Harmon Killebrew’s death obviously stings the many people who grew up watching him play for the Twins.
It also must be stinging New England and Red Sox Nation in particular today, because we grew up with him, too. For Baby Boomers in New England, the Impossible Dream year of 1967 — when the Red Sox went from last to first before baseball was polluted by playoffs — is the yardstick by which all of baseball is measured.
Carl Yastrzemski was the icon of 1967. And so was Harmon Killebrew, for entirely different reasons to us. Killebrew was the Killer and in 1967, he was having his way with American League pitchers. He was 31 years old and nearly single-handedly seemed to provide the Twins offense. Only two other Twins — Bobby Allison and Tony Oliva — had more than 9 homers that season.
With two games to go in the season, the Twins were in first place by one game, playing the Red Sox in the final two. On the last day of the season, any one of three teams — the Twins, Red Sox, or Tigers — could have won and gone to the World Series. The Red Sox swept the Twins and the dream was complete. In the next-to-last game, Yastrzemski hit his 44th homer in the 7th inning to give his team the lead. Killebrew hit his 44th in the 9th inning of a Twins comeback that fell short. In the final game, Killebrew reached base all four times he came up. But the Red Sox won and went to the World Series, losing in seven games to Bob Gibson and the Cardinals.
Yastrzemski finished first in voting for MVP; Killebrew finished second. It was not the best season of his career — 1969 was — but it was the season that made him a legend outside of Minnesota. As much as Yastrzemski gave Red Sox Nation a season they’ll never forget, so did Killebrew.
Proof? Check out this comment on a recent Hardball Times article about Killebrew:
I have to admit. Growing up, I was not a big Harmon Killebrew fan. The Impossible Dream year of 1967 is still a pivotal year in my life. I was a kid – and a Red Sox fan. But that year turned me from just a fan into a diehard fan. The kind that is a foundation of Red Sox Nation. Now in ’67, the Red Sox and Twins were rivals (you can add in the Tigers too). I will always remember the slugger Harmon Killebrew battling Carl Yastrzemski in AL HR race. Killebrew and Yaz ended up tying for home runs but the Triple Crown belonged to Yaz. Fast forward to a few years ago. I was at Spring Training in Ft. Myers. The Twins were on the road that day but I decided to go over to their park to watch minor leaguers. The main stadium’s gates were open so I went in to walk around. And who is sitting in a chair next to the dugout – in full uniform – but Harmon Killebrew. Now picture – there is nothing happening on the field. But there’s Harmon talking about baseball with a small audience of fans. You could feel how he just loved the game and talking about it. And that Harmon enjoyed conversing with fans who felt the same way. The conversation reminded me of how I became a life-long fan in the first place. From that day forward, I became a huge Harmon Killebrew fan.
There’s something else about the 1967 Twins. An unusually high number of players died before their time.
Gerry Zimmerman — Catcher. He was only 64 when he died in 1998.
Zoilo Versalles — The shortstop from Cuba. He was 56 when he died in Bloomington in June 1995.
Bob Allison – The leftfielder died of ataxia in 1995. He was 60.
Ted Uhlaender – He was 68 and died from bone cancer in 2009. He was the centerfielder on the 1967 squad.
Cesar Tovar – The utility player was 54 when he died from pancreatic cancer in July 1994.
Earl Battey – Backup catcher, was 68 when cancer claimed him in 2003.
Walt Bond — He died during the season, while serving in the Army. He had leukemia. He was 30.
Pat Kelly – A young outfielder just beginning his career in 1967, he died of a heart attack in 2005 at age 61.
Ron Kline — The relief pitcher was near the end of his career when he went 7-1 in 1967. He died at age 70 in 2002.
Jim Roland – A young pitching prospect who appeared in 25 games. He died of cancer at 67 in 2010.