But at age 17, he was offered a major-league contract with the Washington Senators as a "bonus baby," earning the league minimum $6,000 a year with an additional $4,000-a-year bonus for three years. Killebrew accepted the offer.
"I thought, here's a way at 17 I could go directly to the major leagues," Killebrew mused, saving the four years of college, two years in military service, and who knows how much time in the minors. "That means 28, 29, 30 years old before you even get a chance to get to the big leagues. I just thought it was the best thing to do at the time."
Looking at today's young ballplayers -- who rarely make it to the majors before they're in their 20s -- Killebrew observes a bit of a rush to move the kids along, due to the demand for more players under expansion.
"When I signed it was tougher to get to the major leagues because there were only 16 teams in the league. Today there's 30, so there's a lot more openings." The result is some diminished level of play as athletes try to learn in the majors what they used to learn in the minors.
Killebrew was not rushed. He spent five years hopping in and out of the majors. By the end of his first full season, Killebrew led the league in homers with 42. "I started the season at third base, hit a home run opening day and one the final day of the season to win my first home run championship," he recalled. In what may have been the greatest era ever for producing long-ball hitters, Killebrew led his league six times, peaking in his MVP season of 1969.
In those days, there was none of the backslapping camaraderie among the game's elite sluggers that we've seen in recent years. "No camaraderie at all," Killebrew reiterates, laughing at the memories of Frank Robinson, for instance, giving him the cold shoulder. "He'd get down to first base, you'd say "hello,' and he wouldn't answer you. You didn't fraternize with the other ballclub."
His affinity for teams like the Twins and the Royals makes him sympathetic to the plight of the smaller budget organizations struggling to remain competitive in today's game. "They're going to have to figure out something to even it up a little bit, because it's very difficult for the small market teams to compete. The Minnesotas, the Milwaukees, the Montreals, Kansas City. It's just too tough for them to survive. I don't know what they're going to do. Somebody a lot smarter than me's got to figure that out."
Killebrew finished his own career as a designated hitter in Kansas City, turning down an offer to remain with the Twins as a coach or to manage their AAA club. He was platooned with Tony Salida, and played mostly against left-handed pitchers. "Together, we had a good year, we hit 30 home runs together. I only hit 14, he hit 16."
But the designated hitter role didn't suit Killebrew. "I think there's a misconception about the designated hitter rule," he explains. "People think it extends the life of a player, and I think that's wrong. If you've got something physically wrong with you, you can't play. You can't hit. It takes an exceptional guy to be a good designated hitter, and you've got to have everything working pretty good." He describes his year in Kansas City as "a miserable, long year," in which he was bothered by his knees and the artificial playing surface. He retired at the end of 1975, returning to Minnesota as a broadcaster for the Twins.
During his 22-year career, Killebrew played against six of the nine other players in the all-time top ten list for home runs. The other three are Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and, at number 8, Mark McGwire. With 542 home runs notched on his bat, McGwire could pass Killebrew with a "mere" 32 more home runs added to the 20 he has already hit this season.
"I think he's going to pass up a lot of guys before he's through," Killebrew projects, downplaying the idea that it will be an emotional day for him to be knocked out of the top five. "All the best to him."
Killebrew hopes to pass on some of the fundamentals of the game to the youth of Colorado Springs. Fundamentals like pitching, fielding, hitting, throwing, running, and, yes, even bunting. In 8,147 major league at bats, Killebrew never layed down a sacrifice bunt. "I practiced it every day. They just never asked me," he laughs, accepting the lack of invitation as the ultimate compliment to a power hitter.
"Practice doesn't make perfect, but it sure helps," he notes of the most difficult skill to learn, the skill of hitting. "It used to be that we'd play all day -- we'd pitch to one another and play all day as kids. But anymore you don't see that."
Then there are those skills that can't be taught at all, that are nevertheless crucial to the future success of a ballplayer. "I think desire is the biggest one. There's no way to teach that. Either a young player's got it, or he doesn't. You can't teach desire."
Killebrew sees another fundamental, however, that can be taught. "I think one of the things we're lacking right now is the history of the game. If we can get some of that across, I think it's good." As a member of the Colorado Springs based Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, the sponsors of the clinic, Killebrew is an active ambassador for the game, linking today's youth to baseball's golden age.
If you're a baseball player who can pass for 6 to 16, this Hall-of-Fame opportunity promises to be one killer of a link.
Legends for Youth Clinic
with Harmon Killebrew and nine other coaches from the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association
Sky Sox Stadium
Sat., June 3, 9 a.m. to noon
Harmon Killebrew will be signing autographs after the clinic at: Al Serra Chevrolet, 230 N. Academy Blvd., 3-4 p.m.