This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf
Harmon Killebrew clouted 573 home runs in his 22-year big-league career, but few were more dramatic than his walk-off, two-run smash with two outs in the ninth inning to give the Minnesota Twins an exciting victory over the New York Yankees, 6-5, on Sunday, July 11, 1965, at Metropolitan Stadium. “The scene could have been set in Hollywood,” wrote Fred Down of the UPI. “[Killebrew’s home run] was the most devastating blow struck against the Yankees all season.”1
Heading into the game, the last before the three-day All-Star break, the Twins were hitting on all cylinders. Sitting atop the AL standings (52-29) by four games over the Cleveland Indians and 4½ games over the Baltimore Orioles, the Twins had played mediocre ball in June (16-13), and had slipped briefly out of first place. But manager Sam Mele’s resilient club responded by reeling off nine consecutive victories in July before losing to the Yankees in the second game of a doubleheader, on July 10. One concern to the club was the loss of slugging left fielder and inspirational leader Bob Allison, who had fractured his wrist when he was hit by a pitch from Jerry Stephenson of the Boston Red Sox on July 6, and was expected to miss three weeks.
Winners of the last five AL pennants, the New York Yankees were trudging through a season their fans had not seen in two generations. Manager Johnny Keane, the former St. Louis Cardinals skipper whom the Yankees had hired after their stunning seven-game loss to the Redbirds in the World Series the previous year, inherited an aged squad. In sixth place (41-45), New York was en route to its first losing season since 1925.
Both teams received good news prior to the game. The AL announced that Killebrew would start at first base in place of the injured Moose Skowron of the Chicago White Sox in the All-Star Game, to be played at Metropolitan Stadium in two days. Meanwhile, the Yankees’ gregarious 24-year-old star, Joe Pepitone, was added to the AL roster.2
On a beautiful, 74-degree summer afternoon, 35,263 fans packed the “Met” expecting to see a well-pitched game featuring two of the brightest young southpaws in the league. Minnesota’s 26-year-old Jim Kaat had established himself as one of the best young hurlers in the AL, as well as the premier fielding pitcher in baseball. He had led the team with 17 wins the previous season; his 42 starts would pace the league in 1965. New York’s hard-throwing 24-year-old /bioproj/person/2cf1aca0
had struck out a league-leading 217 in 1964 and was set to replace Whitey Ford as the club’s left-handed ace. He was also the first African American pitcher to start consistently for the Yankees.
The Yankees came out swinging in the first inning. Four of the first five batters managed a hit but produced just one (unearned) run. After leadoff batter Bobby Richardson was erased on a 5-4-3 double play, Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard singled. Mantle, who had been out of the lineup since June 22 because of a leg injury, raced toward home on Hector Lopez’s single to right field. Tony Oliva’s throw was in time, but Mantle scored when Twins backstop Earl Battey misplayed the ball at the plate for an error.
Shortstop Zoilo Versalles put the Twins on the board in the third inning when he belted his 10th home run of the season, a solo shot with two outs, to tie the game at 1-1. Oliva and Killebrew led off the fourth inning with consecutive singles. Oliva, who had been on a tear in his previous 14 games, batting .375 (21-for-56), scampered home on Jimmie Hall’s sacrifice fly; Battey drove in Killebrew on a line-drive single to left field to give the Twins a 3-1 lead.“This club is a bunch of fighters,” Bob Allison told Minneapolis sportswriter Max Nichols about his club’s relentless attack.3
Kaat encountered problems in the fifth inning when he yielded a one-out single to Phil Linz and walked Mantle. He had the Commerce Comet picked off at first base, but his errant throw to Killebrew enabled both runners to move into scoring position. Both scored on Howard’s long double to center field as the Yankees tied the game at 3-3, and sent Kaat to the showers. With the run, Mantle became the 34th major leaguer to score 1,500 runs. In the bottom half of the frame, the Twins took a one-run lead on Rich Rollins’s double, which scored Versalles.
Coming on in relief of righty Al Worthington with one out and two on in the seventh, Twins southpaw Bill Pleis fielded Pepitone’s grounder and threw to first for the second out. Playing the odds, he intentionally walked Clete Boyer to load the bases and faced rookie left-handed center fielder Roger Repoz. The plan backfired as Pleis uncorked a wild pitch, enabling Howard to score as the Yankees tied the game yet again, 4-4.
The stage was set for an exciting, controversial ninth inning. Jerry Fosnow, the Twins’ fifth pitcher of the day, surrendered a leadoff single to Howard. Pepitone hit what appeared to be an inning-ending double-play grounder, but third baseman Rollins muffed the ball. After Howard moved to third on a line out to right field by Boyer, Pleis fielded Repoz’s grounder down the first-base line. As he applied the tag to Repoz, he dropped the ball; Howard romped home.
At first, home-plate umpire Ed Hurley ruled Repoz out on interference, and skipper Johnny Keane burst onto the field. After a heated exchange with Keane, Hurley consulted first-base umpire Red Flaherty, and reversed his call. Fosnow was charged with an error (the Twins’ fourth of the game), the run counted, and the Yankees led, 5-4. Now it was Mele’s turn to storm onto the field. With AL President Joe Cronin in attendance, Hurley stood by his call. Mele announced that the Twins would play the game under protest.
The Yankees brought in righty Pete Mikkelsen, the game’s 10th pitcher, to face the top of the Twins’ order, stacked with right-handers. With two outs and Rollins on first via a walk, Mikkelsen faced Killebrew. According to Joesph Durso of the New York Times, Killebrew fouled off two pitches with a 3-and-2 count, before he “ripped a fastball” that traveled an estimated 360 feet into the left-field bleachers, giving the Twins a dramatic 6-5 win.4
“The New York Yankees wear the scars today to prove that Harmon Killebrew belongs among the stars,” wrote Fred Down.5 The “Killer’s” 16th home run made a winner out of Fosnow and saddled Mikkelsen with the loss. He finished with three hits in four at-bats, scored twice, knocked in two runs, and walked once; coincidentally, that was the same batting line for Elston Howard, who had integrated the New York Yankees in 1955.
Twins skipper Mele maintained a level head in spite of the thrilling victory. Told that his club was in its best position since 1933, when the Washington Senators (the team relocated to Minnesota for the 1961 season) won the pennant, Mele responded cautiously, “It’s a long season and it’s going to be a struggle. There are a lot of good teams.”6 Mele reminded the reporter that the Twins lost 18 of 22 games shortly after the All-Star Game the previous summer to fall out of contention by late July.
The Sporting News
1 Fred Down (UPI), “Killebrew Convinces Yanks,” Cumberland (Maryland) Evening Times, July 12, 1965, 10.
2 Associated Press, “Pepitone an All-Star; Killebrew Will Start,” New York Times, July 12, 1965, 32.
3 The Sporting News, August 21, 1965, 13.
4 Joseph Durso, “Twins Beat Yanks, 6-5, on Killebrew’s Homer in 9th,” New York Times, July 12, 1965, 32.
6 Associated Press, “Twins Open Up 5-Game Lead,” Kansas City Star, July 12, 1965, 13.