Book Review: "Harmon Killebrew: Ultimate Slugger," by Steve Aschburner

If he was your favorite, you'll love this book.

When I was a kid, Kent Hrbek was my favorite player, a title that encompassed all sports and every sportsman I knew about. I studied his baseball cards with reverence, I devoured any article published about him, I even copied his autograph - procured at spring training by a favorite aunt and uncle - onto an old first-baseman's mitt we had in the garage, this being the closest I could get to a Kent Hrbek Rawlings model. I'm an adult now, but even so, if somebody wanted to write an history of Hrbek's career - beyond his autobiography - I would happily buy multiple copies, the better to anticipate the eventual wear-and-tear on one single copy.

I mention this because I'm of the wrong generation to feel this way about Harmon Killebrew. His playing days were over long before I was born, and so he exists only as an official Living Legend in my mind - an old black-and-white video here, an Old-Timer's Game there, his number 3 jersey hanging in the corner at the Metrodome when I was young. In later years, he'd come to function almost as the team's ambassador, but as a player he belongs to the fans of my father's generation and not to mine.

Those fans - those whose boyhoods were filled with Killebrew's towering home runs and unassuming quotes - are going to love this book.

Veteran beat writer Steve Aschburner - late of the Star Tribune Timberwolves beat, and now a writer for NBA.com and Minnpost.com, as well as a prolific Tweeter - has assembled what is virtually the definitive history of Killebrew's playing days. Going back to his boyhood in Payette, Idaho, Aschburner has climbed back into his role as reporter and talked to what appears to be everyone whoever knew, played with, pitched to, or heard about the slugger. He's also apparently read everything written about Killebrew in every publication in America. As a result, the book is less biography and more oral history; the biographical information is included merely as bridging to get to the interviews and the quotes.

This is not, in the main, a criticism. The problem with any book about Harmon Killebrew is that the man himself was so clean-cut and modest that he does not make a particularly compelling central character, at least not in the way that someone with more obvious struggles would make. Killebrew is no Mickey Mantle, to name an equally talented yet far more flawed and thus more interesting contemporary; there are only so many ways to say, "Harmon Killebrew was the nicest man in baseball."

Aschburner isn't particularly interested in covering the few negative moments of Killebrew's career, like his decision to leave the club and go to Kansas City, or Harmon's post-career business difficulties and divorce - both are mentioned, but neither is a focus, and that's probably right. To attempt to mar the man with his difficulties would be like slinging mud at St. Francis of Assisi for being poor.

Ultimately, then, this book is for your dad, to remind him of the days that his dad took him to Met Stadium, and Killebrew hit one that went four hundred feet high and four hundred feet deep to left, like he'd smashed a golf ball with a pitching wedge. But for those of us in the younger generation, I direct you to the last chapters, as Aschburner writes about Killebrew's final years. Current Twins, especially the latest in the power-hitting fraternity like Justin Morneau, talk about what he'd taught them in his role as a Special Assistant and spring training instructor. Jim Thome writes the book's foreword. And I defy anyone to read the chapter about Killebrew's passing - and the tributes to him that poured in - without a tear in his or her eye.

Most of the readers of this site wouldn't name Harmon Killebrew as their favorite baseball player. But most of us had a favorite player, whether it was Kent Hrbek or someone else. And this book is written for those people.

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