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The Gentle Killer- The Harmon Killebrew Story

Posted by on July 10, 2012 at 8:00 PM It was one of those news stories tucked away somewhere in the middle of the sport section, tucked away mid way down the web site on Saturday May 14, 2011. Harmon Killebrew, the 11th leading home run hitter of all time, the feared power hitter of the Minnesota Twins, was giving up his fight against esophageal cancer. Six months earlier, he announced to the world that he had contracted this dreadful disease and as I was soon to learn as I researched Killebrew, he handled his illness as he handled his life- humbly, thankfully, and blessedly. He mostly felt blessed by the support he felt from his fans and more importantly his loving wife, Nita. He didn't dwell on "why me?" or throw a pity party, instead he made his announcement about all he possessed and all he was thankful for. Killebrew lost his fight just days later on May 17, 2011. He was 74. Harmon Clayton Killebrew Jr. was born on June 29, 1936 in Payette, Idaho. He was signed by the Washington Senators baseball team in 1954, at age of 17. After spending most of his first five years drifting back and forth between the minor and major leagues, Killebrew "burst" upon the scene at age 23 during the 1959 season. His 42 homers led the league and were accompanied by 105 runs batted in. I could spend many pages writing down the accomplishments of Harmon Killebrew on the field. Instead, here are some highlights: * 573 career home runs ( 11th all time) * 6 time American League home run champ * 13 time All-Star selection * American League MVP in 1969 * Holder of 15 offensive Minnesota Twins career records * His uniform # 3 retired by Minnesota Twins * Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984, first Twin to be elected The playing accolades go on and on. His 49 home runs, 140 runs batted in and 145 walks in his amazing 1969 MVP season remain Minnesota Twin bests, 42 years later. His grip on # 11 on the all time home run list is safe for several seasons as the next two players still active are over 100 home runs behind. What struck me about Harmon Killebrew, however, had nothing to do with his on field playing. Oh, I would definitely encourage you to YouTube a Killebrew home run. Find footage of the 1969 All-Star Game or the 1970 American League Playoff series. But what really struck me about Harmon Killebrew was that no one, not in over one hundred articles written after his announcement six months ago about his fatal illness, had a bad word to say about the man. Instead what emerged was a story beyond the baselines, a story of a man who always had the time for one more autograph, one more encouraging word and one more interview. When he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984, he paid tribute to his father, Harmon Killebrew Sr. As a boy, Harmon recollected, his father would take him to the movies on hot summer evenings. He would encourage his sons to play and took pride in his children. When Killebrew’s mother complained about the boys tearing up the grass, Killebrew’s father said “ we aren’t raising grass, we are raising boys.” Likewise, when Harmon Killebrew Jr grew up and became one of the most famous ballplayers in the state of Minnesota, Killebrew was more about others than he was himself. His nine children regard him as their hero, who was not one of the greatest home run hitters in history, but a loving, caring father, who was a fantastic storyteller and dance partner. In an age of sports heroes and primadonnas, Killebrew was a different sort of leader, one who inspired such future hall of famers as Rod Carew, Paul Molitor and Jim Thome to not only be better ballplayers, but better human beings. When current Twin stars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau were coming up, Killebrew encouraged them to take time to sign a kids baseball AND do so in a manner where it was legible and worthy of the child to take out again and appreciate. A Harmon Killebrew home run in itself can be inspirational. His uppercut swing is so prolific and memorable that it inspired the swinging batter on the major league logo. Yes, that swinging batter on the major league baseball website was based partially on Harmon Killebrew. But before you think that Killebrew led this charmed life and had only success, we have to dig a little deeper into the Harmon Killebrew story, the story of the years after his retirement. After a one year “banishment” to the Kansas City Royals during which he hit .199 with 14 homers, Killebrew hung up the cleats and went into retirement. The call from the Hall of Fame came in 1984, but not before a cattle ranch he had invested in failed and after his long time marriage to his high school sweetheart began to fail. Just a few years after his induction into Cooperstown, Killebrew was reportedly over $700,000 in debt, due to failed business ventures and a too trusting heart. As Minneapolis Star Tribune writer Jay Weiner put it , “ Somewhere between fame and 50, Harmon Killebrew lost his way, his marriage and his financial security”. Killebrew, on the edge of bankruptcy, owing almost a million dollars between banks, personal loans and his foreclosed home, fought back. His good name and image were still bankable and he made many appearances for $5000 a shot. He did end up having to file bankruptcy in 1993, but also worked tirelessly on TV, home selling networks and on new ways to make money to pay it back. “Maybe I’ve made some wrong decisions, but I am still an honorable person...” Killebrew told the reporter Jay Weiner. “ I struck out 1699 times, but I always bounced back.” Yes, in spite of almost 1700 strikeouts, it is the 573 homeruns that Killebrew is best known. The Minnesota Twins reconnected with Harmon during the 1990‘s and for the next nearly twenty years, Killebrew was able to enjoy his status as Minnesota Twin senior spokesperson, a man who through the 60‘s and early 70‘s was the face of the team, became the heart of the team. Killebrew was able to influence generations of Twin stars, from Kirby Puckett and Gary Gaetti to Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Torii Hunter. His advice was sound, but never forced. In addition to his work with the Twins, Killebrew and his second wife Nita started the Harmon Killebrew Foundation in order to help with hospice care and to help areas devastated by earthquakes in 2010 (Haiti) and Hurricane Ike in 2008. Years earlier, Killebrew had helped establish the Danny Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament, named after a Twin shortstop who tragically died at age 29 of cancer. Over the pursuing years he raised million dollars for awareness of the disease. After his death from cancer in 2011, the event was renamed the Danny Thompson/Harmon Killebrew Memorial Golf Classic. In 2006, Killebrew was named to the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. Killebrew lost his battle to cancer. His legacy lives on through his foundations, his children , his widow and the dozens of current players that Killebrew has touched. Killebrew probably put his philosophy best in this interview, “ I want my friends to say that I was helpful. I’d hate to have them say ‘ he didn’t help me when I needed help’. A lot of people helped me along the way and I was very thankful for that. My mother told me when I was a young kid that the No. 1 reason we’re here on earth is to help people. She was right. What else is there?” You would do yourself a favor to read the excellent biography Harmon Killebrew: Ultimate Slugger by Steve Aschburner. I would also recommend searching YouTube for Harmon Killebrew’s Memorial Service which took place on May 26, 2011. And finally, if you are ever in the Mall of America in Bloomington Minnesota, which was built where the old Metropolitan Stadium used to stand, go into the amusement park and look up on the wall high above the roller coasters. There 520 feet away from where homeplate used to stand, is a seat bolted to the wall. Its distance will astound you. There on June 3, 1967, a mammoth Harmon Killebrew home run landed.

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