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Killebrew's visit a thrill for area fans

Eugene Puttonen of Sebeka receives an autograph from baseball legend Harmon Killebrew Monday at Tri-County Hospital's Men's Night Out.1 / 2
Dent's Gerrit Wierbos shows off a baseball autographed by Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew.2 / 2

There were more than 650 on hand Monday when Harmon Killebrew, the famous Minnesota Twins slugger, appeared at Tri-County Hospital's Men's Night Out.

Killebrew, who was voted into baseball's Hall of Fame in 1984 and now lives in Phoenix, Ariz., is a personal friend of Wadena physician Dr. Stephen Davis and Davis was credited with bringing the great home run hitter to town.

Killebrew hit 573 homers during his major league career and won or shared six American League home run titles between 1959 and 1969. Killebrew was not only famous for hitting home runs, he was famous for hitting l-o-n-g home runs. His 520-foot shot at Metropolitan Stadium in 1967 is the longest dinger ever hit by a Minnesota player. He hit baseballs out of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium and Detroit's Tiger Field.

Killebrew spoke of his own medical problems, his family, his early years and took questions about his teammates and baseball before the record-setting turnout.

He signed a professional contract at the age of 17 and was known as "The Kid" for his first few seasons in the major leagues. Killebrew's home run hitting took off when he took the advice of slugger Ralph Kiner to move up in the box so he could pull the ball. Kiner told him that he had power but that he would never hit home runs unless he moved closer to the plate.

The result was that Killebrew never hit for a high average, but he scared pitchers silly with his short, powerful, compact swing. He had shoulders like Paul Bunyan on his 5-11, 210-pound frame.

Killebrew was the first superstar the Twins ever had and he fit into Minnesota sports scene like a hand into a glove. The man who everyone knew as "The Killer" will always be known for his kindness, sincerity and humility.

The questions Killebrew fielded had some variety but they were all about baseball. What did Harmon think of Billy Martin, the hard-drinking, two-fisted manager of the Twins in 1969? He was a great manager who stressed the fundamentals. Whatever problems he had were off the field. Calvin Griffith, the tight-fisted owner who brought his struggling Washington Senators (and Killebrew) to Minnesota in 1961? Mostly good memories but some scrapes. Dick Stigman, the Nimrod native who made it to the bigs and pitched for Minnesota -- a first-class guy. Joe Mauer's present contract with the Twins? Mind-boggling.

Killebrew considers Ted Williams to be the greatest hitter he ever played against and Stu Miller, a reliever with the Baltimore Orioles, to be the toughest pitcher he ever faced. Miller threw the ball so slow that Killebrew could not get his timing down. He recalled once counting to three after Miller threw his pitch before swinging. It was the only time he homered off Miller.

Killebrew considered himself to be a pretty dedicated player until he met Sadaharu Oh, a Japanese player who hit 868 homers in his career. Oh could go 4-for-4 at the plate and he would still go home and swing the bat 1,000 times before calling it a day.

Killebrew was candid when asked about Pete Rose. Should the great Cincinnati player, with more than 4,000 career hits, be inducted into the Hall of Fame? No. Rose gambled on baseball, a cardinal sin. What made it even worse is that he gambled on games when he was a manager.

Killebrew is still a fan of the game but he believes Major League Baseball has a lot to repenting to do. Drug use has hurt the game and Killebrew believes that it will take a long time to square that with the fans.

Harmon Clayton Killebrew, you gray-haired, great-grandfather, it was a treat to have you in Wadena.