By Steve Aschburner
Triumph Books Copyright © 2012 Steve Aschburner
All rights reserved.
Payette, Home Again
Driving into Payette, Idaho, the signs of Harmon Killebrew are easy to spot. They hang high, front and center at the town's entry points, clear sources of pride for the locals and maybe a little surprising for out-of-staters who happen to be passing through on the interstate highways and major roads that veer through the town on the state's western border.
In most locations, draping from lampposts, there's a vertical banner on the left that reads, "Welcome to Payette / Home of the Pirates," complete with a cartoonish figure and all the accessories you'd expect — skull and crossbones on his hat, eye patch on his face, stiletto clenched in his teeth. It's a Pittsburgh Pirates–Tampa Bay Buccaneers–Oakland Raiders type of vibe, and it's tied into the local high school's sports nickname.
Right next to it, though, the one on the right features the photo of a smiling, affable big leaguer in a relaxed 1960s pose. This one gets the job done for a favorite son: "Welcome to Payette / Hometown of Harmon Killebrew."
Immediately, an image forms — a happy mix of black-and-white newsreel footage and Kodachrome snapshots — of a fellow who reached the major leagues under Eisenhower and exited under Ford. From Joe McCarthy to Patty Hearst, from I Love Lucy to Saturday Night Live:
Harmon Killebrew — legendary slugger for the Minnesota Twins (with brief stays at the start and end with the Washington Senators and the Kansas City Royals) — 573 "all-natural" home runs, ranking fifth in big league history when he retired and still ranking 11th as the 2012 baseball season began — high, majestic "moon shot" blasts that, modest as he was, even Killebrew would stand and admire for a couple seconds before trotting around the bases — forearms, biceps, and wrists that would have Popeye reaching for more spinach.
Eight seasons hitting 40 homers or more — six American League home run titles — ranked third all-time in home run frequency upon his retirement (one every 14.2 at-bats, behind Babe Ruth's 11.76 rate and Ralph Kiner's 14.11) — nine seasons with 100 or more RBIs, 1,584 RBIs in his career — the AL's Most Valuable Player in 1969 — trips to three postseasons with the Twins (1965, '69, '70) — enshrinement into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in 1984 — a soft-spoken gentleman whose ill-fitting nicknames, "Killer" and "Harm," instantly and forever felt ironic — friend and neighbor whose battle at age 74 with esophageal cancer began late in 2010 and ended on May 17, 2011.
If you're coming in from Boise, about 60 miles southeast from Payette, you can branch off to the right at the "Welcome to ..." banner and head north along US–95. Soon enough, you will see a second tribute on your left. "Harmon Killebrew Field," the two-piece sign reads. "Idaho's Athlete of the Century." And just to make sure there's no confusion — Huh? Which century? — the bottom of the sign features a sketch of Killebrew in multiple images and poses, taking a powerful cut at the plate in his Minnesota Twins prime and smiling out in portrait mode as a youthful, pleasant — and unmistakably 1950s — high school player.
Beyond the ballfield, you'll see the high school, long and flat and too modern to have been the place where Killebrew sat in classes and walked the halls. The old school — closer to the center of town — succumbed to wear, tear, and eventually a fire that took with it some trophies from Harmon's teams at Payette High School. Beyond the school, or more accurately rising up next to it, is the white geodesic dome of the gymnasium. It's modern and vintage all at once, poking up like a huge golf ball half-buried in a bunker or a tin of Jiffy Pop popcorn, ready to eat. In Cold War times, it might have been a radar center, scanning the sky for Soviet missiles. These days, however, it is simply the roof atop the gym and an opportunity missed.
Once upon a time — back in 1985 — a brainstorm to honor one of Payette's most famous natives was hatched by local businesswoman and historian Dee Klenck and her husband, George. They called it the Killebrew Art Project, and their plan was simple. Paint large red "stitches" on the white gym dome to make it resemble a baseball and then position Harmon's famous, elegant autograph — writ large — between the seams. Killebrew was hot at the time, having recently been elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame, and the Klencks felt that creating the world's largest tribute to a sports celebrity would be just the ticket to draw some national attention to Payette and perhaps lure tourists, as well.
What the Klencks hadn't counted on, however, was a high school full of kids who barely remembered Killebrew as an active major leaguer, never mind the all-time slugger who had made their parents' generation so proud. The kids gave a collective shrug, though some took it further, picketing the Maudie Owens Café one day in April 1985 while George Klenck was inside pitching his project yet again to the town's Chamber of Commerce.
