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Not the Ultimate Biography
on August 4, 2014
Harmon Killebrew, probably the most famous Minnesota Twin of all-time, which includes Kirby Puckett, was the ultimate gentleman on and off the field. Killebrew complemented umpires on their calls, even when they went against the Minnesota ball club. He was liked and respected around the league during and after his playing days. He visited sick kids, always took time to sign autographs, and was co-founder of an annual golf tournament to raise money for cancer research.
When he became a veteran, Killebrew served as a mentor to the younger players, especially in work ethic and how to deal with the media. He placed the team before himself and played at several positions—outfield, third base, and first base—often in the same season, whatever gave the Twins the best chance of winning. This came back to haunt him when he became eligible for election to the Hall of Fame. Some voters pictured him as a defensive liability which managers had to constantly move from position to position, trying to find a place where he would hurt the team the least. While not a great defensive ballplayer, Killebrew worked hard at this part of his game and, according to teammates, was anything but a burden defensively.
The author’s coverage of Killebrew’s baseball career is uneven, dealing with one year with only a couple of paragraphs. While the yearly individual stats and where the team finished in the standing are mentioned as well as the annual attendance figures and the slugger’s salary, the author highlights few individual games which is a mainstay of other baseball biographies.
The book’s strength lies in Killebrew’s post-baseball life. After failing to get the Minnesota manager’s job for 1976, Killebrew opened a car dealership, entered the insurance business, was a color analyst of televised baseball games (for the Twins, A’s, Angels, and Twins again), among other ventures. However, by the late 1980s, he was in trouble both financially and with his marriage. In the early 1990s he declared bankruptcy. The author asserts that Killebrew was too trusting of individuals and was therefore taken advantage of. The Twins shortly reached out to him, hiring him as a “special assistant” to do promotionals and to appear at spring training as a hitting instructor.
The author mentions Killebrew’s life-threatening illness in 1990 and his six-month recovery, nursed by his fiancée, whom he married the next year. 1990 was also the year of his divorce from his first wife. The timeline is unclear on the order of these events. The author mentions in passing that Killebrew became a Mormon in the 1960s. It would have been interesting to learn the circumstances behind his conversion and how his faith impacted the rest of his life, especially since some alluded to an affair as the reason for the 1990 divorce.
Harmon Killebrew: Ultimate Slugger is not the ultimate biography. The bibliography is limited to ten books, and while the author says that he talked with players and people who knew Killebrew, it would have been nice to have a list of the individuals. Quotes pepper this biography, but no citations are given, which limits the work’s value for those who want to explore parts of Killebrew’s career in more depth. Like a growing number of baseball biographies, this one does not have a table of career stats. Nevertheless, for someone interested in the life and career of Harmon Killebrew, this is the best place to start.