A Killer and a Gentleman – The Life and Legacy of Harmon Killebrew

Though Shakespeare may have disagreed, there can, indeed, be something in a name. Then, again, as the great bard so duly noted, other designations are merely labels and fail to capture the essence of its subject.

In baseball, for example, a nickname sometimes fits a player so perfectly that the mere mention of it – the Iron Horse, Joltin’ Joe, Hammerin’ Hank – instantly recalls memories and images of him, because the nickname itself has such a significant correlation to a defining characteristic of his game. Thus, as above, one moniker recalls Lou Gehrig’s athletic endurance. Another distills Joe DiMaggio’s slashing hitting style. And yet another captures Hank Aaron’s thunderous home run swing.

Yet, still other nicknames offer an interesting dichotomy. They are simultaneously fitting and misleading. Perhaps, there has never been a clearer example of this than the man they called “Killer.”

Harmon Killebrew was unquestionably a killer at the plate. He certainly looked the part – barrel-chested with thickly-muscled arms and legs the diameter of telephone poles. He swung the bat with such ferocity that when he made contact there was a momentary expectation that the ball might actually wail, bringing brand new meaning to the concept of a screaming line drive. And that swing carried its own ominous kinetic energy, power and fury slicing through the hitting zone with such intensity that a ripple of displacement followed as it mercilessly honed in on an object to punish.

And when that pent-up energy collided with a baseball, the results were explosive. Killebrew reached a rare pantheon for power hitters – the 500-500 club, with memberships given to players with 500 career homers and a 500-foot blast included among those round-trippers. Killebrew’s career total of 573 satisfied the first part, and a mammoth 522-foot blast off of Lew Burdette in 1967 satisfied the other. He was the stick of dynamite in the middle of the order for the Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins for a baker’s dozen of years and was prolific enough in that span to be named to eleven All-star teams.

In fact, the big man with the even bigger home run cut predicated his game entirely on that uncompromising swing. There were no short-armed, opposite field adjustments for him in the box. There was no yield in his basic hitting philosophy, no matter the count – swing hard or don’t swing at all. However, this hard nosed approach was not borne of stubbornness or selfishness. Rather, it could be argued that just the opposite was true. He geared his game so heavily towards the power aspect, not for personal glory, but because that was always his job. Others got on base in any manner possible, and it was Killebrew’s assignment to drive them in. In his eyes, the most expedient way to do so was to hit the ball as hard and as far as he could.

However, his batting average suffered by adopting this approach. His eye at the plate was discerning enough to allow him to lead the AL in walks four times (and finish with over 100 walks in a season seven times), which suggests the potential for a more robust batting mark. However, his bone rattling swing simply wouldn’t allow it, and his average dipped below .250 in seven seasons. In fact, his .256 career batting average ended up being the biggest road block on his way to Cooperstown. It took four years of voting before the 1969 AL MVP and six-time American League home run champ received enough tallies to be elected to the Hall of Fame. However, the Killer did, indeed, receive his bronze plaque and took his place among the other immortals of the game.

Although “Killer” also had phonetic symmetry with his surname, the nickname was entirely at odds with Harmon Killebrew’s genial demeanor and outlook on life. He befriended rookies the moment they stepped into the locker room and treated them with the courtesy and respect of long-time veterans. In fact, this uncommon compassion extended to everyone from the batboys to opponents to fans alike. Despite his status as the resident superstar and leader for virtually every team on which he ever played, he never let celebrity trump his humility.

Upon reflecting on his playing career he said simply,”I loved putting on a major league uniform and going out on the field every day.” Notably, there’s no mention of his place among the true greats of the game, of a career that spanned over two decades as one of the most feared sluggers on the planet. He never needed that kind of notoriety from baseball. The simple act of putting on his uniform was enough.

Conversely, what he gave back to the game never seemed to be enough for him. Yet, it was an equation that was a constant in his life. He always gave much more than he ever took.

On the field, he played the game with a respect, bordering on reverence, which garnered the admiration of both teammates and opponents. There were no self-aggrandizing displays, no tantrums in the dugout, no surly disdain for reporters. Though there was no mistaking his intensity and fierce competitive spirit, he had the rare ability to channel it directly into his game without any vitriolic runoff splashing those around him. More than anything, he understood that playing ability was important but that character counted as much or more.

After his playing days were over, he remained connected to the Twins, offering encouragement and optimism to the next wave of players flowing through the organization. Current Minnesota superstars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau considered Killebrew not only a baseball mentor but an off-the-field role model as well. Outfielder Denard Span recalled Killebrew’s frequent visits to the team’s Spring Training facilities, “He’d only say positive things like you’re doing good, keep working, keep battling and just keep believing. It was always words of encouragement when he was around.”

However, the lone exception to this support took the form of scolding players for what he perceived to be sloppy autographs for fans. Killebrew’s own signature was nearly a work of art.  If fans wanted his autograph as a keepsake, he felt that the least he could do was to make such a memento as aesthetically pleasing as possible. So, when he saw a player distribute something akin to a random scribble, he made sure to let that player know such a dismissive gesture, whether intended or not, was simply not acceptable.

As for extending a far greater level of consideration to others, he and his wife, Nita, set up the Harmon Killebrew Foundation, which helped to raise funds for charities across the country, specifically focusing on children and the game he cherished.

Though for all of his kindness and selflessness, he received devastating news in December, 2010. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. By May, the disease had not responded to treatment, and he made the difficult decision to decline any further treatment and entered hospice care. The man whose quiet strength and dignity had served as an inspiration to so many made one last gesture to underscore his great humanity. In a statement issued to announce his agonizing decision, he once again demonstrated remarkable gentleness and found a way to thank others even in his most heartbreaking moment:

“It is with profound sadness that I share with you that my continued battle with esophageal cancer is coming to an end. With the continued love and support of my wife, Nita, I have exhausted all options with respect to controlling this awful disease. My illness has progressed beyond my doctors’ expectation of cure.

I have spent the past decade of my life promoting hospice care and educating people on its benefits. I am very comfortable taking this next step and experiencing the compassionate care that hospice provides.

I am comforted by the fact that I am surrounded by my family and friends. I thank you for the outpouring of concern, prayers and encouragement that you have shown me. I look forward to spending my final days in comfort and peace with Nita by my side.”

Less than a week later, he was gone.

However, Harmon Killebrew’s legacy resonates not only because he was the “Killer” who crushed 573 home runs during a Hall of Fame career but rather more as the gentle soul who mentored others on the game he loved and the life he loved even more. He will be remembered as the superstar who utilized his celebrity to bring people closer rather than an excuse to push them away. Mostly, he was the kindhearted farm boy from Payette, Idaho who cherished the opportunity to wear a big league uniform and who always gave more than he received.

So, maybe, Shakespeare had it right, after all. Sometimes, a name is just a hallow label. In Harmon Killebrew’s case, any such label could not possibly capture the depth and breadth of his influential and honorable life. Instead, it is more appropriate that his memory be defined by the richness of character he insisted take precedent over the transitory nature of sports celebrity. It’s a sense of priority that others might do well to aspire to emulate, because the Killer was also one of the great gentlemen baseball has ever known.