Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Harmon Killebrew, R.I.P.

First, a story. I know I've told it before, but bear with me one last time.

I was nine years old, and my aunt had taken me to see Harmon Killebrew at the Northwestern National Bank Building in downtown Minneapolis. He was making a public appearance signing autographs, there was an ad in the paper, my aunt worked downtown, and so there we were.

You will read, or have read already, many things about Harmon Killebrew, and one of the things is about how gracious he was. This is a true fact, as they say. He was gracious and friendly and must have asked my name, because the autograph he signed read "To Mitchell, Best Wishes, Harmon Killebrew." The name was perfectly legible - as Steve Rushin writes today, Killebrew believed the fan who waits for a player's autograph should be able to read it. I had him sign a picture that I'd taken earlier that year, at a Twins game against the Seattle Pilots. He was concerned that it wouldn't show up well enough on the glossy photo paper, but enough of the ink made it, and he wrote it hard enough that it left the imprint on the picture. More than easy enough to read.

I still have that autograph, along with the ad for the event. It's packed away in a box, or I'd show it to you right now. I'm sorry I can't get to it at the moment, but when you're a child you never expect your heroes to die, and even when you grow up that part of you doesn't change.

Anyway. After the session, my aunt and I had gone about our business, the big day downtown. We had probably gone to lunch, perhaps at the Sky Room in Dayton's which at the time offered one of the best views there was of downtown. We'd then gone to Woolworth's, where I'd gotten a poster of Harmon to put up on my bedroom wall. As we were headed back, walking through the skyways that were still very new in downtown Minneapolis, there he was - all by himself. No handlers, no posse, just Harmon Killebrew. He was lost in the skyways, which happens to people in downtown Minneapolis even to this day. He couldn't remember how to get back to where he'd parked his car. My aunt, who knew downtown like the back of her hand, was easily able to tell him which way to go.

The point of the story. He rememberd me. By name. "You're Mitch, aren't you?" he said. Even though he'd met probably hundreds of kids that day, and had only seen me that one time. Talk about making an impression on a nine-year-old. Forget being a role model: hero worship after that is inevitable.

So that happened in 1969, during his last great season. It was 42 years ago, and if you're using your fingers you can figure out how old that makes me. I never saw Harmon to speak with him again, although he was no stranger to the area and often appeared at Twins functions even after he retired in the 70s. I saw him play ball a few more times, including a home-run hitting contest he had with Willie Mays out at old Metropolitan Stadium. But I never forgot that day, and even after all these years I can remember what happened as clearly as I'm writing them right now.

There are those who say we ask a lot of our professional athletes and singers and actors, expecting them to be stars when they're at work and role models when they aren't. Never mind the idea that all of us, you and me both, are called to be role models every minute of our lives (c.f. John 13:35), it's a tough thing to be "on" 24 hours a day.

Besides Rushin's piece today, Joe Posnanski (as always) writes a wonderful article here. Again, you'll read others, most of them from people who knew Killebrew or had met him many more times than I had. But in the end it doesn't matter, because the Harmon Killebrew they're talking about is the Harmon Killebrew I knew.

And that, I think, is the moral of the story. Harmon Killebrew wasn't "on" 24 hours a day. He was just being himself.
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