Last March, Harmon Killebrew made his final trip to Fort Myers for the Minnesota Twins’ Spring Training. Just three months after making his battle with esophageal cancer public, the Hall of Famer walked slowly as he made his way across the field towards second base to chat with Tom Kelly. The two stood closely together, watching the team warm up in left field under the hot Florida sun, each letting out the occasional light-hearted laugh. Up until that moment, fans were unsure whether they would see Harmon during their time in Florida, the Twins even admitting their uncertainty over whether he would be healthy enough to make the trip.
My father and I were standing with a small group of fans near the dugout, waiting for batting practice to start when Harmon appeared on the field. I recognized his posture immediately; the delicate shrug of his shoulders made him easily recognizable in his Twins pullover. I tugged on my dad’s sleeve. He’s here, I whispered. Our group turned to look as he greeted everyone on the field like they were old friends, shaking hands and exchanging gentle hugs with members of the team’s staff. We stood watching intently, caught up in the moment, perhaps realizing it might be the last time we would see The Killer in the setting that had made him a legend.
His time on the field was short. As he made his way out of the stadium, a fan nearby yelled out, "We love you, Harmon." He looked over at the group and raised his hand slightly, gesturing towards us as he smiled and walked away. That was the last time I saw Harmon Killebrew. He passed away eight weeks later on May 17, 2011, at the age of 74.
It is impossible to fully comprehend the impact Harmon had on the Minnesota Twins, simply because his impression will always be there, forever engrained within the organization’s inner workings. From the day Calvin Griffith announced he was moving the Washington Senators to Minnesota, fans gravitated towards the farm boy from Payette, Idaho, his first year as a Twin highlighted by 46 home runs, 122 RBIs and the title of team captain. While his statistics made the title an obvious choice, it was his demeanor, his character, both on and off the field that set him apart from others who may have been worthy of the accolade.
He was a leader, a soft-spoken hard-working athlete who embraced the people and lifestyle of the Midwest because it was so similar to what he had grown up with in Idaho. His productivity on the field kept the stands full while his personality made him a favorite in the clubhouse, spending 14 seasons in a Minnesota Twins jersey. Even after he retired in 1976, he stayed close with the organization, mentoring young players on the keys to being successful in the big leagues. The lesson he stressed the most? The importance of taking pride in one’s own signature, telling players this: If you play the game this long, make sure people know who you are. It is that lesson, along with Harmon’s friendship, that has stuck with so many players throughout the Twins family, Michael Cuddyer even adopting the treasured #3 jersey when he signed with the Colorado Rockies this past offseason.
There will never be another Harmon Killebrew, someone who so clearly exemplified the true meaning of being an All-Star – both as a player and as a human being. His career is the foundation that the Twins’ franchise has been built upon, a legacy that will never waver even as the years continue to pass. His Twins family will make sure of that.