Hartman: Killebrew made himself into fabulous power hitter

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 18, 2011 - 10:29 AM

Former Twins manager Sam Mele said once the slugger stopped overswinging, his blasts amazed players and fans alike.

Harmon Killebrew

Nobody had more respect for the late Harmon Killebrew than Sam Mele, who managed the Twins to the 1965 American League pennant and a chance to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

"Everybody looked up to him and if anything happened in the clubhouse, [if] they had a gripe or something, he would stop it before it ever reached my office," said Mele, now 89.

"I played with him at Indianapolis [in 1958]," Mele recalled. "He couldn't hit, he missed balls, he struck out an awful lot. [Killebrew and Jim Lemon] were roommates and [Lemon] helped him an awful lot. [Lemon told him:] 'Don't try to hit every ball out of the ballpark. Just make good, solid contact, let the ball go where it will.' And he did, and he used to hit [homers] to center field, right-center, right field, left field, left-center. He had that kind of power.

"He made himself a good ballplayer, let me tell you. He worked at it."

Batting practice became a great attraction for the Senators and then the Twins, because fans and even opposing players came out early to see Killebrew hit long home runs to all fields, according to Mele.

While Killebrew never had the reputation of being a good fielder at third base, Mele said he had good hands.

"[Former Twins owner] Calvin Griffith called me into the office one day and, contrary to what I wanted to do, suggested that we try Killebrew in the outfield," Mele recalled. "Well, I knew the experiment wouldn't work because Harmon could play a single into a triple because of his lack of speed. After a short try, Mr. Griffith decided the best place for Harmon was in the infield. Then late in his career, Killebrew was moved to first base."

In fact, in 1968, Killebrew made the American League All-Star team at first base, but he tore his left hamstring in the third inning of the game in the Houston Astrodome and missed the rest of the season.

Killebrew, who is 11th among major leaguers with 573 home runs, hit some long ones at Met Stadium. One Mele won't forget was on July 11, 1965, when Killebrew's two-run, ninth-inning home run off Pete Mikkelsen defeated the Yankees 6-5. The homer received a lot of attention from the media who were there that weekend because the All-Star Game was here two days later, and the clout gave the Twins a five-game lead in the American League pennant race.

Mele also recalled Killebrew's mammoth 522-foot home run at Met Stadium off the California Angels' Lew Burdette in 1967. "They marked that home run in left field," recalled Mele of the first homer hit into the Met's upper deck in left. "The same year, they marked a long one Ted Williams hit in Fenway Park."

One interesting story I recall involved Killebrew, Rod Carew and Billy Martin.

Harmon was on his way to the RBI title in 1969. And in this particular game, Killebrew got a hit and instead of scoring, Carew loafed around third base and was thrown out, costing Killebrew an RBI. After the game Martin, in his only year of managing the Twins, walked over to Carew's locker, grabbed Carew and walked him over to Killebrew's locker. "I want you to apologize to Harmon, you might have cost him the RBI title," Martin said.

Yes, no doubt Killebrew was the local fans' first real superhero. Lakers center George Mikan was the first hero of the first major league team in Minnesota. But once Harmon came here with the Twins in 1961, he became the top celebrity at that time.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. • shartman@startribune.com

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