Sports columnist Charles Johnson wrote of the 1961 Twins team: “Actually it’s strange that a team which hasn’t played .500 ball at home can keep the spectators excited, enthused and applauding.”1 It was more than just the fact that it was the first year of major-league baseball in Minnesota. It was the kind of competitive play they offered that pleased the fans. Long home runs, close games, and comeback wins were marks of this team from the start.
Most of the home-run power was produced by Harmon Killebrew. Year after year he thrilled fans with dozens of long balls. From 1959 to 1972 Killebrew averaged 37.8 home runs per year. His 573 major-league home runs ranked fifth most in baseball history at the time of his retirement. But in the second game of a July 4 doubleheader in 1961, he accomplished something for the first and only time in his major-league career.
The Chicago White Sox visited Metropolitan Stadium the first week of July. They were rudely greeted by the Twins in the first two games of the series, losing 7-6 Monday night and 6-4 in Tuesday’s first game. White Sox manager Al Lopez chose veteran pitcher Cal McLish to start the second game of the day. McLish had come to Chicago in a trade with Cincinnati in December and was 4-7 with a 4.31 earned-run average. He was needed to turn around the recent course of games for the White Sox, who had lost six of their last seven.
Minnesota took the first game of the day in exhilarating fashion with a ninth-inning rally, and manager Sam Mele was hoping for a sweep with the 26-year-old left-hander Jack Kralick taking the mound for the Twins. Kralick came in with a 7-5 record, having pitched into the seventh inning in 14 of his 16 starts. Kralick was in the regular rotation this season after splitting time between starting and relieving in 1960. His batterymate was Earl Battey, who also caught the first game.
Neither McLish nor Kralick was known as an overpowering pitcher. The tall and lanky Kralick used control and a slow curve to keep hitters off balance, while McLish had the advantage of experience. Both pitchers were on their game this day, and a duel was developing through the early innings. The White Sox had some early chances, “but the hit they needed could not be supplied as the middle of the batting order was made to look feeble in the clutch of Kralick’s slick knuckle ball.” 2
The day was warm, but the bats were not. Through seven innings the game was scoreless, each pitcher having given up only five hits. McLish had not permitted a Twins baserunner past second, and Kralick stranded six runners. In the eighth, the White Sox had another chance. With one out, Floyd Robinson stroked his third single and Jim Landis walked. But Minnie Miñoso and
Roy Sievers were set down by Kralick, leaving runners on second and third.
In the home half of the eighth, outfielder Lenny Green led off with a single. Bill Tuttle followed with a sacrifice, and that brought up Kralick. Mele didn’t lift him for a pinch-hitter. Perhaps he was saving that move for later. Kralick indeed had a hit in each of his last five starts and had won three of four decisions in those games. Either way, Mele’s hunch paid off when Kralick coaxed a 3-and-1 count off McLish and then rapped the next pitch to center field for a single. When Green rounded third and scored, the Twins had the lead over the White Sox, 1-0. Things continued to fall apart for Chicago when Zoilo Versalles laid down a bunt toward third, and it rolled dead for a hit. McLish induced Billy Martin to ground one to shortstop Luis Aparicio. Instead of a double play, Aparicio rushed to get the speedy Versalles at second, bobbled it, and had to settle for the out at first.
There were two out with Kralick on third and Versalles on second. McLish hadn’t yielded many hard-hit balls and faced Killebrew with first base open. He had pitched him carefully in his last start against Minnesota, retiring him once and walking him twice. Killebrew was red-hot coming into this series, hitting .360 (second in the league) with 24 home runs (tied for third). He had just been named to the American League All-Star team and was pleased, saying, “It’s always an honor to be chosen. It means you’re having a pretty good year.”3
The fans were keyed up to see Killebrew at the plate. He had not hit safely thus far in this series, going 0-for-11. When McLish tried to pump one past him, Killebrew took his long stride and swung. Next came the stunning, crackling sound of the bat meeting the ball, and a cannon shot to center field. As the line drive soared toward the fence, Landis retreated at full speed and leaped. He crashed into the fence as the ball struck it near the top and bounded away. Shaken, Landis could not gather himself and get the ball in. Killebrew hustled around the bases and crossed the plate with an inside-the-park home run.
