Baseball lost one of its best today. Harmon “Killer” Killebrew, or Hammerin’ Harmon died of Esophageal Cancer at the age of 74. He died today with his wife Nita, friends and family at his side. Jack Morris the 1991 World Series MVP said something that I can totally understand in regard to Harmon Killebrew:
“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.”
Harmon was one of the classiest players who ever played the game. A genuine star he did not make a show of fame or demean an opponent. He played with a singular passion for the game and was a consummate gentleman who engendered the respect from his teammates and opponents and love from those that knew him. A true superstar he hit 573 home runs and stands at 11th on the all-time home run leader list and drove in 1584 runs. He was a 13 time All Star and the American League MVP in 1969. In 1970 he led the American League with 41 home runs and hit over 40 home runs 8 times during his career. He began his career with the Washington Senators in 1954 and went with the franchise when it moved to Minnesota in 1961. He finished his career with the Kansas City Royals in 1975. In 1969 he hit 49 home runs and drove in 140 runs, a career best. Since his records were set in the non-steroid era at a time when ballparks were larger than when many of the current home run leaders played they are truly remarkable. He was elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984 on his fourth year of eligibility with 81.3% of the vote.
He was a generous man who contributed much to his community and to cancer treatment and research. He made sure that he continued his association with the Twins until this season when after his diagnosis with Esophageal Cancer he spent his customary time with the team during Spring Training. Due to his treatments he was unable to attend opening day.
I had the privilege of meeting him twice. The first time was on Sunday July 12th 1970 when I was 10 years old at Anaheim Stadium when the Twins were playing the Angels. It was photo day and though my parents took pictures of us with many of the players including Harmon who I remember teasing me about my Angels’ cap. He hit a two run home run in the first inning off Angels’ starter Tom Murphy. It was amazing thing to see for a ten year old. That picture must have been lost years ago as I found only a few from that day when I was searching my parents’ collection of photos after my father died last year.
One of his nicknames was “killer” but that was in relation to his hitting and how he played the game. In life he was a kind, generous, soft spoken and gentle man who exemplified all that is good. He was a mentor to young people and players and many players who played with or on teams where he coached credit him with lessons in life as well as baseball. He was engaged in many charitable beginning in 1977 when he established the Danny Thompson Memorial Gold Tournament which has raised over 8.6 million dollars in the fight against Leukemia and Cancer and is named after a teammate from the Twins who died of Leukemia in 1976 at the age of 29. In 1991 he established the Harmon Killebrew Foundation.
I met Harmon again in the summer of 2003 when I was stationed aboard the USS Hue City at Mayport Florida. He was on a USO tour co-sponsored by AT&T called the Heroes to Heroes Tour. He was travelling with fellow Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, John Tudor, Manny Sanguillen, Paul Blair and Jimmy Winn. There were two visits that day in Mayport, one at the Naval Station Galley at breakfast and one at the Navy Exchange. The breakfast meeting was not well publicized and due to traffic congestion the players arrived late. However, I was one of just a few sailors who where there when they arrived. We spent an hour together the players outnumbered the sailors. I remember Harmon as one of the nicest athletes that I had ever met. I told him about meeting him in 1970 and he remembered the day but not the 10 year old, but then there were hundreds of us out there that day.
He was one player that I always admired. Legend has it that his image was used as the Major League Baseball logo, although that his contested by the artist. Personally I think that he had to be the model for the logo as the image is so true to Killebrew that I cannot believe that it is anyone other than him. But then I can believe what I want, if he wasn’t and it was a composite as the author claims his image had to be part of it.
George Brett the All Star of the Kansas City Royals said something that I hope will be said of me when it is my time to pass from this world into the next:
“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.”
Harmon Killebrew was an amazing man who I am honored to have met and seen play on television and in person. I have his autograph on a card with the other 5 players that I met in Mayport that morning in 2003 as well as the Stockton Ports hat that I was wearing that day. Though I only met him those tow times I feel like I have lost a friend. The things that he signed and my memories of him are what I have left of one of baseball and humanity’s greats. Harmon you will be missed. May you rest in peace.