Death of Gentle Slugger Harmon Killebrew Brings a Flood of Memories and a Whiff of Mortality

Reprinted from MichaelDSellers.com
It’s a rainy Tuesday afternoon in Los Angeles and I am beset by a mountain of problems, deadlines, tasks unfinished, things to worry about — you name it. But all day, ever since I heard the news that my boyhood idol Harmon Killebrew died yesterday at the age of 74 of esophogeal cancer, I’ve been unable to shake the sense that this one really hurts, and has meaning, and has to be acknowledged. You see, the gentle, hardhitting third baseman of the Washington Senators and later the Minnesota Twins wasn’t just my hero — he was my Dad’s hero, the only sports figure he ever idolized. He was cynical about all the others, but not Harmon. Harmon was special.

The Senators were horrible in those days — bottom of the league. They played in the old Griffith Stadium in downtown Washington, and he would take me there four or five times each year. I remember the red white and blue bunting, the dark green of the stands, the smell of cigar smoke, and all the big, friendly black men who seemed to be the backbone of Senator fandom. I was wide-eyed, five years old. Those were the Senators of Camilo Pacual, Roy Seivers, Jim Lemon, Bob Allison — and looming above them all, the epic figure of third baseman Harmon Killebrew.
Harmon Killebrew

At 5’11” and 213 lbs, he was big by the standard of the day, and built more like a catcher than a third baseman. And could he swing the bat — 40 homers 8 years in a row — the definition of a slugger. The Senators went 61-93 that hot summer, and I listened to every game, most of the time lying on the front seat of the car in front of our apartment because that was the only radio we had. The Senators were horrible — but not Killebrew. He was brilliant. 42 home runs, on base percentage of .347 that year. Over his career, only one player has more 40 home run seasons — Babe Ruth. That’s right — Babe Ruth. No one else. “I didn’t have evil intentions, but I guess I did have power,” he would famously say, later in life. 573 Career Home Runs, Hall of Famer, yet on the plane to Cooperstown for his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1984 he went famously unrecognized by anyone on the plane. That was Killebrew. Fifth on the all-time home run list when he retired, behind Frank Robinson. He held the number 5 spot for 26 years until the steroid era arrived.

Killebrew gained a quirky kind of fame in little ways too. Like practicing his autograph until it was perfect, so you could read every letter of that confoundedly strange (to a 10 year old) name. He talked to fellow players about it, especially the young ones coming up behind him. Take pride in your autograph, he told them. If they’re asking for it, you owe it to them to make it legible.

What did my Dad see in him? Why did the strangely gentle “Killer” Killebrew capture his imagination in a way that no other sports figure ever did? My hard charging, spit-and-polish military father, the man whom I could never please in spite of my own sports exploits, which he followed avidly — what was it about Killebrew that turned him into a true fan? He started calling me “Rooster” as a pet name that summer, but I swear it came from Killebrew — as in “rewster”.

I think there was a compelling decency about Killebrew — a gentleness that belied his tremendous strength at the plate, a lack of ego which must have in some way struck a chord in my father. I’ll never truly know — but I know that this is one of those things where the father showed the son the way. That a man with my father’s anger and ego selected someone of Killebrew’s gentle, humble nature yet prodigious talent to be the role model for me was probably one of the most important things the old man ever taught me — and he didn’t even know he was teaching when he did it.

There is a school of thought that the MLB logo is Killebrew’s silhouette, just like Jerry West is the silhouette for the NBA. He was iconic for sure, so why not? And if MLB were to look back over all the players over the history of the game, they couldn’t come up with a better one to personify not just the skills that baseball acknowledges, but the character that it engenders. Maybe that was it — maybe that was what my Dad sensed. Baseball back then was still a game of pastoral, small-town roots, it was the American game, Killebrew was the quintessential American small town hero. My Dad got that, I guess. And perhaps he saw in Killebrew his own better self — the person he would like to have been, could never be. i hope that’s what it was..