Killebrew had given the Twins a 4-0 lead in the most unlikely fashion. This was the only inside-the-park homer he ever hit in the majors. After the game Killebrew said, “I honestly thought it would go out of the park.”4
With a comfortable four-run lead, Mele sent his ace back to the mound for the ninth. The fans were still savoring the three-run homer. The White Sox’ Al Smith led off with a grounder to third and beat it out for a single. On the play, Jose Valdivielso threw past first for an error. Sherm Lollar singled to left, advancing Smith to third. Sammy Esposito continued his hitless day, taking a called third strike. Bob Roselli pinch-hit for McLish and grounded out to third for the second out as Smith scored.
Aparicio kept hopes alive by hitting a soft bouncer past the pitcher. Kralick needed just one more out. Floyd Robinson followed with his fourth hit, to right field. This drove in Lollar, and Aparicio scooted to third. It was 4-2 with runners on first and third. Kralick was showing fatigue, but Mele chose to leave him in to pitch to Cam Carreon, batting for the injured Jim Landis. An extra-base hit would have tied the game and Carreon got good wood on it, sending it to deep center. Bill Tuttle was there, however, and he grabbed it to end the game. The frustrated White Sox couldn’t pull it out, and the Twins held on.
Jack Kralick notched his eighth win and sixth complete game. Of his single that broke the tie in the eighth, he said, “I’ve always been able to hit a little, but I’m not one who could do .300 regularly. Yes, I was tired in the ninth, but I was happy to see Killebrew give me a cushion with his inside-the-park home run after my single.”5 On his trouble fielding Aparicio’s groundball in the ninth, he remarked, “When that happens, I just make myself forget it. I go for the next play and bear down.”6 Kralick finished 1961 with a 13-11 record. The Twins were 18-14 in games he started.
Minnesota outhomered Chicago 7-0 in the series. The White Sox finished a respectable fourth at the end of the season but were held back by a losing record on the road. Cal McLish logged a 10-13 mark in 1961, his only year with the White Sox. He was bothered all year with a double hernia but after treatment went on to pitch for the Phillies until 1964.
The Twins wrapped up their first season in Minnesota in seventh place with a 70-90 mark. They were more successful at the gate: They ranked third in the American League in attendance, behind New York and Detroit.
Killebrew’s was the first inside-the-park homer in Twins history, and the only one hit by a Twins player in 1961. Twenty were hit in the major leagues that season, and the only other one at Metropolitan Stadium was by Nellie Fox on September 6.7 Through 2019, there have been 53 inside-the-park home runs hit in Twins games. Of the total, 12 were hit at Metropolitan Stadium, 19 at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, and 3 at Target Field.8
Killebrew crashed 29 round-trippers at home in 1961, still a franchise record as of 2019. He holds the all-time career record for Metropolitan Stadium home runs with 246, including two as a member of the Kansas City Royals in 1975. Killebrew racked up 46 total in 1961, matching Jim Gentile, but that number trailed those of Roger Maris (61) and Mickey Mantle (54). The mild-mannered Killebrew led the American League in home runs six times, on the way to becoming arguably the most beloved player in Minnesota Twins history.
Skelton, David E. “Jack Kralick,” sabr.org/bioproj/person/cefb31eb
Wancho, Joseph. “Cal McLish,” sabr.org/bioproj/person/a0ea7e9e
Wancho, Joseph. “Harmon Killebrew,” sabr.org/bioproj/person/55c51444
1 Charles Johnson, “Win or Lose, Twins Thrill,” Minneapolis Star, July 5, 1961: 49.
2 Richard Dozer, “Sox Prove Dud: Twins Win 6-4, 4-2,” Chicago Tribune, July 5, 1961: 46.
3 “Killebrew Happy About Selection,” Minneapolis Tribune, July 4, 1961: 13.
4 Dwayne Netland, ‘“Becquer More Valuable on Bench,’ Says Twin Pilot,” Minneapolis Tribune, July 5, 1961: 20.
6 Max Nichols, “Extra Drill Helps Becquer in a Pinch,” Minneapolis Star, July 5, 1961: 49.
8 John Swol, “Twins Inside-the-Park Home Runs Are a Rarity,” posted on twinstrivia.com. (twinstrivia.com/2016/06/15/twins-inside-the-park-home-runs-are-a-rarity/), on June 15, 2016; and
baseball-reference.com, Players/Finders and Advanced Stats/Home Run Logs, accessed April 2, 2020.