November 21, 2008
You'd think something that happened only 40 years ago wouldn't be too difficult to document and verify, especially in the world of Major League Baseball, which tracks statistics back to the 1800s. But that appears to be the situation regarding baseball's silhouetted batter logo, whose background continues to confound.
A quick recap: Two weeks ago I ran a column about Jerry Dior, who appears to be the man who designed the logo in 1968 (MLB officials have declined to confirm this, but all signs point to Dior). In an interview that appeared in that column, Dior debunked the persistent myth that the logo was based on a photo of Harmon Killebrew -- a claim I've seen repeated everywhere from message boards to MLB game broadcasts. "It's not any specific person," Dior said. "I did a couple of variations based on [magazine] photographs I had. It was sort of composite of what I had in front of me."
After that column ran, several readers sent me notes insisting the logo was based on Killebrew. None of them provided any supporting evidence, so I didn't pay them much mind. But then I got a communiqué from baseball historian Maxwell Kates, who checked in with the following:
"I spoke to Harmon Killebrew at an old-timers' dinner in Toronto a few years ago. I asked him about the logo controversy and he claimed that he was indeed the inspiration for the logo. He signed a 1963 Twins yearbook for me, and his image on the cover bears an uncanny resemblance to the MLB logo."
Hmmmm. The yearbook in question is this one. That's Killebrew on the cover, and sure enough, if you reverse the image, you get something that looks a lot like the logo.
The problem is that the yearbook image is hardly unique in this regard. Take this photo of Joe Torre, for example -- reverse it and bingo, there's the source for your logo, arguably even a closer match than the Killebrew image.
And once you start looking, it turns out the logo could be based on almost any hitter with a fairly traditional batting stance, including Tony Gonzalez, Ron Blomberg, Tony Conigliaro, Rusty Staub, Johnny Bench, Dick Allen, Reggie Smith, Hank Aaron, Rick Monday, Orlando Cepeda, Jose Cruz, Reggie Jackson, Rich Rollins, Von Joshua, and countless more. Yes, many of those photos should be disqualified because they were taken after 1968, but that just reinforces the point that the logo could be based on any player from any era.
So how did the Killebrew connection become such an enduring part of the logo's lore? I tracked down Killebrew, who now runs a charitable foundation in Arizona, and asked him that myself. Here's what he told me:
"I was in the commissioner's office one day in the late 1960s. I can't remember the specifics, but I think it had something to do with a litho they were doing for the National Kidney Foundation. Anyway, I walked through the back part of the office, and there was a man sitting at a table. He had a photograph of me in a hitting position, and he had one of those grease pencils that you see at a newspaper, and he was marking that thing up. I said, 'What are you doing with that?' and he said they were going to make a new Major League Baseball logo. I never thought any more about it. And then the logo came out and it did look like me. The only change was the angle of the bat -- they changed that to kind of make it fit more into the design."
Killebrew (who stresses that he's never requested or expected any monetary compensation regarding the logo) didn't get the name of the guy marking up his photo, and he never asked for or received any confirmation that the logo was based on him. The closest he came was in a conversation with former commish Bowie Kuhn shortly before Kuhn's death in 2007. Kuhn wasn't yet commissioner in 1968 (his term started in February 1969, after the logo had already been created), but he was working in the commissioner's office at the time and was actually on the selection committee that chose Dior's design.
"Bowie and I were always close," says Killebrew. "So just before he died, I asked him about that time I was up in the commissioner's office, because I'd like it to be on the record for my children and for posterity. But he was fading pretty badly, and he said, 'As much as I like you, Harmon, your recollections are a lot better than mine right now. I'd like to confirm that for you, but I can't remember.'"
So who was the guy with the grease pencil -- could it have been Jerry Dior?
Nope. "I've never been in the commissioner's office," he says. "I wish I had -- that would be nice. But all the work I did on the logo was at the offices of Sandgren & Murtha [the marketing company where Dior worked at the time]." And is it possible that one of the photos he used to create the silhouetted batter could have been a shot of Killebrew? "It could have been, but it would have been bastardized, because there were several photographs that I kept altering. I wish I could say to Harmon that it's him, but I can't."
Dior and Killebrew have now spoken. Each man agrees that the other sounds like a gracious, honorable person who's telling the truth. Each one is also sticking to his story: Dior knows how he designed the logo, and Killebrew knows what he saw that day in the commissioner's office. Of course, these two positions aren't mutually exclusive -- the guy marking up the Killebrew photo could simply have been working on a logo project that never came to fruition, and the logo looks as much like Killebrew as it looks like any other player, so he simply put two and two together and assumed the logo was created by the guy he'd seen marking up his photo.
But wait, it gets better: In a bizarre coincidence, it turns out there is a logo that's definitely based on Killebrew -- this one. It's the logo of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, which was founded in 1982 by a group of former Washington- and Baltimore-area players, including Jim Hannan, who's now the group's chairman.
"Back when we were getting started, Major League Baseball tried to help us with creating a logo," Hannan recalls. "But we didn't really like what they came up with, so we asked a local graphic artist named James Walczy to work on it. He came back with the sequence of the three silhouettes showing the progression of a swing and said they were based on photos of Harmon. That was perfect for us, because Harmon was very involved in the Alumni Association at the time. So I said to Harmon, 'By the way, we've got our logo, and it's you.' He said that was great, and he mentioned that he was also the source of the Major League Baseball logo."
The Alumni Association logo certainly matches up with photos of Killebrew's swing. But again, couldn't we swap in photos of many other players and come up with similar results? James Walczy, the designer who created the Alumni logo, thinks so. "We were looking through several baseball books that we could use for visual reference, and one of them had the sequence showing Harmon's swing, which is what we ended up using," he confirms. "But really, it could have been anybody. In fact, we actually trimmed down his silhouette, because Harmon was a little stocky. If you look at the logo, it's more of a Hank Aaron-type body than a Harmon Killebrew body."
And did anyone tell him Killebrew might also be the basis of the MLB logo? "I guess someone may have mentioned that to me," says Walczy, who runs a Maryland-based ad agency these days. "But you're talking about silhouettes here -- there's no definition of facial features or anything, and the MLB design just shows the batter from the chest up, so I'd think it could be anyone. Even my design for the Alumni Association, I bet you could put that in front of 100 baseball fans and nobody would know it was Harmon Killebrew. And it wasn't supposed to look like him -- it was supposed to represent any player and all players."
So the notion of Harmon Killebrew being the inspiration for the MLB logo appears to have originated with Killebrew himself, who sincerely believes his photo was the basis of the design. He's repeated this claim over the years to numerous parties, including Jim Hannan and Maxwell Kates (although he's never gone on the record with a reporter until now), and those people have in turn passed it on other people. Along the way the story has become part of the logo's lore, its unofficial oral history, even though Jerry Dior says it isn't true.
And what does Killebrew say now that he's spoken to the logo's designer? "I don't know. All I know is what I saw. I don't want to say I don't believe Jerry, but it was a long time ago -- maybe his memory isn't good either."
As for Dior, he's philosophical about the whole thing. "The Harmon Killebrew myth has been around a long time now, so I think it will live on," he says. "And I don't mind. Actually, I think it's kind of nice."
(Special thanks to Steve Dewing's incredible collection of 1960s and '70s baseball photos, which was the source of the images for the photo/logo comparisons.)