“Conversation with Harmon Killibrew,” New Era, Apr. 1971, 46
Anyone who follows baseball knows about Harmon Killibrew. But besides being one of the most consistent power hitters in baseball history, Brother Killibrew is a man unashamedly devoted to his family and the Church. He is an active elder in his ward.
He received the “Most Valuable Player of the Year” award (voted by the U.S. sportswriters) in 1969 and was the American League Player of the Year (selected by the players themselves) in 1969 and 1970. Five times the American League’s home-run champion, he is also one of two men in baseball history to hit more than forty home runs per season for eight or more seasons. The other man was Babe Ruth.
Originally from Payette, Idaho, Brother Killibrew and his family divide their time between Ontario, Oregon, and (during the baseball season) Edna, Minnesota.
New Era: What is the key element of success in athletics, assuming one has the necessary physical attributes?
Brother Killibrew: The most important thing that a player needs in order to succeed in baseball or anything else is desire. You’ve got to have desire! Desire to play, desire to practice. Desire to study, desire to endure. Desire—there’s nothing bigger than it. And, of course, the players who have both desire and ability are the ones who really have it made.
New Era: One American sports-writer commented that you weren’t as fierce a competitor as others because you didn’t swear at the umpires or throw your helmet on the ground.
Brother Killibrew: I think there’s a big difference between losing control and being a competitor. I don’t jump up and down and scream at the umpire and do that sort of thing. But I’m always trying to beat the other ball club. The only way I can do that is to control myself and try to do the best job I can on the field. As far as I can see, all other emotional behavior doesn’t accomplish anything. I think that a competitor is a person who really puts his whole self into the job. That is what makes a team—each man concentrating on his own job and making great team effort. Because of this collective effort, I’ve never felt that a ball club really needed one player as a team leader. Everyone should feel responsible, just as we’re taught in the Church.
New Era: You have been compared to Babe Ruth. You’re builtlow and heavy like he was, and you hit like he did. How do you respond when people make this comparison?
Brother Killibrew: Babe Ruth was one of a kind. It’s pretty hard to compare anyone to him, and I certainly don’t make that comparison. There are several guys ahead of me as far as the total number of home runs. I have only 487 and Ruth had 714. One problem that I face—as does every hitter nowadays—is the schedule that we play. With night and day baseball, double headers, and traveling all over the country, it is very difficult to play baseball as many years as the players were able to do in the past. Playing for twenty years is almost unheard of today. We played 162 games this season, plus about thirty games in spring training, exhibition games, all-star games, and play-offs. We total about two hundred ball games a season—and that’s a lot of work.
New Era: Was there ever a time in your life when you were discouraged and felt that baseball wasn’t for you?
Brother Killibrew: Yes, I’ve had setbacks. I think everyone at some point in life experiences disappointments, no matter what field he is in. I’m no exception. In the early years of my career, I was moved around quite a bit, and I got really discouraged.
I was really down. I told my wife that I was convinced I could play major league baseball, but that I had to prove it to everyone else. I had two choices: give up and quit right there or try to prove to them that I could play major league ball. This was the low point in my career. The next year I had a good year in Chattanooga. Then I played for Washington, and I have stayed in the major leagues since then.
I learned a lot through all of this. There is a statement that every baseball player hears a lot: “Just try to meet the ball.” Well, for me that is not the way to do it. I feel that you’ve got to really attack the ball and swing with some authority—and that is what I try to do. When I’m up, I try to hit the ball hard and let it go where it will. And I think life is a little like that. There is no use taking a half-hearted swing at anything.
New Era: You have two sons, ages thirteen and fourteen. What kinds of things do you and your sons like to do together?
Brother Killibrew: Well, once in a while we play a little ball together. And we all like to hunt. Hunting works in very well in my off-season. We hunt pheasant, chuckers, quail, and waterfowl. And I’ve found that the baseball reflexes of timing, coordination, and a good eye are all important in shooting a shotgun. Also, we do a lot of trap and skeet shooting. I think my boys are better shots for their age than I was. I also have three daughters, ages four, six, and seven. As for family activities, everyone knows that some of the most simple, wholesome activities are the most fun. In our family we play games and pop corn and that sort of thing. It’s just great fun to be together and enjoy each other and like what you are doing together.
New Era: Have you had any special experiences in baseball because of your membership in the Church?
Brother Killibrew: All of us have plenty of opportunities to tell someone about it. I remember one day, just after I joined the Church, that I was playing first base and happened to be hitting pretty well at the time. In fact, I was in a hot streak. One player on another team was really struggling and having a tough time hitting. Well, he finally got to first base and said, “Say, what church was that you just joined? I’ll join myself, if it can help me hit the ball like you do!”
New Era: Even before you were a Latter-day Saint, you were well-respected and had a good-guy image. Has your life really changed very much since you joined the Church?
Brother Killibrew: I think my life has undergone a complete change since I joined the Church. It really has. And I’m very thankful for the gospel in my life and for the closeness of our family.
New Era: Besides the change in your life, has the gospel had an influence on your baseball career?
Brother Killibrew: Yes, in many ways. One of the most dramatic was demonstrated when I ruptured the hamstring muscle in my left leg in an all-star game. There was a real question as to whether I would ever play again. I was using crutches. Two bearers of the priesthood administered to me. After that I no longer needed the crutches, and my leg healed up very nicely. The next year was the year I got the Most Valuable Player award.
New Era: How about the Word of Wisdom as a factor for the athlete?
Brother Killibrew: There is no question that it has helped me to keep playing, even with minor injuries. With the rugged schedules that we follow, if a player does not take care of himself in all ways, it’s very difficult for him to do his best day after day. I have a strong personal testimony that the Word of Wisdom is a true teaching and that it has been a definite help to me.
New Era: How do you feel about working on Sundays?
Brother Killibrew: I wish I didn’t have to do it, but it is part of my business and there is nothing I can do about it. I try to attend priesthood meeting on Sunday morning whenever I can. During the off-season, I try extra hard to be active in my elders quorum and all the other programs of the Church.
New Era: How did it feel to win the Player of the Year award?
Brother Killibrew: Good! It felt great! But let’s put this kind of thing in perspective. Being chosen player of the year can’t even compare with the great feeling I had when I went to the temple with my family. That was a wonderful and special experience. It means so much to me to know that we will always be together as a family.
New Era: What advice would you give to Latter-day Saint youth?
Brother Killibrew: Stay close to the Church. If they do that while they’re young, they’ll have a good chance of staying with the Church throughout their whole lives.
I’ve learned that no one ever has to be ashamed of the gospel. People respect you for your beliefs. Sure, I get a little kidding once in a while, but on the whole, people seem to respect me for the principles I follow. I wish all of our Latter-day Saint youth knew this—you don’t have to go along with the crowd when the crowd is wrong. Self-respect and the respect of others will come to the person who stays close to the gospel.