Major League Myth

Why did Harmon Killebrew—and everyone else—believe he was the batter in baseball’s iconic logo?  
 


Photo by Hank Walker//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
 

 
When the baseball slugger Harmon Killebrew died on May 17, several of his obituaries mentioned that he had been the basis for Major League Baseball’s familiar “silhouetted batter” logo. In the days following his death, this factoid was repeated by writers, broadcasters, and fans throughout the baseball world. It’s a good story, one that’s been circulating for years. Killebrew himself believed it. But it isn’t true.
 
First, some background: The MLB logo has had an unusually long run as the symbol of America’s national pastime. Originally designed in 1969 to celebrate professional baseball’s centennial, it soon became adopted as the official MLB mark. As MLB’s branding and merchandising programs have exploded in recent years, the logo has become more ubiquitous than ever, both on the field (it now appears on every big-league cap, jersey, batting helmet, and ball) and off (on countless licensed products, which totaled $2.75 billion in sales last year, according to the trade publication The Licensing Letter).
 
Baseball executives didn’t acknowledge the logo’s designer until 2009—40 years after it first appeared—when they formally gave credit to Jerry Dior, who created the logo while working for the marketing agency Sandgren & Murtha. This lengthy period of indeterminate parentage allowed several stories about the logo to spring up, chief among them the Killebrew connection. The story seems plausible enough if you put a photo of Killebrew’s batting stance side-by-side with the logo. There are clear similarities. The thing is, you can play this same game with photos of Johnny Bench, Joe Torre, Orlando Cepeda, and literally hundreds of other ballplayers. Put any of them next to the logo and you’ll have a good match.
 
Jerry Dior, now 79 and retired, could have settled all of this if anyone had asked him. Since being credited as the logo’s designer, he has repeatedly told interviewers that the silhouette was a “nondescript” composite image, not a Killebrew likeness. But since Dior wasn’t officially credited as the logo’s designer until 2009, the Killebrew myth had time to grow and become entrenched.
 
But how did the myth begin in the first place? Based on reporting I did in 2008, it appears to have originated with Killebrew himself. Around 1968, he was in the baseball commissioner’s office and saw a photo of himself being marked up with a grease pencil. He was told that it was for a logo. Jerry Dior maintains that he’s never been in the MLB offices (“I wish I had,” he says. “That would be nice!”), and it’s not clear what became of that marked-up Killebrew photo. In any case, when the silhouette logo appeared, Killebrew assumed, sincerely but mistakenly, that it was based on himself. He said as much to friends and associates for decades, and from there it took on a life of its own, so much so that it was repeated in Killebrew’s obituaries, even though Dior had spent the previous two years disavowing the story.
 
I write about uniforms and logos for ESPN.com. So when those erroneous obituaries began appearing, I wrote a small item reminding everyone that the Killebrew myth had already been debunked. That prompted some nasty emails accusing me of “defaming a defenseless man,” “speaking ill of the dead,” and several things that aren’t printable. Of course, I hadn’t said anything negative about Killebrew (who, for the record, was an extremely gracious and likable man in my limited dealings with him). I’d simply pointed out that a widely repeated story about the design of an iconic logo was inaccurate. But it turns out that in this case, as in so many others, some people prefer the myth over the truth.
 
Part of this, clearly, is because Killebrew was a beloved figure, and some fans can’t bear to see his stature diminished in any way. But I think the reaction also speaks to the way people gravitate toward origin stories that are rooted in recognizable figures. Baseball fans like seeing a connection between the logo and Killebrew (just as basketball fans like seeing Jerry West in the NBA logo). Sports, after all, is all about myth-making, and most fans find the Killebrew myth more satisfying than the reality of a persona-free composite. It’s like believing in the Biblical version of creation instead of evolution.
 
As if to reinforce that point, on July 11, nearly two months after Killebrew’s death, MLB held its annual Home Run Derby exhibition at Chase Field in Phoenix. The ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman opened the network’s coverage of the event by dedicating it to Killebrew’s memory. Soon afterward, Prince Fielder of the Brewers hit a titanic shot that slammed against a large poster of the silhouetted batter logo, prompting Berman’s broadcast partner, Nomar Garciaparra, to quip, “You were giving respect to Harmon Killebrew earlier. Well, Prince Fielder gave him some respect—he hit his silhouette!” The following night, during the All-Star Game, a Fox Sports broadcaster briefly mentioned Killebrew, and the camera, right on cue, showed a shot of the MLB logo.

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