Harmon Killebrew's 500th Homerun
Harmon Killebrew receiving his 500th homerun ball from the Hamilton family of Golden Valley, Minn on the night of August 10, 1971. The father, Bob (second from left), caught it after it caromed off another fan's hands in the left field bleachers. Looks like it was a cold night for early August. Love the youngest boy's Twins hat. (Photo courtesy of someone on Facebook.)
There was a bit of an anticlimax to it. We'd been so spoiled and we'd waited so long, and summers can be long enough in Minnesota when you're eight years old.
Harmon Killebrew hit 49 homeruns in 1969 and 41 in 1970, and he began the 1971 season with 487 homeruns, 13 shy of 500, which only nine players had ever reached before. By the end of May he was five away and we figured, sure, easy.
But June was a slog and so was July, and he went from a .295 batting average and an .885 OPS to .255 and .802. Worse, for us, he hit only 3 homeruns in June and didn't hit No. 499 until July 25th, off Luis Tiant, his only homerun all July—unless you count the All-Star Game homerun in Detroit that year, when the following players hit homeruns: Killlebrew, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Roberto Clemente and Johnny Bench. That was the game Jackson hit the transom on the top of the roof in right field at Tiger Stadium—one of the longest homeruns ever hit. The wind was blowing to right, and everyone went to right except for Clemente, who went to center, and Killebrew, who powered it over the wall in left. Has there ever been a game like that? Where so many premiere players, all future Hall of Famers, all first-ballot guys except Killebrew, hit homeruns? Who, when they retired, were No. 1 (Aaron), No. 4 (Robinson), No. 5 (Killebrew) and No. 6 (Jackson) on the all-time homerun list?
After the homer off Tiant, Killebrew came to the plate 28 more times in the homestand but didn't go deep, then the Twins went on a seven-game roadtrip, during which he came up 31 times and managed only four hits, all singles, and his OPS dipped to .781. This for a guy with a lifetime OPS of .884. When he retired, he had the third best homerun-to-at-bat ratios in the history of the game, behind only Babe Ruth and Ralph Kiner, a homer every 14.22 at-bats. Yet he'd been sitting on 500 for 59 straight at-bats. He'd been sitting on 499 even longer. Our attention wandered.
That was the summer things began to fall apart for the Twins. They'd been one of the best teams in the American League in 1969 and 1970 but not in 1971. The Orioles, meanwhile, the better team in the American League in 1969 and 1970, who crushed the Twins in six straight games in the playoffs those years, were better than ever, on their way to having a record four pitchers win 20 games. And guess what? They were the team coming to town, August 10, 1971.
My mother's mother, Grammie, was also in town, and she was a big Orioles fan. She lived in Finksburg, Maryland, worked at Black & Decker for decades, occassionally ranted against miscegenation and the like. Grandparent visits were always a treat but a summer one seemed odd—usually they came at Christmas—but at least it meant we could take her to a ball game. And we did, August 12th, in what looked like a good pitching match-up: Jim Kaat vs. Jim Palmer. But Don Buford deposited the first pitch into the bleachers and the Orioles romped. In my mind it was 8-0 but according to Baseball Reference my mind is faulty. It was 8-2. We might have left before the Twins scored their final run. My father was a “leave early” guy. He was a “beat the traffic” guy.
Is that the summer things began to fall apart for my parents? Is that why Grammie was out? My parents would separate in 1974 and get divorced in 1975 but they'd always been fighting. They really weren't made for each other.
Grammie was staying in my little sister's room, off in the corner, light green everywhere (shag carpet, flowery wallpaper), and on August 10th she was listening to the game on a radio in my sister's room. Why wasn't she watching it on TV? Maybe it wasn't on TV. Baseball was rarely on TV back then. Why wasn't she listening to it in another room? In the kitchen? Had there been a fight? Was she involved in it? I don't remember. I don't remember who asked her how the game was going, either—it could have been me—but she had nothing but complaints. The Orioles weren't winning. That Killebrew kept hitting homeruns.
Wait—WHAT? Killebrew hit a homerun?
He's hit two, Grammie answered.
Hey! Hey, everybody!
We all gathered in the tiny room with the light-green shag carpeting, my father, my brother and I, and peppered Grammie with questions.
She didn't have many answers but Baseball Reference does. He hit No. 500 in the bottom of the 1st, two out nobody on, to put the Twins up 1-0. In the bottom of the sixth the Twins were behind 3-1, and he came up with one on, one out, and slammed another one to tie the game. It went into extras. The O's won it in the 10th, 4-3, with Cuellar going the distance and getting the win, his 14th, which he would need to get to 20, which he would need for the Orioles to set a record with four pitchers winning 20 games. Killebrew almost prevented that from happening.
I like the fact that he hit two homeruns that day. When I was a kid going to Met Stadium, it seemed Harmon Killebrew always hit two homeruns. More importantly, he'd finally broken through and went on a late-season tear: six homeruns in August, 10 in September, 28 for the year. A comedown, sure, and I still think of 1971 as the year Harmon Killebrew got old, or human, but this is a bit faulty, too. He still led the league in RBIs with 119, and walks with 114—not that anyone was paying attention to walks or OBP or OPS back then. Back then, we were hoping he'd simply been pressing too much in June and July. Maybe things would go back to normal the following year. Normal was: my parents together, Nixon in the White House, Harmon Killebrew leading the league in homeruns. This was before I realized that normal was things falling apart.
Killebrew was 36 the next year when he would hit 26, and 37 in 1973 when he went down with an injury and hit only five. He rebounded a bit in 1974 but in January 1975, the Twins, ever loyal, released him, and a week later he signed with the Kansas City Royals, where, in his final season, 1975, he added 14 more homers for a career 573. He hit his last one, fittingly, off the Twins at Met Stadium on September 18, 1975, and that was the difference: the Royals won 4-3. I wish I'd gone to that game but my life was complicated by then. My mother and sister were living in Maryland and I was being bussed to a different school. I was learning what normal meant.
But I kept the newspaper for No. 500. I wrote my name on it as if to make sure it never went away.
The Minneapolis Star, August 11, 1971 edition. (Click on the image for a bigger, more readable version.)