The Pride of Payette
The news that former Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins star Harmon Killebrew has died sent me into a reverie about my first visits to Yankee Stadium as a young boy. The very first game I attended there, a night game in late August of 1960, was an epiphany. Having previously seen most of the stadium only on black-and-white television, my brother, my cousin, and I were stunned by the colors of the place. The grass was the greenest grass we had ever seen. A young pitcher by the name of Bill Stafford threw a complete game shutout, and the Yankees won, 1-0.
At the end of the game, we exited through the big doors out by the monuments in center field. In those days they actually sent fans onto the field, and around the warning track on the periphery, to exit tunnels under the bleachers. Ushers and cops were standing on the edge of the grass to make sure that the attendees stayed on the track. When we got around past the left field foul pole and were walking past the bullpen gate toward center, we boys couldn't stand it any longer. The three of us ran onto the outfield grass, leaping and acting out dramatic, game-saving catches with the baseball gloves that we had all brought with us, hoping to catch a foul ball. We were running on the same grass as Mickey Mantle!
Our dads were aghast, and a policeman shooed us back to them, and I think we were all in trouble for a few minutes. But these days, I can't believe that they weren't secretly smiling at us.
The next time we showed up at the stadium, in June of 1961, Uncle Bill's don't-ask connections had scored us some excellent box seats on the rail behind third base. A doubleheader, it was, against the recently rechristened Twins. Of course, we got there super-early, so as not to get hung up in New York City traffic and definitely wanting to soak up all the action we could. The tickets were something like $3.50 apiece -- might as well get our money's worth. Our moms had dutifully packed lunches, which were still unopened on the blue-green wooden seats.
The three of us boys immediately started hanging over the rail, gawking at the visiting team's players as they warmed up on the sidelines. Right in front of us was Harmon Killebrew. There was no mistaking him -- a bull of a guy, wearing jersey no. 3. We started yelling to get his attention. "Hey Harmon!" we shouted in unison. "Hey Harmon!" Over and over. The players in those days did their best to act as though you weren't there -- in fact, I believe they were forbidden to speak to fans from the field -- but after about a dozen hey-Harmons, he got exasperated and looked over at us. "Whaddya want?"
At this point, we didn't know what to say. We were so giddy that we were so close to the field that we just wanted verification that we weren't dreaming. We didn't really want anything from Harmon Killebrew except for him to be real. There was an awkward silence. Then "Sign our scorecard!" one of us finally volunteered, dubiously. "Can't sign," replied Killebrew, going right back to playing catch with one of his teammates (Zoilo Versalles, perhaps). The statement was made without malice. It was just a matter of fact. Can't sign.
Killebrew was from God's country -- Payette, Idaho. As a kid he milked cows. If he hadn't joined pro baseball right out of high school, he would have attended the U of O. He played in the outfield mostly, but he could also play third base, and I believe he also showed up at first base from time to time. He hit 573 homers in the majors. By all accounts, he was a straight shooter and a sweet guy. Even the little kids from Newark who didn't get his autograph never held it against him. God rest his sluggin' soul.