DENVER—It’s generous to say that Harmon Killebrew, in his prime, stood 6 feet tall. He was, however, a giant of a man. A gentle giant. He was one of the most prodigious power hitters in the history of baseball, and one of the game’s most humble people.
He will be sorely missed in a society without enough superstar people. Killebrew died on May 17 after a lengthy battle with esophageal cancer. Baseball lost one of its truly wonderful ambassadors. He was more than one of the most powerful hitters in the history of the game. He was a Hall of Famer, to be sure, inducted in 1984. But he was also one of the most powerful people to ever live.
What may best underscore Killebrew and his appreciation for others was his attendance at recent Twins FanFests, when he would counsel players like Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer about the importance of signing autographs. “Don’t scribble,” he would say. “Write your name so people can read it, so they can show it to their friends.”
Killebrew got it, more so than most of the rich and famous. He was a bigger-than-life hero to many, and he was thankful for the God-given ability that his upbringing allowed him to develop. He never considered himself better than others, just more fortunate.
He wasn’t clever and colorful.
“Paul Dickson’s ‘Baseball’s Greatest Quotations’ is a 524-page collection of quotes about and related to baseball,” ESPN.com columnist Jim Caple wrote. “Reggie Jackson has five pages of quotes. Mickey Mantle has six pages of quotes. Even Henry Kissinger, Groucho Marx and The Chicken are quoted.
“There is not a single quote by or about Killebrew. He hit 573 home runs, won an MVP, took the Twins to their first World Series and is in the Hall of Fame, but he apparently never said anything memorable enough for the book.”
Hey, it wasn’t Killebrew’s way. He was comfortable with who he was. He wanted to make sure everybody around him was comfortable. He spoke with a calming tone.
Colorful? In 1963 he responded to a query from Sports Illustrated about his hobby, and replied, “Just washing dishes, I guess.”
That was easier than the chores on the Idaho potato farm that was a part of Killebrew’s youth. “When I was 14, and for the next four years, I was lifting and hauling 10-gallon milk cans full of milk,” he told Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich in 1984. “That will put muscles on you even if you’re not trying.”
Clark Griffith, owner of the original Washington Senators, signed the 17-year-old country kid to a $30,000 signing bonus shortly after high school graduation in 1954. Given baseball’s bonus baby rules of the time, he had to spend the 1954 and ’55 seasons in the big leagues, getting only 93 at-bats, before a three-year trip through the minor leagues. In 1959, his first real big league season, Killebrew unloaded an American League-leading 42 home runs, a sign of what was to come.
Killebrew was an 11-time All-Star and finished in the top four of AL MVP voting five times, winning in 1969 when he had 49 home runs, 140 RBIs, 145 walks and 106 runs.
He spent his entire career with the Senators/Minnesota Twins, except for the final year, 1975, when he signed with the Kansas City Royals.
The stats weren’t pretty, as he batted .199, but the team went 91-71, a franchise record, and Killebrew was what Frank White described as a veteran voice who helped mold the approach of a team at the beginning of a decade of domination that saw it advance to the postseason seven times, capped by the 1985 World Series championship.
“For a young guy, coming into the game during that time, a lot of the veteran guys didn’t give two cents about you,” White said. “So it was kind of neat to meet Harmon. He did a good job in helping our guys . . . we were just starting to put it together.”
When Killebrew retired he was No. 5 on the career home run list, though he has since been pushed down to No. 11. Not that the personal numbers meant much to him.
“Harmon was baseball’s version of Paul Bunyan, with his prodigious power,” Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said. “Off the field, he emanated class, dignity and warmth; he was so down-to-earth, you’d never realize he was a baseball legend. It’s ironic that his nickname was ‘Killer’. He was one of the nicest, most generous individuals to ever walk the earth.”
The walk came to an end. The memories, however, will last forever.