The Legacy of Twins Legends: Killebrew, Carew, Puckett, Mauer
This article was published in the 2012 The National Pastime.
Since the Washington Senators moved to Minnesota in 1961, the team has boasted many stars, including several of the greatest players in the game. Minnesotans have embraced these players differently, highlighting the changing nature of our complicated relationship with our sports heroes.
The team that Calvin Griffith moved to Minnesota featured a player who was rapidly becoming the most feared hitter in the league, Harmon Killebrew. Killebrew’s numbers, and their place in the history of the Twins/Senators franchise, are hardly a well-kept secret. He either leads or places second in nearly every statistical category. The quiet, unassuming Killebrew’s best qualities were thrust back into the spotlight in May 2011 after his passing due to complications of esophageal cancer. Lauded throughout his career as a “team guy,” he proved this label correct even in death, as his funeral serendipitously coincided with a rare Twins interleague trip to Arizona, allowing the front office staff and current players, many of whom were affected both personally and professionally, to attend. Current Twins star Joe Mauer called Killebrew “a family member,” right fielder Michael Cuddyer called him “the most genuine person he ever met,” and team president Dave St. Peter called him the most important player ever to don a Twins uniform.1 Bert Blyleven, in his eulogy, spoke of Killebrew telling players to autograph baseballs with a legible signature, the better for young fans to read whose name they had.
Famously scooped up by the Nationals out of his Idaho home at the age of 17 in 1954, as a “Bonus Baby” signing, Killebrew was forced to stay on the Nationals' active roster for at least two seasons, and he rarely saw the field. After just 11 home runs in his first five seasons (with the final three spent more in the minors than the majors), Killebrew busted out in 1959, slugging 42 and leading the American League. It was just in time for Sports Illustrated to brand him the living embodiment of Joe Hardy (the Senators hero in Damn Yankees), but too late to save the Senators, who were destined to move west. So, while Washington fans saw just a glimpse of his potential, he arrived in Minnesota a finished product, on and off the field. A quiet, family-oriented man, Killebrew was the perfect ambassador for baseball in the Midwest. Killebrew’s early life is straight out of “All-American Boy” cliché. He had reportedly gained his strength by lifting 95-pound milk cans while working on his father’s farm. He lettered in three different sports and was a high school All-American quarterback. His first wife, Elaine (the two were married from 1955 to 1985) was his high-school sweetheart.
Assigned to cover a man whose controversial side seemingly didn’t exist, the media embarked on a career-long quest to attach idiosyncrasies where there were none. When Sports Illustrated writer Barbara Heilman asked him if he had any “curious” habits during a 1963 interview, Killebrew replied, “Doing the dishes, I guess.”2 Nicknames were applied liberally, yet none seemed to capture the man. “Hammerin’ Harmon,” “Harmin’ Harmon,” and “Bombin’ Harmon” were all attempted, as well as the mildly ridiculous (yet oddly fitting) “Charmin’ Harmon.” Early in his career, St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Arno Goethel tried the long-winded “Bashful Basher from Power Alley,”3 but the only nickname that stuck was perhaps the least flattering of all: “Killer.”
After Killebrew’s death, Bob Nightengale of USA Today called the nickname “the most unsuitable nickname in sports.”4 On a personal level this is true, but of course the moniker had more to do with his ability to destroy a baseball. For a franchise that had long made its mark as one of the least powerful teams in the league, the ’60s Twins boasted a lineup of thumpers. As he led the Twins to success in the 1960s, the quiet unassuming Killebrew was embraced as one of their own by his new hometown.
Rod Carew may have been the greatest pure hitter to put on a Twins uniform. His career average of .334 as a Twin (.328 over his entire career) is 11 points higher than Joe Mauer’s and 16 ahead of Kirby Puckett. Twice he flirted with .400 deep into the season. In 1977, Ted Williams threw his support behind Carew becoming the first man since the Splendid Splinter to eclipse the magical mark, if only so reporters would “stop asking [Williams] if it could be done again.”5 Nevertheless, despite his electric ability, as further evidenced by his 17 career steals of home, Carew’s adoration from the public never reached the heights of Killebrew, Puckett, or Mauer.