The objections, on top of a lukewarm initial response, embarrassed Killebrew, who initially had given his permission to the couple to pursue their idea. So he withdrew his participation. A few days later, the Klencks pulled the project's plug "due to the majority opposition of the high school kids and the general lack of support from the community." Dee and George apologized to Harmon and gave him a copy of a petition with names of neighbors who supported the idea. But they refused to back off on the notion as anything but one swell tribute. "By using Harmon's success in baseball as the example, we were wanting to show that in America we can excel in any endeavor we choose," George Klenck said. "However, if this project is ever to realize completion, I'm afraid it will have to be done by those who are in a position to do so."
The setback wasn't a total loss. Within three years, Dee Klenck came up with an idea for an Idaho Hall of Fame. Some of those who objected to the Killebrew tribute claimed that Payette had other natives deserving of recognition, which planted the seed for the proud Idaho booster. "I was determined that there was nobody as great as Harmon Killebrew," Klenck said in 2000. But as she heard or was reminded of folks from Payette or nearby communities such as Joe Albertson, Sen. James McClure, Chief Joseph, and Lana Turner, Dee Klenck's vision grew.
"We said, 'Alright, let's bring the attention of the world to those we are loaning to them," she said. Harmon was among those inducted on the inaugural ballot in 1995, though the Hall is largely honorary — without a permanent brick-and-mortar location, it exists primarily in cyberspace. Whenever she saw Killebrew after that, until her death in December 2009, she would tease him about withdrawing from the dome plan, saying, "Harmon, if it weren't for you — oh boy — see how things happen?"
Mark Heleker still has big dreams of a big baseball. The principal of Payette High and a member of the city council, Heleker thinks the logistics of getting Killebrew's distinctive signature on the dome is as big a challenge as finally, after all these years, getting the approval and momentum to achieve it.
"We're kind of reviving that," Heleker said on a January morning as he walked the halls of the high school. There are three trophy cases on site honoring Killebrew. One has hardware commemorating various tournament and game victories of his football, basketball, and baseball teams. Another houses his No. 12 baseball jersey. The third honors Killebrew alongside Payette High heavyweights James McClure, the former U.S. senator, and Warren McCain, who rose to be CEO of the Albertson's grocery store empire.
"We're talking about having two different cranes," Heleker continued, "and how nowadays with projectors, we could maybe project an outline of his actual signature onto the dome. A local radio station has been working with me a little bit, and I'm working through the city council. I would really like to see it up there."
The Minnesota Twins had a similar Killebrew autograph in white against the green backdrop of their outfield wall displayed as a tribute to the late slugger during the 2011 season.
Heleker has done much to revive the connection between Payette and its most famous sports personality. Harmon Killebrew Day was established on April 16, 2005. It was a brainstorm that swelled out of an innocent conversation Heleker had one day in 2004 with the school's baseball coach, Tracy Bratcher, about ways to raise awareness and boost local enthusiasm for the Pirates program. "He and I always felt that Payette was a baseball town, and we were talking about ideas to promote Payette baseball," Heleker said of the men's "Eureka!" moment, "and all of a sudden it was like, 'Harmon!'"
As Bratcher told the Idaho Statesman in May 2011, "My generation missed his playing days, but we grew up to the stories and reading the backs of baseball cards and reading old newspaper clippings that your grandma cut out. One thing I noticed when I became the coach is that the next generation was really kind of clueless about who Harmon Killebrew was."
More than just the passage of time had brought about some separation between the hero and his hometown. For most of Killebrew's career through the 1960s, the '70s, and beyond, he and his family had lived in a home in Ontario, Oregon, just across the Snake River at the Idaho border. About five miles southwest of Payette along Interstate 84, Ontario's slogan is, "Where Oregon begins."
It almost became the place where Payette ended, however. At least in an economic sense.
* * *
Primarily a farming community, supplying Heinz and other food companies with the same sort of russet potatoes, sugar beets, and onions that Idaho farmers provide, Ontario also began to grow its retail economy via the lack of a state sales tax. That lured shoppers from Payette, Fruitland, and New Plymouth first, then merchants second. When big-box stores such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart came into the "micropolitan" market, they set up — you guessed it — in Ontario. Even residents uprooted, following their finances to the more favorable side of the river/border.
"Oh yeah, Payette used to be so much bigger than Ontario," said Ron Manser, a classmate and teammate of Killebrew in high school and a lifelong resident of their hometown. "At one time, Payette had every car manufacturer, every dealership here. People of Ontario would come over to this side to shop. It was a big thriving metropolis, as far as any of the towns around, much bigger than Ontario. We had everything here — four grocery stores. We had specialty shops like meat markets, shoe stores, dry goods — three or four of them. Then our good legislature passed the sales tax law, and Ontario did not have a sales tax.
