DEATH OF A HERO
Back in the mid-60s, when I was starting grade school, I loved two spectator sports: football and baseball. Football appealed to me most viscerally, but baseball was what best allowed me to connect with my dad. He was a Brooklyn boy, born in 1912, who would talk with glee about how he regularly snuck into Ebbet’s Field through a hole in the fence and watched the “Bums” for free. And when his Dodgers were eliminated from contention, my dad would root for that other team from his city that played in that other league. You might know them as the Yankees. He met many great athletes in his life, including Muhammad Ali and Wilt Chamberlain, but none awed him as much as Babe Ruth. Even though his favorite team was the Dodgers, my dad would never speak of a Dodger with half of the veneration that he showed for the Babe. The only athlete who was even close to the Babe in my father’s pantheon was the boxer, Jack Dempsey. And look at what Dempsey had to do to demonstrate his machismo: get punched in the face. Ruth’s sport was more genteel. He didn’t have to hit anyone, and he didn’t have to take their punishment either. All he needed to do was take out his aggression on some baseballs, and voila – his name would become synonymous with superhuman strength and power (e.g., “Ruthian”).
When I think of the home run, I think of monikers like “Bomb,” “Missile,” “Moon Shot,” and my favorite, the “Homeric Hoist.” Make no mistake, to boys of my father’s generation, Babe Ruth was a Homeric character. He was larger than life. Yet what was especially cool about him wasn’t that he excelled at being a man in a man’s world, but that he excelled at being a boy in a man’s world. He played a kid’s game, wore a silly little uniform in doing so, and when it was time for him to stop playing, it was time to start partying. Still, millions of people looked up to him more than to any doctor, lawyer or politician. In fact, part of the Babe’s legend includes his response when challenged, in 1930, about having a higher salary than President Hoover. “Why not?” he responded. “I had a better year than he did.” No doubt, he did.
Anyway, I’ve started this blog post by talking about my father and his own hero for two reasons. First, because for me, when the subject comes up of heroes in my lifetime, there are two categories of people: my dad, and then … way down the list … everyone else. And second, because when I came home one night this week and turned on the TV to hear people talk about the old baseball legend who died, my daughter Rebecca immediately started asking me questions about my dad. She saw the old, old photos of this player, and remembered something about his name, and just assumed that he was one of my dad’s favorite players. No, I said to her, he wasn’t my dad’s favorite player. He was mine.
Harmon Killebrew died this past Tuesday. He had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer in December, and that is not a foe that is easily felled, even by a man commonly known as “Killer.” Those who have been reading about Killebrew this week have heard plenty about the irony of that name. Outside the lines of the playing field, Killebrew had none of the aggression that characterizes so many other great athletes, let alone home run specialists. From everything I can tell, his defining characteristics were the same as my dad’s: humility, modesty and kindness. It was one thing to pull off that trifecta as a Labor Department economist, but unlike Julius Spiro, Killebrew pulled them off despite being the most intimidating player in the history of my beloved Minnesota Twins.
Killebrew, unlike some other famous sluggers, is not known for hard drinking, smoking or womanizing. Nor could he relate to that other pastime of power hitters: injecting oneself with performance enhancing drugs. When he was once asked what he did for fun, “Killer” answered, “doing the dishes, I guess.” Supposedly, he also liked to vacuum.
Killebrew was a neat freak. But that is not to say he was a Beau Brummell. The Killer didn’t have the necessary narcissism to take on that persona. He was just a country boy, from the small town of Payette, Idaho, who never cared to direct attention to himself. Among the legends of the game, he was notable for his lack of the quotable. He did all his talking with his bat.
So how good a ballplayer was Harmon Killebrew? Apparently, not good enough to make the Hall of Fame in any of his first three years of eligibility. Decades later, I still remember those snubs quite vividly. They absolutely enraged me. But the fact that it took Killebrew four tries to make the Hall says less about his talent as a player than it does about the fact that he played for a small market team and did so with a minimum of self-aggrandizement. Reggie Jackson, his polar opposite when it comes to hogging the microphone in support of his own excellence, was at least able to recognize such excellence in another. When asked about Killebrew, Jackson said, "If Harmon Killebrew isn't the league's best player, I've never seen one. He's one of the greatest of all time.”