By the 1970s, the relationship between the players and owners was changing. Players were lobbying for greater employment freedom, which they would gain by the middle of the decade, while baseball’s owners were desperately clinging to the last vestiges of their absolute power over the game’s finances. Though owner Calvin Griffith’s cheapness angered the public, players like Carew did not escape the notion that while owners may be tyrannical, the players were becoming increasingly greedy.
The sad reality of Carew’s Twins' career is that it was played out in nearly uninhabited stadiums. In 1974, the season in which Rod made his first (albeit short-lived) charge at the .400 mark, the Twins drew just 662,401 fans, an average of fewer than 9,000 per game. Few years after their division titles were significantly better. Only in 1977, when Carew had a big season, and in 1979, the year after Carew left and the team stayed in contention until late in the season, did the Twins top one million fans during the 1970s.
Though Carew was not intentionally an unpleasant person, his public persona did him no favors with the few fans that did come to see him play. In his autobiography, Carew, he describes himself as a player who was “moody, intense, lonely, insecure, quick to anger.”6 He further writes that his desire to “jump the club” and quit nearly overcame him several times throughout his playing days, often for what could be described as the mildest of slights. Though the knowledge of Carew’s impoverished upbringing in Panama by an emotionally abusive, distant, and often absent father might go a long way towards explaining Carew’s insecurities, his autobiography would not be published until 1979, after his acrimonious departure from Griffith’s Twins, leaving fans without many of the vital details to understand their star.
The most notable of Carew and Griffith’s many battles was their last, which destroyed their relationship (later rehabilitated) and fostered Carew’s exit to California. After many seasons of contract disputes, in which Griffith admitted to Carew that he was underpaid yet refused to raise his salary, Griffith gave an (admittedly drunken) speech to a rural Minnesota Lions club in 1978 in which he called Carew a “damn fool”7 for signing a contract that paid him less than he could make elsewhere. He also claimed that he was glad he moved to Minnesota because it had “only 15,000 black people,”8 while claiming that black fans didn’t come to ballgames. An incensed Carew responded by branding Griffith a “bigot” and refusing to be “another slave on his plantation.”9 He was traded to the California Angels in the ensuing offseason.
Carew’s accomplishments did not entirely escape the consciousness of Twins fans. Though he was overshadowed by Killebrew in their overlapping playing days, forced to play the singles-hitting second fiddle to Harmon’s power show, Carew had the attention of the baseball world thrust upon him during his most serious challenge to the .400 mark, in 1977. With Time magazine featuring his pursuit and Ted Williams offering his support, fans took notice, especially on June 26.
Entering the game with a .396 average and, in front of a crowd of 46,463 clad in Twins T-shirts with his number 29 on the back (the stadium giveaway that day), Carew went 4-for-5 and paced the team to a 19–12 drubbing of the White Sox. With the scoreboard detailing his exact batting average after each hit (his last hit put his batting average at .403), the crowd showered him with four separate standing ovations, the last of which lasted until Carew finally doffed his cap in recognition from first base. Carew recognized the magnitude of the moment in his autobiography, stating, “I had goose bumps, and I kept thinking that the fans had finally accepted me, that they’d finally come over on my side.”10 Years later, Twins broadcaster Dick Bremer summed up the moment well: “It was the first public acknowledgement that this guy was the best hitter [the fans] were ever going to see.”11
It was the next Twins superstar, however, that Bremer labeled “the most electrifying player in Twins history.”12 Few who watched center fielder Kirby Puckett regularly would disagree. Puckett was the first superstar in the team’s Metrodome era and the catalyst for their only two world championship teams. Flashy, brash, and highly quotable, he was the perfect combination of talent and personality to lead the franchise into the era of 24-hour sports television, and his madcap style of hitting and defense was made for fans both in the ballpark and on the small screen.
Puckett started his professional career relatively late, as he was 22 when drafted out of Bradley University in 1982 and 24 when he debuted in the majors in 1984.Glaucoma robbed Puckett of his playing ability in 1996, but he was already 36 when forced into retirement, and he had reached the 200-hit mark just once after his 30th birthday. In between, he astounded fans with his exploits. Puckett had four hits in his major league debut and his .318 career batting average at the time of his retirement was one of the ten best among AL righties. Moreover, he was the rare great offensive player who may be better remembered for his defense. The elastic centerfield fence was his personal jungle gym for eleven years. In recognition of his stellar career, the Hall of Fame voters elected him into the Hall on the first ballot.