"The business just completely dropped. Everybody started closing down and leaving. There's one auto dealership left. We [owned] a Ford dealership and I sold out in '91, and they consolidated it with the one in Ontario. It all went across the river."
Manser was head of the Chamber of Commerce for a time and commissioned a study. It found that because property taxes in Oregon were higher at that time, merchants still charged more for goods and services, on average, than the Payette price even after the 3 percent sales tax. Didn't matter. "We advertised the daylights out of it," Manser said. "But noooo! They weren't paying any sales tax! They'd pay more for their goods before they'd pay that."
A rivalry between the two towns intensified, and the Killebrews took a hit for that. They had moved over to the Oregon side for a number of reasons, placing their five children in the Oregon school system and basing the auto dealership, Killebrew Motors, in Ontario. Some of those left behind — or at least those who felt that way — didn't take kindly to it and began to harbor a bit of a grudge.
"We kind of had a thing with Ontario because they kind of stole our glory," Heleker said, "and then Killebrew establishes a home there and raises his kids there. Some people felt, 'Harmon doesn't consider us his hometown anymore. He must not because, look, he's over there.' I was a little kid at that time, so to me none of that mattered. He's still Killebrew, he's my idol, he's the man, so anything he does or says ... nobody else's word means anything to me.
"But now that I'm older and one of the community leaders, I realize how wearing that was on our communities at the time. 'Our favorite son was in Ontario, too, and when he's back in the area, that's where he goes.' I really think there was a period of time where people around here, even though they still respected him and thought Harmon was the greatest thing that ever came out of Payette, there were some hard feelings. He came out of Payette, left Payette, and went to Ontario. And Harmon kind of felt that."
When Killebrew bought a home in Meridian (closer to Boise), he still felt concerned and wondered about the locals' grudge. It came up when Heleker contacted Killebrew with his brainstorm for Harmon Killebrew Day. Killebrew appreciated the lifeline thrown back to his true home. "He would say, 'I'm really happy that we're doing this because I want to be Payette. I just don't want to be from this area. I want to be Payette.' You could tell that was a very strong feeling he had."
By that time, the feeling was mutual. The grudge has lessened, and the wounds had scabbed over. By April 2005, the Killebrews were gone from Ontario. Their children were grown, and Harmon and Elaine divorced years earlier. Harmon spent most of his time in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his second wife, Nita.
Plus, kids like Heleker were the grown-ups now. That put the high school principal in a position to make things happen with a small-town advantage in getting things done — he had been both assistant principal and mayor for several years before flipping into the principal and city councilman role. Wearing multiple hats streamlined a lot of processes in taking the idea from plan to action. Heleker also had a connection to Killebrew that would make the whole vision possible.
Pat Heleker, Mark's father, worked for the U.S. Postal Service in town for 38 years. Off-duty, though, he played semi-pro baseball for the Payette Packers in the Idaho/Oregon Border League and later officiated baseball at all levels throughout the Treasure Valley. In fact, Pat Heleker was 12 years older than Killebrew and was seen as something of a mentor and role model when the younger man joined the Packers for games after his senior season at Payette in 1954. Killebrew's own father, Clay, had died during his junior year.
"Harmon played just a short time with them before the major leagues stole him away," Mark Heleker said. "But since my dad was a little ahead of him, my dad used to brag, 'For a while, I was Killebrew's hero.' He used to tag around with my dad and talk baseball."
The elder Heleker and young Killebrew kept in touch after Harmon left for the big leagues — Harmon even counseled his friend against pursuing a career as a professional umpire because of the strain the traveling and time commitment would put on Heleker's family back in Payette. That friendship gave Mark Heleker some currency with his friends as Killebrew's star climbed in the 1960s.
"I had a big brag. How many kids, when they pick up the mail at their house, see a letter from Harmon Killebrew?" the principal said, thinking back to the days when he would scour box scores in the morning paper to see how his favorite player had done. "So I'd always tell my friends, 'Yep, another letter from Harmon came today.'"
Pat Heleker was 80 years old by the time his son, Mark, pulled together the inaugural Harmon Killebrew Day in Payette on April 16, 2005. "The first couple of Killebrew days, my dad was still alive and he and Harmon kind of reunited, so that was fun," Mark Heleker said. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Harmon Killebrew by Steve Aschburner. Copyright © 2012 Steve Aschburner. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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