Squat, bald and 34; bottom-heavy, thick across the midsection and chronically aggravated by an old soreness in his right knee, he is a picture of the American spectator spreading idly into middle age. He should be at home, sprawled in an overstuffed chair, wearing a fleshed-out T shirt and watching ball games on the tube. Instead, Harmon Killebrew of the Minnesota Twins, his short, wispy sideburns showing flecks of gray where they creep out from under his batting helmet, has matured into the most dangerous all-round hitter in the American League.
Killebrew is no stronger than he was when he had most of his hair, weighed 20 pounds less and hit 42 home runs in his first season as a regular for the old Washington Senators 11 years ago. Since early in his career he has been second only to Babe Ruth as the most consistent slugger in baseball history, and while the years have taken most of the deliberate speed Killebrew once had, they have added a vintage sophistication to his batting. Last year he led the major leagues in home runs and RBIs and was the American League's Most Valuable Player. This season he is easily in range of his first 50-home-run season and, after averaging .262 for his career, he has batted well over .300 all this year.
While Killebrew's hitting has been hotter, the climate around the Twins has cooled off. Billy Martin, the swarthy, sharp-featured man with the piercing dark eyes and rocket temperament, managed Minnesota to the division title last year and added plenty of excitement along the way. Some of the high spirits even occurred on the field. Off the diamond, Martin slugged it out with one of his pitchers outside a Detroit bar one night. His abrasive style failed to endear Martin to some of his players and all of his bosses, but the fans adored him and hooted in dismay when he was fired after losing the playoffs.
Martin's replacement is his antithesis. Bill Rigney's fair skin is burned cherry red and his face has a warm roundness. In 14 years of managing the Giants and Angels he gained the reputation of a man who keeps his cool. Because he replaced Martin, the fans have occasionally been as chilly as December on Hennepin Avenue toward him. "It's like they feel no one should be the manager here now," Rig says.
August 2, 1970
In the spring it appeared as if the Twins hardly needed a manager. The team was a set piece with very promising young players apparently ready to take over where needed. It has not worked out that way. Moreover, Second Baseman Rod Carew, last year's batting champion, has played in only half of the Twins' games because of injuries, the latest of which will bench him at least until Sept. 15, and only one of last year's starting pitchers, Jim Perry, who has won 15 games, has been consistent. Rigney, nicknamed Captain Hook in California for the way he pirated starters off the mound, has thus once again had to rely heavily on his bullpen. But if Minnesota's five-game lead over the Angels stands up for the rest of the season Bill Zepp, who won only seven games in four years of college pitching, and 19-year-old Ricalbert Blyleven could end up with much of the credit.
Zepp has a master's degree from the University of Michigan only because nobody offered him a contract. "Most of the way through college I realistically had to think I wouldn't play pro ball," he said. "I wanted to attempt it, but nobody even tried to sign me, so I just stayed in school." The Twins finally asked Zepp to sign for less than $1,000 when they saw him pitching for a semipro team at the end of his year in graduate business school. Thirteen months later, after developing several off-speed pitches, he compiled an 18-4 record in only part of a minor-league season and promptly joined the Twins. Promoted to a starting spot in early July, Zepp ran his record to 5-0 before suffering his first loss.
Bert Blyleven's progress was a little faster. When he was called up to the Twins in June, he had been out of high school in Garden Grove, Calif. for less than a year. Blyleven, who was born in Zeist, Holland and emigrated to California via Saskatoon when he was 6, has a shy grin and narrowly spaced eyes that make him look scared, something he certainly is not. "I first started thinking about coming to the majors this soon when I was 8-0 last fall in the Florida Instructional League," he says. "I wondered if I'd be ready, but now that I've been here and pitched I'm not worried about it anymore." Blyleven's high school catcher taught him how to throw a curve about 18 months ago and that pitch is now a wonderment in the American League. It also almost caused an abrupt end to Blyleven's rapid progress.