Puckett would be a Minnesota legend even if he had played just one game in a Twins uniform, provided that game was Game Six of the 1991 World Series. Postseason legends are measured lyrically, and Puckett’s Game Six was one of the finest offensive and defensive solo acts in World Series history. Puckett was 3-for-18 entering the game, but finished it a double short of the cycle, and of course extended the series with his eleventh inning home run off Charlie Leibrandt. In true Puckett fashion, however, his fielding in the game may be more famous. His third-inning robbery of Atlanta’s Ron Gant is still a World Series highlight-reel must 20 years later. As Tim Kurkjian put it, “It was the kind of performance that elevates a player to legendary status.”13
What amplifies Puckett’s eternally shining star is not the performance itself, but the details that surround it. First of all, Puckett essentially predicted the outcome. Before the game, in what has now become an oft-retold story, Puckett sauntered into the clubhouse and told his teammates to “get on his back” so he could “carry them.” Perhaps less remembered is Puckett’s second prediction of the night. After Puckett’s death in 2006, Terry Crowley (the Twins hitting coach in 1991) shared a story—possibly apocryphal—that Puckett, when Bobby Cox visited the mound before Puckett’s fateful eleventh inning at-bat, turned to Crowley and said “If they leave this guy in the game, the game is over.”14
Beyond the one box score, Puckett’s impact on the Twins can be measured by the effort the player made to weave himself to the “Minnesota lifestyle.” The man who grew up in the predominantly black South Side of Chicago moved his home to Minnesota and blended himself in with a predominantly white public with little difficulty. He developed a love of fishing, though not ice fishing, once telling a reporter “I ain’t gonna die on no ice.”15 During the run of two World Series championships, Puckett may have been the most popular and best recognized celebrity in Minnesota. For a populace that has long accepted its place in American culture as a self-contained outpost, far removed from the mainstream, Minnesotans are quick to adopt outsiders who respect their outlook. As Bremer put it, “There’s something very parochial about those of us who live here. We like people who like being here. You don’t have to be from here, but it really matters to fans that you become part of the community.”16
After his career was over, Puckett fell prey to several personal scandals, suffering through a highly public divorce from his wife, Tonya, amid allegations of violence inflicted upon not only his wife but multiple other women with whom he was involved. Years later, with time to heal the wounds suffered by fans who before his divorce had held Puckett up as an icon, reasonable people who neither condone his private actions nor support his personal choices can separate his failings from his accomplishments that brought them happiness.
Comparing Joe Mauer’s place within the Minnesota’s baseball zeitgeist to three franchise legends is an awkward proposition at this point in time. For starters, Mauer is still a young man (turning 28 early in the 2011 season) seemingly with years to add to or detract from his legacy. At the time of this writing, however, hometown-hero Mauer’s previously golden image is being tarnished for the first time in his career. During the 2011 season he was labeled “soft” after a slow recovery from offseason leg injuries. Aggressive fans altered his Wikipedia entry to strategically add the word “lazy.”17 Writers and fans questioned the sanity of his $184 million contract that kicked in before the season. One ESPN writer questioned whether or not Mauer had, in one season, gone from one of the game’s most productive and popular players to an albatross in his own clubhouse. In fact, in today’s Internet age all superstars are subject to heightened scrutiny. Moreover, advanced metrics are used to measure a player’s value in ways that previous generations of players did not have to deal with, adding another angle for possible criticism.
Mauer’s miniature fall in 2011 testifies to the staggering nature of his popularity in the years preceding it. A brief flirtation with a scholarship offer to play football for Bobby Bowden’s Florida State football powerhouse as well as the suggestion that the Twins take Mark Prior, not Mauer, with the top pick in the 2001 draft might have derailed Mauer’s eventual appearance on the Twins, but in retrospect his selection by Minnesota was the culmination of an unstoppable three-year magnetic attraction between player and community.
