By Steve Aschburner
Triumph Books, 2012
Fact or fiction – a story about a strapping, 17-year-old country boy being signed by the Washington Senators after being discovered playing baseball by a U.S. Senator? The Senators’ scout goes west to watch this teenager play a trio of games for the – Oh, let’s call them the Payette Packers – and all the kid does is go 11 for 13 with four home runs, two triples and a double.
But wait, the story gets better. The phenom goes on to a 22-year career in which he is an 11-time All Star (the first player selected an All Star at three positions); hits 573 home runs (leading the league six times); drives in more than 1,500 runs (leading the league three times); and wins an AL MVP award.
But there’s more. While his prestigious power earns him the nickname “Killer,” this ultimate slugger celebrates victories with milkshakes, has a humble and quiet disposition and spends time schooling teammates on how to sign a legible autograph for the deserving fans.
Had enough yet? How about he visits a young burn victim in the hospital and tells him he’ll try to hit “a couple” of home runs for him (against the then vaunted Yankees no less) – and goes out and does it? Oh, and for good measure, let’s say that, in addition to the Baseball Hall of Fame, he also earns a spot in the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame
As movie, it would probably be considered a baseball fantasy. As a book – Harmon Killebrew Ultimate Slugger – it is the real life story of the late Harmon Killebrew (as told by long-time journalist/sportswriter Steve Aschburner.)
I was seven-years-old when Harmon first came to the big leagues with the Senators in 1954, and was privileged to live in Minnesota and see him play for much of his career with the Twins. I can confirm what the late Twins’ owner Calvin Griffith said about the excitement generated by this quiet star: “If our fans knew Killebrew was coming up in the ninth inning, they never left the ball game, no matter what the score was.” The fact is, we all knew the Killer was always a towering tape-measure drive waiting to happen.
All of this makes Ultimate Slugger a great read for anyone who had the fortunate opportunity to see Killebrew play. Yet, in some ways, it may make the story less compelling for others. Many of the stories about Killebrew are as modest as the man himself – no late-night carousing, no braggadocio, no feuds with pitchers or umpires. Yet, the book is a good, and even inspiring, read.
Aschburner, in sparse journalistic style, captures the spirit, dignity and quiet strength of the Killer – from his Idaho youth, across his HOF career, and finally through a series of family, financial and health issues. He brings Killebrew to life not only with statistics and biographical information, but with stories and comments from those who played with him and against him. He also gives readers a look at baseball in the 1950s and 1960s, referred to by many as the sport’s “golden years.”
But maybe more important, he gives us a look at a player who behaved in real life like the heroes we imagined in our youth. Harmon Killebrew was the kind of man, the kind of role model, we’d all like to know (and have our kids get to know). This book opens the door to that opportunity – and it is a BBRT recommended read for baseball fans of all ages.
It’s a good story, about a good man, who happened to be a great ballplayer. For BBRT, there is one quote in the book that tells it all. Asked to comment on the best day in his life (or career), Killebrew answered, “What’s the best day in my life? I try to make every day in my life the best day.” You couldn’t make that up.