05/17/11 12:23 PM ET
Killebrew was man of indomitable dignity
Hall of Famer remembered for classiness on and off field
By Michael Bauman / MLB.com
If you knew nothing of the man -- nothing of the 573 home runs, nothing of the eight seasons with more than 40 home runs in an era before the home runs became devalued -- you could learn what you needed to know through the message that he sent as he went into hospice care.
"It is with profound sadness that I share with you that my continued battle with esophageal cancer is coming to an end," Killebrew said in a statement issued on May 13. "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."
The indomitable dignity expressed in that statement is not only of comfort to Killebrew's family and countless friends. It is a lesson for all of us in the way that the end of life can be met.
This was a gentleman in the largest sense of the term. His two-plus decades in the Majors began with the old Washington Senators but came to fruition when the franchise moved to Minnesota in 1961. Only four years later, the Twins were in the World Series, with Killebrew in the midst of a highly potent lineup. Only Sandy Koufax throwing two shutouts -- the second on two days' rest in Game 7 -- kept the Twins from winning.
Killebrew was the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1969, but he was a regular near the top of that category, finishing in the top four of the MVP balloting in five other seasons. He led the AL in home runs in six seasons.
By the measurement of either career achievement or dominant performance within his playing era, Killebrew was a Hall of Famer, and voters recognized that. He was elected in his fourth year on the ballot, which may have been a bit late, but his greatness was eventually recognized with 83.9 percent of the voters casting ballots in favor of his induction at Cooperstown.
The words of former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Rod Carew are typical of the regard in which Killebrew is held throughout baseball.
"This is a sad day for all of baseball and even harder for those of us who are fortunate enough to be a friend of Harmon's," Carew said in a statement. "Harmon Killebrew is a gem. I can never thank him enough for all I learned from him. He is a consummate professional who treats everyone from the brashest of rookies to the groundskeepers to the ushers in the stadium with the utmost of respect. I would not be the person I am today if it weren't for Harmon Killebrew. He is a Hall of Famer in every sense of the word."
Another teammate, Bert Blyleven, who will enter the Hall of Fame this summer, and who is now a Twins broadcaster, said: "When I think of Harmon Killebrew, I think of class. Not just a Hall of Fame player but a guy who just loved life and gave so much back."
Jim Kaat, who played 15 years with Killebrew, said: "He really is the face of the Twins franchise. I think he's the main reason the Twins have a reputation for being a gentlemanly organization. I think it all started with him."
The tributes go on, with stunning consistency. Harmon Killebrew was regarded by those who knew him well, as a terrific hitter, and a wonderful teammate. But he was admired best of all for what he was as a man, a gentleman and a human being.
His death is a profound loss for all of baseball. But the memory of what his life meant will live on.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.