Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Argus Observes: Harmon Killebrew’s first contract

(Editor’s note: Harmon Killebrew was two years ahead of me in high school when he played football for Payette, Idaho, a team our high school usually beat. My sophomore year I was still relegated to JV and never took the field against him. Nonetheless, I remember Ontario's last game against his team. Despite his ability to carry most of our team downfield with him for up to ten yards, we somehow kept him away from the goal line and won 40-0. The next June we all gathered in Payette to watch him hit home runs for a semi-pro team that seemed to be assembled to show him off. The fun didn’t last for long. Before the end of that month he had signed with the Washington Senators and was off to the Major Leagues. Here’s how my father recorded those events.)

From the June 21, 1954 edition of The Argus-Observer

A news story on Father’s Day, yesterday, reported the realization of the dream of a talented and devoted father who died before the dream came true.

It was the dream of Harmon Clayton Killebrew, nationally famous athlete of 30 to 40 years ago, who saw in his own son Harmon the prospect of future athletic greatness and who nurtured that prospect as only a loving father could.

An Associated Press story Sunday said that 17-year-old Harmon Killebrew of Payette had been signed by the Washington Senators for a reported $50,000.

This action overnight boosted the boy into the position that his father had hoped and expected he would some day attain, but it came much sooner than either of them had dreamed it might.
H. C. Killebrew, Harmon’s father, died a little over a year ago of complications resulting from high blood pressure and influenza. That death ended a unique father and son relationship; and although he may not have realized it, the father’s work was done by the time of his death and done superbly well.

Although I do not personally know Harmon and did not know his father, I am well acquainted with an older brother, Eugene Killebrew, editor of the Payette Valley Sentinel at New Plymouth who has told me about the interesting family relationship of father and son.

Big Harmon and little Harmon talked almost exclusively about great athletes and the big leagues from the time the boy was a toddler. By the time he was seven years old little Harmon knewmore about Red Grange and Jim Thorpe than most sports writers know.

The father was a well qualified coach. A great football player at West Virginia, he was given honorable mention on Walter Camp’s All American team in 1916. Later he played professional football for a number ofyears and became a professional wrestler. Eugene can remember watching his father wrestle for the Pacific Coast middleweight title at Portland in 1924.

When Harmon was just a kid in grade school his father taught him how to run with a football, timing his steps to cross his legs at just the instant that would make it almost impossible for a tackler to nail him, and how to drop his shoulder and roll into a sure tackler to avoid injury.

During this past year young Killebrew was widely regarded as the most powerful and effective backfield player ever produced by the Snake River Valley conference.

Young Harmon had chores to do at home as a boy and sometimes when he was playing sandlot baseball his mother would send the father to fetch the son home for family duty. If Harmon was playing ball his father just couldn’t bear to interrupt. He would come home quietly and do the chores himself so his prospective “big leaguer” could get a few minutes more of precious practice.

It sure paid off.

Oscar Bluege, the Senator’s farm director and the scout who hired Harmon, had lavish praise for Harmon’s batting skill.

He said, “Killebrew swings a bat better than any youngster I have ever seen. He has the best wrist action I have ever seen and looks the most powerful to me of any newcomer since Lou Gehrig. And he seems to have no weak spots. He hits fast balls, curve balls and all kinds of pitches with apparently equal skill.”

No one knows yet how well Killebrew can field, but Bluege who is one of baseball's all time great infielders is scheduled to spend most of his time teaching Killebrew to field in the months just ahead.

Brother Eugene has been Harmon’s business manager during recent weeks when 12 of the nation’s 16 Major League teams were trying to sign him for professional baseball. The Boston Red Sox, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians were the other clubs who took the greatest interest. The Yankees phoned from New York to make an offer too.

Harmon had about decided to go to the University of Oregon, play football there and later move into baseball. But when the bonus offer got so big, he couldn’t afford to turn it down. He will do his college work in off-season months until he does get his degree.

When Gene told Harmon the amount the Senators had offered, the young ballplayer staggered back a step and almost fell over. At first he couldn’t believe it --- thought Gene was kidding.

Then he said in amazement, “That must mean they expect me to hit Allie Reynolds, Bob Feller and Eddie Lopat.”

He didn’t think he could do it but Bluege said, “Don’t worry about those guys. They just put their pants on in a dressing room the same as you do.”

Harmon, the father, would have been immensely proud of his “big leaguer” for reasons other than athletic talent, if he could have been here this Father’s Day.

The money didn’t mean anything to the youngster for himself.

His first comment in terms of what the offer meant was, “Do you realize that next October I’ll be sitting right there in a box with the ball players and watching the World Series. I never expected to get to see the series so soon.”

And then about the money, “That means I can take good care of mom, and help Bob go to college and maybe even help Gene get ahead faster in the newspaper business.”

That sentiment was in line with an old piece of family fun.

Father Harmon used to say to the family, “We’ll all have a gig time when Harmon gets in the big leagues.”

And now, if personalities in the hereafter utilize the power of prayer, H.C. Killebrew, former famous athlete and now famous father, must be saying a little prayer that his son can remain humble and sensible in the face of fame at such a youthful age.

(Addendum: A web search for Harmon Killebrew shows that he is active in charity work through the Harmon Killebrew Foundation based in Scottsdale, Arizona: )

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