There are power hitters who rip into the ball and send it screaming off like a tracer bullet, and then there are others who operate more like a mortar: whump, and the ball climbs 30 or 40 stories before descending into some poor bleacherite's seat like a fallen moon rock. Harmon Killebrew of Minnesota, who at the age of 36 is not what you would call a transient phenomenon, is in his 19th major league season as the archetypical mortar.
Week before last Mortar Killebrew was on target—he hit five homers in six games—but last week he was misfiring. "I asked Ralph Kiner once how long you can stay in the groove," says Killebrew, "and he said, 'Not many games.' "If anybody is ideally constructed to perform the essential task of lifting a ball over an outfield fence, Killebrew is. At 5'11" and 214 pounds, he also appears strong enough to hit home runs under water. In the next few games Harmon should pass Jimmy Foxx and Mickey Mantle on the alltime home run list. This will make him the second most prolific home run hitter in American League history and the most prolific right-handed one. Currently he has 534 homers, including 19 this season, and almost all of them, he says, have come in bunches.
Last year was the first in Killebrew's long career during which he played full time without hitting over 30 home runs (he was held to 28), and he started slowly again this season. He seemed to have trouble getting around on good fastballs the way he used to and he was frequently being referred to with that old epithet, "an aging star." Then suddenly he was back in stride. Just before the All-Star break Killebrew won the opener of a doubleheader against Milwaukee with a home run. Declining Manager Frank Quilici's invitation to take a rest in the nightcap, he cracked one more homer to give the Twins a 4-0 lead in another victory. After the break he hit a low-and-away Vida Blue fastball over the right-field fence, then three days later discovered enough substance in a Wilbur Wood knuckleball to turn it into the home run that beat Chicago 1-0.
But last week against the less-than-formidable pitching of the last-place Texas Rangers he found himself out of the groove again. He did hit what they call "a towering drive" against the wind to the centerfield warning track in Texas. Even though it was nothing more than an out, it provoked impressed oohs from a crowd that included members of the Mothers of Twins organization representing 232 sets of twins, five sets of triplets and one set of quads from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. One pair of 10-years-olds came up to Killebrew—who is a Twin and only looks like triplets—for autographs before the game. "How many homers have you hit, Harmon?" one twin asked in a small voice. When Harmon apparently failed to hear, the other twin stared at the huge autographing forearms and said, "I reckon it's a plenty of 'em."
What makes a slugger who has hit so plentifully go through ups and downs? Killebrew himself is inclined to let such a question stand as a mystery. He does so partly because he believes, reasonably enough, that no one can fathom, much less explain to a layman, exactly what the difference is between being in the groove and being out of it, and partly because he is reticent about what he considers intimate matters. "That's secret stuff you're getting into now," he said pleasantly when asked what adjustments he might be making in search of the groove. But he does reveal that "You wait better when you have the good feeling. You feel like you can wait a long time on a pitch and still get your weight completely behind it. Then, when the perfect timing slips and the ball starts beating the bat to that good leverage point, sometimes you try to quicken yourself up with your body. Then you get yourself into trouble."
Perhaps everyone has tried to quicken himself up with his body in some line of endeavor, but what exactly does that mean in hitting? Quilici, who took over as manager of the Twins about the same time Killebrew got into his most recent groove, offered some elucidation. "About all a manager can do for a hitter like Harm is make sure he knows how much confidence we have in him. And sometimes you can notice little things he is doing that he's done before when he wasn't going good," he said.
Quilici also reports that Killebrew, who hates to mention his injuries, has been bothered the past two seasons by an injury to his right, or toehold, foot. This infirmity increases his tendency to open up too soon when he strides—to pull his trunk around in order to give himself elbowroom. When the pitch is inside, this early opening may be a necessary part of pulling the ball. However, when the pitch is to the outside, the body must not be pulling away from it. The body has to wait.
But to do what Killebrew has to do, a batter must be stolid only up to a point. Then, at the last instant he must be preternaturally quick. People tend not to appreciate how resistant a thrown baseball can be. It comes in not only as a hopping, sinking, sailing or hooking will-o'-the-wisp but also as a ramming line of force. Killebrew is the kind of hitter who can pick a fastball off his chin, or chest, or wrists and jerk it out of a stadium. This is comparable to picking off a runaway outboard motor and in the same motion heaving it up a flight of stairs. Last Sunday he gave it the old metaphorical heave-ho, getting three hits, including a homer and a triple as the Twins split a doubleheader with the A's. Way to groove, Harm.