Killebrew entered the Hall with some serious numbers. He was then fifth all time in home runs. But of the players who hit more, only one had a higher ratio of home runs/at bats: you guessed it, Babe Ruth. Killebrew retired in third place in baseball history in that statistic, next to Ruth and Ralph Kiner (and Killebrew was ahead of Kiner for most of his career). That means that there were only two players in the history of the game that were more likely to hit a home run when they came to the plate than Harmon Killebrew. And given that fact, it’s no wonder that if he wasn’t hitting a home run, there was a really good chance that he was taking a walk to first base. You see, people didn’t want to pitch to him. They would just as soon walk him and take their chances with someone else.
So how good a ballplayer was Harmon Killebrew? I think the better question is, so how good a role model was Harmon Killebrew – and I don’t just mean for kids like me who watched him belt line drives out of the ball park in record time or crush towering fly balls that seemed to never land. I’m talking about his service as a role model for the current crop of Twins, the ones he helped mentor. Given that Killebrew has been a fixture in the Twins clubhouse and a true friend to their players, it is no wonder that this team has become known for playing fundamental, error-free baseball without the flash or the steroids that have come to characterize modern baseball. Yes, the Twins stink this year, but this “small market franchise” has won its division six of the last nine years – and the players will say that Killebrew has had a hand in that accomplishment.
Killebrew was not only loved by his fellow ballplayers but also by the guys who called balls and strikes. Check out this quotation from a book written by Major League Baseball umpire Ron Luciano, “The Killer was one of the most feared sluggers in baseball history, but he was also one of the nicest people ever to play the game. He was one of the few players who would go out of his way to compliment umpires on a good job, even if their calls went against him. I'd call a tough strike on him and he would turn around and say approvingly, "Good call." And he was the same way in the field. And he never did this to get help on close plays, as some players do. The man hit 573 major league home runs and no umpire ever swung a bat for him.”
I have my own little Harmon Killebrew story to tell. It happened back in the spring of 1987. I went to Spring Training to watch my Twins back when they played in Orlando, Florida. Little did I know that later that year, the team would go on to win its first World Series title. At the airport, as I was about to leave to fly back home to Washington, I saw a man who looked just like Harmon Killebrew. As luck would have it, I happened to have a baseball with me. So I walked up to him, baseball in hand, and said “Are you Harmon Killebrew?” He responded, “What’s left of him.” Perhaps instinctively, I realized that when you’re around a guy like my dad or my favorite ball player, the last thing such a man wants you to do is make a big deal about them. So I decided to ask a question about another childhood hero: “Can I ask whether you think Tony Oliva will ever make the Hall of Fame.” “No,” he replied. “He didn’t play enough years before he got injured.” (Note the lack of a guileful response. Like you’d expect from an Idaho country boy, Killebrew was straight-forward when he spoke.)
That was pretty much our entire conversation – that, and my asking him to autograph my baseball. Of course, he smiled and signed it. And I couldn’t help but think back to a few years earlier when I was at another airport and was watching a football game a few feet away from another Minnesota sports legend, the Hall of Famer who coached the Vikings, Bud Grant. At one point, a little kid walked up to Grant and asked for his autograph. And wouldn’t you know it, Grant declined. I can’t imagine Killebrew ever declining any request for any favor that he could easily grant.
Returning to the present, I have spent part of this weekend reading reports from Killebrew’s funeral. And the more I think about his passing, the sadder I feel. The tragedy here isn’t just how his family, friends and fans are being deprived of such a great guy, or that he personally cannot enjoy another couple of decades on this earth. No, the tragedy is that celebrities like Harmon Killebrew have gone the way of the dinosaur and the dodo bird. Today, if you’re a “superstar” with a naturally humble and modest demeanor, you might not want to get on TV and talk about your own excellence, but you’re still not going to shy away from a shot at advertising shampoo or underwear. Somehow, though, I can’t see Killebrew doing an underwear commercial. I doubt it would be consistent with his “antiquated” principles. (And yes, if there are any bigots who are reading this blog post, Killebrew is a convert to Mormonism. If you have any issue with that, that’s your problem, not his.)
So, before I sign off, allow me to leave you with Harmon Killebrew’s own words. They were repeated at his funeral by his son-in-law, Craig Bair:
''Harmon's philosophy was so simple and very clear and he wanted to make it clear to us,'' Bair said. ''It goes like this. 'Always give more than you take. Always maintain an even calmness that you might calm others. Truly know that you are loved beyond measure and go out and share that love. Find a place of peace with your partner. Experience daily the love of your family. Enjoy your friends. Know your neighbors and especially go out of your way to do the same to the people new in your life.'''
Harmon Killebrew was 74.