"Everyone kept telling me I had a good curve, so when I got here I figured that's what I should throw. I was throwing it about 50% of the time, and after my sixth start or so my elbow began bothering me," he says. "The doctor told me my arm's still growing and the curve hurts it. So now I'll use it only about 30% of the time."
Last week Blyleven concentrated on his fastball against Detroit, defeating the Tigers 2-1 on four hits. After the Twins put him ahead in the bottom of the seventh, he used only 20 pitches, 19 of them strikes, to set Detroit down in the final two innings. The win brought his record to 4-3 and lowered his ERA to 2.58, best among the Twins' starters.
Blyleven, who until last summer had not been out of California since his family moved there, lives by himself in an apartment and rarely sees his teammates. "They all go home to their families at night and I can't get into the places where the other single guys go because I'm not old enough," he explains. He also travels in a distinctly different social set. He usually goes out with girls who have just finished their junior year in high school.
Harmon Killebrew can appreciate the problems of a teen-ager on a major league team. He first arrived in Washington at 17 during the time when the bonus rule stipulated that any player receiving more than $4,000 had to remain with the parent club for two seasons. In those two years Killebrew appeared in 47 games for the Senators and saw at least as many movies with Ray Crump, the Twins' clubhouse man, who was then the bat boy and Killebrew's only contemporary on the team.
Since then Killebrew has grown into a proud, private man whose approach to hitting, he says, is a good reflection of his life-style. Killebrew puts on his hard hat one turn before he is due in the on-deck circle and stands motionless next to the bat rack, staring at the pitcher. When his time comes, he moves to the on-deck area, takes three or four bruising swings and then kneels motionless, again staring at the pitcher. In the batters' box he makes one cursory swish with his bat between pitches. Then he simply stands, again stock still, with the bat resting on his shoulder. He waits to cock his bat until the pitcher, whose hands Killebrew has been concentrating on, begins his windup. The whole process is done with a let's-get-down-to-it air. "That's pretty much the way I am," says Killebrew. "I'm not a fidgety person. I try to stay as calm and relaxed as I can. It helps me concentrate, which I think is the most important thing about hitting."
Killebrew is effectively soft-spoken in a manner that only men of extraordinary physical power seem able to perfect. He does not participate in the loud banter of the clubhouse and he passed up the celebration when the Twins clinched the division title last year. He is not withdrawn, however. When a stocky minor-leaguer arrived in Minneapolis last week to have his sore legs checked by the team doctor, Killebrew was one of the first to stop and talk to the boy, offering him tips on how to keep those kind of legs—the sort that have given Killebrew a tricky knee and a painful hamstring rupture—in shape.
Killebrew's loud noises are made with his bat. He spent most of three seasons in the minors after his teen-age tours as a bonus baby, returning to the Senators permanently at 22. Overall he has averaged a home run every 12.9 at bats, well behind Ruth's 11.8 but far ahead of everyone else.
Killebrew's willingness to take walks and not swing at bad balls has improved his average. So has the presence in the lineup of two other high-average hitters, Tony Oliva and Cesar Tovar. "Naturally I hope I've gotten smarter as I've gotten more experience," says Killebrew. "But I can't get all that excited about the .300 thing. The important thing for me is to drive in runs and score them. I think I should take the hardest swings I can every time I'm at the plate."
Over a three-game stretch last week, Killebrew's hardest swings produced only one hit in 12 at bats, but it underscored his importance to the Twins. The hit was a two-run single in Perry's 2-1 victory over Detroit. He drove in a run on a fielder's choice the next night that gave him back the league RBI lead.
A home run, his 30th of the year, into the bleachers in deepest center field broke his slump on Friday as the Twins routed the Orioles 8-0. As Killebrew, who is rock-hard underneath the blousy uniform that gives him the look of a rotund, middle-aged man on the field, chugged around second base in his awkward gait the scene was a reminder that not all great hitters have the lithe bodies of a Mays or an Aaron. The most powerful one ever was built along the lines of Harmon Killebrew.