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About Utah: Idaho big leaguer fondly recalls Harmon Killebrew

Published: Friday, May 20 2011 1:04 a.m. MDT

The stories are soaring this week about the strongest natural hitter in baseball history this side of Mickey Mantle, a man who hit home runs out of stadiums back when power hitters were born and not made.

They say Harmon Killebrew got his strength from hoisting 10-gallon milk cans at the family farm in Payette, Idaho, not unlike wrestler Rulon Gardner, only Killebrew didn't take his strength to the Olympics, he took it to the big leagues, where they cast one look at what he did to baseballs and in spite of the fact he called everyone "sir" and had the habit of complimenting umpires on a good call, gave him his nickname "Killer."

During a 22-year career that included 573 home runs — good for 11th on the all-time list and sixth if you throw out the drug cheats — Killebrew, who died from cancer this week at age 74, was the first player to hit a baseball over the roof of Tiger Stadium in Detroit; he hit the longest home run ever at Baltimore Memorial Stadium, 471 feet; and at his home park in Minneapolis, he once launched a ball out of Metropolitan Stadium that measured 520 feet. When they tore down the stadium and built the Mall of America, they left the seat it landed in to forever mark the spot.

The Washington Senators, who later became the Minnesota Twins, found out about Killebrew, so the story goes, from Herman Welker, then a U.S. senator from Idaho who was friends with the owner of the Senators, Clark Griffith, and kept pestering him about taking a look at this farm kid who lived in a small town north of Boise.

Griffith finally relented and sent a scout named Ossie Bluege all the way to western Idaho. Bluege settled in to watch the 17-year-old play for the Payette Packers, a semipro team Killebrew had joined after high school only because the people running the local American Legion league wouldn't let him play with the other teenagers because he hit the ball so hard they were afraid he might kill a third baseman.

Bruege watched Killebrew hit a couple of shots to right field and then, with his mouth agape, watched as he belted one over the left-field fence into a sugar-beet field. The next morning the scout went to the ballpark, started at home plate and kept walking toward where the ball landed. When he got to 435 feet he called Mr. Griffith and uttered three words: "Sign this kid."

Vernon Law, another Idaho boy who beat the odds to play in the big leagues, enjoyed recalling that story this week. Law, from Meridian, a town just west of Boise and not far from Payette, was six years older than Killebrew and was the first Idahoan Herman Welker helped get to the majors.

"Herman Welker was kind of a bird dog and he got both of us to the big leagues," said Law, 81, from his home in Provo.

Law was a pitcher who developed his strong arm, as he puts it, "throwing rocks at stuff." Welker tipped off friends of his at the Pittsburgh Pirates, who in turn signed Law, a future Cy Young Award winner and a pivotal part of the 1960 Pirates team that won the World Series.

Law had more suitors than Killebrew, as no less than eight teams joined the Pirates in vying for his services. The clincher came, he remembers, when the Pirates brought in the heavy artillery. One of the investors in the franchise was Bing Crosby, and they got the singer to call the Law home in Meridian. When Vernon's mother picked up the phone and Bing Crosby was on the other end, the deal was done.

Their careers overlapped, but because they were in different leagues, Law only pitched to Killebrew once, in spring training. "I managed to get him out, he hit a popup that went about a country-mile high," Law remembered.

The two Idaho boys became close friends in "retirement," signing cards alongside each other, attending banquets, playing golf. Both Mormons, they wound up sending their sons to play baseball for BYU.

"He was a very good friend of mine. We always stayed in touch," said Law, whose last letter to Killebrew was two days before Killebrew died. "They called him Killer because of the way he hit the ball. but really he was just a gentlemen, really a wonderful guy. He had kind of a soft side, he wasn't overbearing like so many of the Hall of Famers can be. He would always know the names of the groundskeepers at the ballpark, the ushers and so forth. He didn't put on airs, he was just well-liked by everybody."

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: benson@desnews.com.

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