Harmon Killebrew, long an admirer of Stan Musial, got to know the Cardinals legend best when both represented Major League Baseball on a tour of Vietnam.
On May 13, 2011, Killebrew, the Hall of Fame slugger who hit 573 home runs in a 22-year American League career, said he was entering hospice care because there was nothing more he could do to battle esophageal cancer.
The sad news prompted many tributes to the popular and humble Killebrew, 74, who played primarily for the Twins and Senators. Though he never played a regular-season or post-season game against the Cardinals, Killebrew did have a connection to and fondness for Musial.
In a Feb. 15 radio interview with St. Louis station 1380 AM, Killebrew was asked to share his thoughts about Musial, who was about to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“I always admired Stan from afar as a youngster,” Killebew told radio host Evan Makovsky. “I’ve known him now for over 40-some years and we’ve been good friends. I’ve always just marveled at the records Stan Musial put up. I always felt he did not get the credit he deserved … He has to rank, in my book, as one of the greatest players who ever lived.”
On Nov. 1, 1966, Musial, Killebrew, the Braves’ Hank Aaron and Joe Torre, the Orioles’ Brooks Robinson and broadcaster Mel Allen embarked on a trip to Vietnam to conduct clinics and boost morale of the U.S. troops.
“I got to know Stan very, very well (on that tour),” Killebrew said. “I got to know the kind of person he was, and it really magnified my feelings about Stan Musial.”
According to a November 1966 story by Lou Hatter of the Baltimore Sun, the tour was co-sponsored by the baseball commissioner’s office and the Department of Defense. The baseball group, which left from San Francisco, stopped in Honolulu, Guam and Manila on the way to Saigon. The return trip included stops in Tokyo and Anchorage before concluding in San Francisco.
Brooks Robinson told the newspaper the group met with U.S. military personnel at field hospitals and battle stations. Robinson said the group was in daily earshot of gunfire and once saw a U.S. airstrike from their transport helicopter.
“A couple of our ‘copters had taken bullet holes from snipers in the brush, though on the way to pick us up,” Robinson said. “We usually flew at about 3,000 feet to avoid sniper fire and never came in for a landing at a gradual descent. We normally came straight down from that altitude in a kind of screwdriver spiral descent. That was some kind of a thrill.”
Jim Lucas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American war correspondent based in Vietnam for Scripps Howard newspapers, told colleagues at the time the baseball group accomplished its mission.
“Wherever I’ve gone, I’ve heard nothing but raves,” Lucas said. “Stan Musial apparently is quite a guy. He’s the one most often quoted … They did a lot for baseball as an entity with the top brass, from General Westmoreland on down, and they did a lot for the morale of the troops.”
In the book “Musial: From Stash to Stan the Man” (2001, University of Missouri Press), author James N. Giglio wrote:
Musial nearly became a fatality; his quarters were bombed while he was elsewhere in the area eating lunch. He flirted with danger at another outpost and in a helicopter over hostile territory.
Author George Vecsey, in the book “Stan Musial: An American Life” (2011, Ballantine), reported a different version while making the same point:
This was no meet-and-greet opportunity in a secured camp…
In Da Nang, the players had lunch with General William Westmoreland, the commander of the U.S. operation in Vietnam, and dinner with Lieutenant General Lewis Walt, the commanding general of the III Marine Amphibious Force. Shortly after that, the general’s quarters were bombed by the Vietcong. Musial was still talking about that bombing when he got home a few weeks later.
An editorial in the Nov. 19, 1966, edition of The Sporting News opined:
These men are members of baseball’s elite. All have been well-rewarded for their accomplishments _ in money, prestige, applause and publicity. They have captured no headlines in Vietnam nor will they gain financially. Their trip might not be necessary either, but it surely is worthwhile.