Publishers note: Minnesota Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew died of cancer Tuesday, May 17, at age 74. He appeared to accept death as he accepted unfair umpires’ calls in his playing days—with the grace and dignity he has shown throughout his life. As he figuratively trots back to the dugout, I figuratively rise, with the rest of his fans, to give him the tremendous ovation he deserves, and offer an item I wrote more than 20 years ago, for the Oct. 4, 1989 Northeaster, with a few edits for clarity. My feelings haven’t changed. —Kerry Ashmore
It was one of those jobs a lot of musicians hate to play.
It was a reception in one of those big glass-walled atrium-type places. We heard every note we played bounce around four or five times. Everybody was concerned about seeing and being seen...concerned about anything but the music. They had food in one hand and a drink in the other, so applause was out of the question.
But there was something different about this job. These folks had a receiving line, almost like a wedding reception. And who was in the line but my sports hero, Harmon Killebrew. "Wow," I thought, "I’m old enough to play at a reception where he’s the guest of honor." But thoughts of age soon gave way to happiness at just being in the same room with him and doing my thing while he did his. Now, what exactly is Harmon doing?
When I found out, I was incensed. I surmised he had been used to lure people to the party, with guests promised a Polaroid snapshot of themselves with Harmon if they would grace the place with their presence.
Why was I upset? He seemed perfectly happy. The hosts seemed perfectly happy. The guests seemed perfectly happy. And I had a job to do. But I was upset. How could they do this to my hero? He deserves better.
Maybe I was upset because Harmon Killebrew wasn’t always my hero. He earned the job over a number of years.
When I was a kid, everybody wanted to be Harmon Killebrew. Everybody wanted number three on their uniforms. Well I didn’t want to be like everybody. So I wanted to be Bob Allison, especially the year he stole so many bases. Or Lenny Green, because, as my dad pointed out from the center field bleachers at Metropolitan Stadium one evening in August of 1961, he’s left-handed, just like me. Don’t get me wrong. I liked Harmon, but I didn’t identify with Harmon.
I had an "in" with the Twins in those days. A family friend who worked in the front office had a vision problem, and made us a standing offer: If my mom or dad would drive him home after the game, he would get us tickets and we could hang around the stadium after the game, and maybe meet some of the players.
So we’d hang around the gate after the game, along with other kids, and sure enough, players would come out. Sometimes it was hard to recognize them in street clothes and without hats. But one kid in the crowd would shout out the player’s name, and kids would go after him.
Many times, from many players, we heard, "No autographs," as they pushed through the crowd to leave the stadium. We never heard that from Harmon Killebrew. He always stopped. The closest thing I ever heard to a complaint was when a particularly large group was clamoring for autographs. "Oh my goodness," he said with a big smile. "Look at all these kids."
Each kid got an autograph. All the kids were asked their names and what positions they played. Each kid was shown first hand that Harmon Killebrew really cared.
I remembered those things as the years went by. I remembered reading in the paper about a seriously ill boy in New York who worshiped Harmon, and how Harmon went to visit him in the hospital and said, "Maybe I’ll hit you a couple [home runs] today," and he did! Against the Yankees!
I remembered that I never saw Harmon Killebrew argue with the umpire (all right, there was one time I saw him do it, on television, very late in his playing career...and before it was over, both he and the umpire were laughing). I remembered a teacher telling me that Harmon was offered lucrative contracts endorsing beer, but refused them because so many young people looked up to him.
Then I see so many of today’s athletes charging big bucks for autographs and showing the young people who look up to them that winning is everything and money is the name of the game. Then I remember how Harmon Killebrew did it, and I realize that, although it took me a number of years to figure it out, he really was my hero.
Harmon Killebrew was a solid role model for a whole generation of kids...my generation. He showed us how to play the game and keep it in perspective. Baseball is a game. It’s fun. He showed us how to win and lose with grace and dignity. He showed us we could be excellent athletes and excellent people at the same time.
It was one of those jobs a lot of musicians hate to play, and it was finally over. In two very long hours, no one had applauded. No one had offered a compliment. Only two or three had acknowledged our presence in any way. The band had another job to play across town, and the hosts told us that if we could find any leftover food, we could have some.
As I leaned over the table, trying to find a cube of cheese that hadn’t dried out, I felt a hand on my shoulder. "I know you’re in a hurry," a gentle voice said, "but I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your music. It really made the party."
And I had the uncharacteristic presence of mind to say something like, "You gave a whole lot of entertainment to a whole lot of people...that compliment means something special coming from you."
Thanks, Harmon. I needed that.