His out-of-sight power as a home run hitter stirred the envy of his peers, but never their resentment. His whole life on and off the baseball field was a declaration of his values not only as an athlete but as a man who had adopted a code behavior in which modesty and integrity were not musty chapter headings out of scouting primer but simply revealed who he was.
In some ways Harmon Killebrew, who died Tuesday of cancer, was an anomaly of his time. He acquired stardom and an eventual heroic stature in the 1960s and 1970s just as court rulings had liberated baseball players from bondage to their owners and opened the way to multimillion dollar salaries and the enticements of show business and television audiences.
None of this much altered the essential modesty and simple humanity that Killebrew brought with him from the farm country near Payette, Idaho, when he signed a contract with the old Washington Senators and defined him to the end.
Outwardly, he was not an emotional man, which made all the more extraordinary the response of hundreds of ballplayers, first to his announcement last week that he had accepted the nearness of death and then to the news from his home in Arizona on Tuesday.
The Minnesota Twins, the team with which he set his home-run records, hung his retired No. 3 jersey in their dugout this last weekend, and then carried it with them on their road trip to the West. It will be there in every game they play for the rest of the season. They voted to wear their throwback uniforms, the one in which Killebrew played, in each home game for the rest of the season.
Almost all of them had met him, of course. He had been a volunteer member of their coaching staff at spring training for a number of years. What they saw was not what some of them had expected. Here was a man who had struck 573 home runs, some of them by record distances beyond 500 feet, been voted into the Hall of Fame, and still considered it a privilege to walk onto a baseball field.
Joe Mauer, the team’s current star and a Minnesotan, told of meeting Killebrew when he was just beginning professional baseball at 18, scared and uncertain. He found the great home run hitter treating him as an equal, “almost like a member of his family, something I’ll never forget.”
What was there in the demeanor of this quiet and humble baseball hero that stuck so deep in the admiration of those he played with and against?
Most professional athletes have fragile psyches. They may be strong and competitive, winners in the savage race to the top that is big time professional sports, especially today with all of the money, the rivalry – and the thin line between fame and obscurity.
Athletes know their strength, but they also know their vulnerability – to injury, a bad month, a new star ready to take their place. And they meet a Harmon Killebrew, and they know almost instantly that there are not going to be many Harmon Killebrews.
This was a man who brought to his first day in Major League Baseball a fundamental respect for the game, the people in it, and for those who came with a cap and glove to the bleachers. He brought with him rules of behavior, on the field and off the field. He carried himself into each game as though it was privilege.
He was hardly free of flaw. He had his own vulnerabilities. After baseball he made some bad financial decisions that took years of recovery. But he was a man who accepted the adages of principled behavior and lived by them. He trusted until there was a reason not to trust. He was generous in accepting and excusing some of the adolescent behavior, but not indecent behavior, of athletes dealing with pressure or the temptations that come with their high visibility.
In the Cooperstown Hall of Fame, his 573 home runs, 11th in the all time list, are duly recorded.
Perhaps not recorded, but possibly more relevant to the memory of Harmon Killebrew are the words of another Hall of Fame player in the aftermath of his death. “I can never thank him enough,” said Rod Carew, a teammate, “for all I learned from him. I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for Harmon Killebrew.”