Harmon Killebrew and the MLB Logo

I didn’t hear much or even think about Killebrew between his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1984, and the early 2000’s when I began to hear about him as an advocate for hospice care, something he believed in deeply. I admired him for that — and admired him even more when, scarcely a week ago, I read his statement that his battle was over, and he was checking into hospice. With class, dignity, and an awareness that his example would mean much to others facing similar challenges — he made his farewell. When my time comes, as all our times will, I hope I can stand up and say goodbye with the dignity, heart, and sense of love for family that he conveyed in his farewell statement:

“It is with profound sadness that I share with you that my continued battle with esophageal cancer is coming to an end, With the continued love and support of my wife, Nita, I have exhausted all options with respect to controlling this awful disease. My illness has progressed beyond my doctors’ expectation of cure. I look forward to spending my last days in comfort and peace with my wife Nita beside me.”

Humble, honest, classy. My Dad’s up there waiting for you, Harmon.

TRIBUTES

Think of the phrases we use to praise modern-day athletes. They possess “killer instinct.” They “stick the dagger” into the opponent. They display “swagger” and “athletic arrogance.”   When Harmon Killebrew passed away in  on Tuesday, the sporting world may have lost its foremost gentleman. The greatest Twin did not require false machismo to become one of the greatest home-run hitters in baseball history. Harmon Killebrew did require pressure to exhibit grace Will we ever see the likes of him again?  read more……Harmon Killebrew, the Most Gracious of the All-Time Greats

Harmon Killebrew's Number 3

“It kind of makes you feel like your childhood years are gone — like part of your life is taken away,” he said. “I know it sounds stupid … but I’ve never been so sad about someone I didn’t know.”  Read more from Minnesota Star Tribune

Orioles manager Paul Richards once famously said, “Killebrew could hit the ball out of any park, including Yellowstone.” At a memorial news conference in Minneapolis on Tuesday that rightly turned into a Killebrew testimonial, Kent Hrbek called him “Paul Bunyan in a baseball uniform.”  Read More From the Seattle Times

More Quotes on the Death of Harmon Killebrew

“It is with profound sadness that we share with you that our beloved Harmon passed away this morning. He died peacefully surrounded by Nita and our family. He will be missed more than anyone can imagine but we take solace in the fact that he will no longer suffer. We thank you for your outpouring of support and prayers and take comfort in the fact that he was loved by so many.” — Killebrew’s family.

“When I learned the news about Harmon today, I felt like I lost a family member. He has treated me like one of his own. It’s hard to put into words what Harmon has meant to me. He first welcomed me into the Twins family as an 18-year-old kid and has continued to influence my life in many ways. He is someone I will never forget and will always treasure the time we spent together. Harmon will be missed but never forgotten.” — Twins catcher Joe Mauer.

“When I was a kid, I mean, you loved the name and the player and the excitement he brought when he went to the plate, and how far he could hit the ball. As I got into professional ball, and as I got a chance to meet him — I didn’t know him well but in talking to other people — what a nice man he was. He was a real classy man who loved baseball and got back involved in it with the Twins. They loved having Harmon there. It’s a moving story about him going into hospice, kind of saying it’s my time. He accepted his fate and he did it with such class.” — San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy.

“I am truly saddened by the loss of Harmon Killebrew, one of the great human beings I have ever known. All of Baseball has lost a true gentleman who represented the Minnesota Twins with class and grace for decades. Harmon was as tough and feared a competitor on the field as the game has ever seen, while off the field he touched everyone he encountered with his sensitive and humble nature. …He led his life with modesty and dignity and I will miss him forever.” — Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.

“This is a sad day for all of baseball and even harder for those of us who were fortunate enough to be a friend of Harmon’s. Harmon Killebrew was a gem. I can never thank him enough for all I learned from him. He was a consummate professional who treated everyone from the brashest of rookies to the groundskeepers to the ushers in the stadium with the utmost of respect. I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for Harmon Killebrew. He was a Hall of Famer in every sense of the word.” — former Twins star Rod Carew.

“No individual has ever meant more to the Minnesota Twins organization and millions of fans across Twins Territory than Harmon Killebrew. Harmon will long be remembered as one of the most prolific home run hitters in the history of the game and the leader of a group of players who helped lay the foundation for the long-term success of the Twins franchise and Major League Baseball in the Upper Midwest. However, more importantly Harmon’s legacy will be the class, dignity and humility he demonstrated each and every day as a Hall of Fame-quality husband, father, friend, teammate and man. The Twins extend heartfelt sympathies and prayers to the Killebrew family at this difficult time.” — Dave St. Peter, Twins president.

