My friend Harmon Killebrew

Spencer S. HarrisFeature

When I was a kid in Chattanooga, our next-door neighbor, Jesse Levan, played first base for the Chattanooga Lookouts, the Double-A farm team of the old American League Washington Senators.

Home of the Lookouts, Chattanooga, Tennesse Postcard, circa 1945.

For youngsters in the “Joe Engel Knothole Gang,” a seat in the right-field bleachers was 5 cents. (Mr. Engel knew how to fill the ballpark: let the kids in for a nickel; somebody has to drive ’em, so a family of four got tickets, hot dogs & peanuts, sodas for the kids and a beer for Mom & Dad. A fun, family-night out, all for five bucks.)

In 1954, the Senators signed a hot-shot 17-year-old kid from Idaho for a whopping $50,000. Harmon Killebrew bounced around the Washington organization before landing in Chattanooga in 1957.

Harmon Killebrew with manager Bucky Harris

Press photo date stamped June 23, 1954, of Harmon Killebrew of the Washington Senators. The news clipping reads: “Washington Manager Bucky Harris (right) gets acquainted with club’s first bonus baby, Harmon Killebrew. The 17-year-old infielder from Idaho, who signed for a reported $50,000, joined the Senators Tuesday night at Comiskey Park and witnessed his first major league game.”

Never one to need a reason to throw a party, it seems like my neighbor, Jesse, had most of the team over after every home game for steaks and beer – win or lose. My mother fussed about the noise and late-night revelry; my dad and I loved being around the professional ballplayers. Frequently, Killebrew (who didn’t drink) would bring steak bones over for our Cocker Spaniel and enjoy a little home-life atmosphere with my folks and me (he was 20-21 at the time).

The photo that leads this column was taken when I was 10 or 11 on one of his minor-league trips through Chattanooga (he had two tours with the Lookouts in ’57 and ’58). Killebrew was signing Senators’ photos in the lobby of Engle Stadium and the News-Free Press photographer wanted a prop. I was standing close by waiting to say hello (and hoping he’d recognize me) when Harmon called me over to pose with him.

1958 Lookouts from left: Tony Roig (2B), Harmon Killebrew (3B), Waldo Gonzalez (SS), Stan Roseboro (3B&OF) and Jesse Levan (1B).

Killebrew moved to the majors permanently in late-season 1958, and the Washington Senators MLB franchise moved to Minneapolis following the 1960 season. During his 22-year career with Washington, Minneapolis and Kansas City, Killebrew played in 113 games from 1954-1958 for the Senators, plus two full seasons for the Senators, 14 seasons for the Twins and one season for the Royals, recording lifetime MLB stats of 2,086 hits, 573 homers, 1,584 RBIs and an OPS+ rating of 143.

“Hammerin’ Harmon” became the greatest slugger in Minnesota Twins history and was elected to the Baseball HOF in 1984 (his fourth year of eligibility).

In 2002, I took our 16-year-old daughter, Carrera, to compete in her first U.S. Open Swimming Championship at the University of Minnesota. During a break in the swim meet, we were taking a shuttle bus from our hotel to the gigantic Mall of America several miles away.

Cruising along we passed the Twins’ baseball stadium and I thought of Killebrew. As we eased up to a traffic light, I leaned forward and asked the bus driver if he’d ever heard of Harmon Killebrew. Without saying a word, the driver leaned forward and pointed to the street sign overhead that read “Harmon Killebrew Drive.”

I just smiled and chuckled.

Spencer S. Harris lives in the Central Valley of California. He is a native of Chattanooga, a graduate of the University of Tennessee and a lifelong Volunteer. Last week he wrote a column calling for Todd Helton to be added to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Harris can be reached at [email protected]

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