Joining a team in 2004 that already featured Puckett’s heir, Torii Hunter, in center field as well as star hurler Johan Santana and Justin Morneau, a future AL MVP who debuted a year earlier, Mauer’s celebrity instantly trumped them all. Without the need to ingratiate himself to a public that already knew him intimately, and never indicating that any team apart from Minnesota would be a better option for his career, Twins fans became very protective of their home-grown star. Their support was evident on the backs of replica jerseys on a nightly basis at both home and away ballparks. “He is very much one of us,” Bremer stated succinctly.18
As Mauer’s statistical totals rose, so did the interest in his personality. Not once but twice he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, characterized as the all-American, hometown neighbor with the unique ability to hit .350 at the most demanding defensive position. When the story broke that Mauer struck out just once in all of his high school games, the local alternative newspaper City Pages sought to track down the pitcher who pulled the trick. They did, and Paul Feiner, unwilling to crow about his victory over Minnesota’s golden child, immediately deflected the attention back to Mauer, pointing out that the catcher both homered and singled off of him in the same game.19 His trademark sideburns even achieved a personality of its own, in the vein of Rollie Fingers’ handlebar moustache in Oakland in the ’70s. The team once gave away stick-on replica sideburns at the ballpark as a promotion.
With the notion that Mauer will always be more of a Carew than a Killebrew offensively, the debate over Mauer’s positional future still rages. Those who maintain that longevity of the 6-foot-5 Mauer will be increased via a permanent move to another less-demanding position clash with those who cite that his new, heightened contract significantly decreases his perceived value elsewhere. From a purely statistical standpoint these arguments are valid, but measuring the value of a star player as merely a player and not an attraction to be connected to by millions of fans who flood the turnstiles is to tell only half of the story. Mauer is the spiritual heir to Killebrew for his humble nature, the statistical heir to Carew through his playing style, and the popular heir to Puckett. As Bremer sums up, “He’s the Ted Williams of catchers. How lucky are [Twins fans] to be able to witness that from the beginning of his career to the end?20
CHARLIE BEATTIE is a freelance sportswriter and broadcaster based in Minneapolis. His credits include coverage of Major League Baseball, the NFL, NHL, NCAA Basketball and the Olympic Games. His baseball credits include written and broadcast work for the Wilson (North Carolina) Tobs, Bowie Baysox, St. Paul Saints and the Minnesota Twins. He is new to SABR in 2012.
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Rushin, Steve. “A Series to Savor.” Sports Illustrated 75, no. 20 (1991): 16–27. Telander, Rick. “Minny’s Mighty Mite.” Sports Illustrated 66, no. 24 (1987): 46–49.
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- 1. Nightengale, Bob. “Appreciation: Harmon Killebrew Recalled as Great Player, Person” USA Today (2011): http://www.usatoday.com.
- 2. Heilman, Barbara. “Out of the Park on a Half Swing.” Sports Illustrated 18, no. 14 (1963): 85–92.
- 3. Brackin, Dennis and Patrick Reusse. The Minnesota Twins, a Complete Illustrated History. Minneapolis: MVP, 2010.
- 4. Nightengale, op. cit.
- 5. Williams, Ted, Underwood, John. “I Hope Rod Carew Hits .400.” Sports Illustrated 47, no.3 (1977): 20–25.
- 6. Carew, Rod and Ira Berkow. Carew. Minneapolis: Simon and Schuster, 1979.
- 7. Lenehan. Michael. “The Last of the Pure Baseball Men.” The Atlantic (1981). http://www.theatlantic.com.
- 8. Ibid.
- 9. Carew and Berkow, op. cit.
- 10. Ibid.
- 11. Dick Bremer of Fox Sports North Television was interviewed at Target Field on August 23, 2011.
- 12. Ibid.
- 13. Kurkjian, Tim. “For 11 Innings, Puckett’s Greatness Took Center Stage.” http://www.espn.com (2006).
- 14. Christensen, Joe. “Goodbye, Kirby.” Minneapolis Star Tribune (2006): http://www.startribune.com.
- 15. Rushin, Steve. “End of the Fairy Tale.” Sports Illustrated 104, no. 12 (2003): http://www.sportsillustrated.com.
- 16. Bremer, op. cit.
- 17. Howard, Johnette. “Is Joe Mauer Dragging Twins Down?” http://www.espn.com (2011).
- 18. Bremer, op. cit.
- 19. Walsh, Jim. “The Kid who Struck Out Joe Mauer.” City Pages (2006): http://www.citypages.com.
- 20. Bremer, op. cit.