“Harmon was a Hall of Famer on and off the field. He was baseball’s version of Paul Bunyan, with his prodigious home run power, leading by example in the clubhouse and on the field. Off the field, he emanated class, dignity, and warmth, and he was a great humanitarian. He was so down-to-earth, you would never realize he was a baseball legend. It’s ironic that his nickname was “Killer,” as he was one of the nicest, most generous individuals to ever walk the earth.” — Jeff Idelson, president, National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“He was a great player, but he was an even greater man.” — Minnesota State Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Shafer, recalling how his father once did contracting work at Killebrew’s home and “couldn’t remember having met a nicer man.”

“When I would go to Twins games at the old Met stadium with my dad, I was just one of thousands of kids who were there with their families hoping for a homer from Harmon. It was always a thrill to see Harmon swing the bat and slam the ball over the fence and into the stands. He gave us pride in the Twins as well as the sport of baseball. We will cherish his memory.” — Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota.

“He was just a fierce competitor and a perfect gentleman at the same time. You don’t see that a lot. Sometimes you get fierce competitors who are bad people. You see guys that are not fierce competitors but nice guys. You don’t see the two of them together very much.” — Fellow Hall of Famer George Brett.

“He was a great person. Tremendous. He’d do anything for you. I never ever heard him say anything bad about anybody. Never. In all the years I’d been around him.” — Former teammate and current Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.

“As a young player, he helped me a lot just in conversations on the bench talking about the game. That was a time when a lot of veterans wouldn’t talk to young guys. But you could ask him about hitting. You could ask him about being a professional, things like that. He was an MVP, a guy who went to what, 13 All-Star games? But he never acted like he was better than you were. It was a tremendous honor to just sit on the bench and talk to him every day.” — Former Kansas City Royals teammate Frank White.

“There wasn’t a patsy in him, believe me. If he got angry, he got angry inside himself and you could see what it was because he got quiet. He just was determined, whether he struck out, whether he made an error, maybe something was going wrong as far as the ballclub went, that kind of stuff, you could see him gritting his teeth. … I loved how we hated the Yankees, and he did, too. He didn’t hate the men. He just hated getting beat by ‘em.” — Former teammate and Minnesota Twins manager Frank Quilici.

“It’s going to be a loss for the Twins and the state of Minnesota. He was a great person and a great ambassador for baseball.” — Twins fan Bob Wolf.

“We’ve lost a great man. We certainly lost an ambassador to baseball, certainly in the Minnesota area. I’m really lost for words because Harmon was a great man. He certainly always tried to help people once he finished playing the game.” — Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington.

“To remember the innocence of being a young kid who just looked up to a guy he didn’t know because of what he did as a baseball player, something that you hoped that maybe someday you could be like. But as a grown man, I look back at him now not as that guy, but as the guy who tried to show me that you don’t have to be angry. You don’t have to be mad. You can love and share love. We’re all going to miss him, and we’re all going to love him forever.” — Former star Twins pitcher Jack Morris.

“I’m 32 years old. I never got to see him play. The majority of the people now never did get to see him as a baseball player. But the reason he has made such an impact on the world is because of who he was outside of baseball, the 30-plus years after he retired from baseball. He continued to be an ambassador not just of baseball but of life in general. It’s why all the kind words that people are saying about him now is because of the person he was, not the baseball player.” — Twins infielder-oufielder Michael Cuddyer.

“Talked to him a couple days ago and he sounded tired. Same thing I went through when I lost my Pops. He’s in a better place right now.” — Hall of Famer and former Twins teammate Bert Blyleven.

“You shake his hand, still at 70-some years old, and he’d crush your hand. You can see where he got that power.” — Twins slugger Justin Morneau.

“A lot of guys out there (in clubhouse) are really sad. We’re all honored that at least we had the chance to hang out with him a little and get to know him. He touched a lot of lives out there, not just on the baseball field, but the way you should handle yourself and a little bit about respect.” — Twins manager Ron Gardenhire.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *