The passing of former Minnesota Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew recently spawned hours of sports talk chatter about his 573 steroid-free home runs, the graceful way he accepted the cruel fate of esophageal cancer and what a truly great man he was.
When he retired in 1975, his 573 homers were fifth on baseballs all-time list, behind only legends Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson. He had hit the most home runs of any player in the 1960s, considered by many to be baseball's glory days because of the number of stars playing then.
And legend has it that just as the NBA logo is a silhouette of Jerry West, the Major League Baseball logo of a righthanded hitter making full contact with a baseball is Harmon Killebrew.
My favorite Wikipedia notation on Killebrew is that he was "a quiet, kind man who was not much given to the partying lifestyle enjoyed by his peers. Asked once what he liked to do for fun, Killebrew replied, 'Well, I like to wash dishes, I guess.'"
I won't pretend to be able to add much to the discussion of his legacy. Suffice it to say, he was a great player on a team that labored in relative anonymity because of its Minnesota location in those pre-ESPN, pre-USA Today years of sports.
Growing up in a Chicago suburb, I was fortunate to go to several White Sox and Cubs games each year. One of Killebrew's teammates, pitcher Lee Stange, lived in my hometown and attended my high school, so we saw quite a few Twins-White Sox games at old Comiskey Park.
That's where I crossed paths with Harmon Killebrew. And getting his autograph remains one of my most vivid childhood memories.
Our brief encounter occurred as I waved a Spalding Official League baseball at him from the corner where the box seats met the visitors' dugout. Killebrew was concentrating on the bat rack and paying no attention to an 11- or 12-yeer-old pest with a baseball. But I persisted, begging him "not to be like Mickey Mantle" (who earlier that summer had stiffed me for an autograph during a rain delay even though I was the only kid braving the raindrops near the Yankee dugout).
Killebrew glanced over at me when I invoked the sad Mantle story. Suddenly, without uttering a word he grabbed the baseball and my pen and hurriedly scribbled his name. I was thrilled.
When he handed the ball back, I eagerly rolled it around in my hand until I found his signature among others like Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva and Joe McCabe (yes, that Joe McCabe who lived in Greencastle for several years while an airline pilot; back in the 1960s, he was a backup catcher).
Yet despite space on the "sweet spot" of the ball, Killebrew had signed right across the Spalding "Cushioned Cork Center" logo. Right then I thought, I'll probably be the only one who ever knows whose autograph that is.
Thus, for years I disliked Harmon Killebrew. Like I have always disliked Pete Rose since the day he spiked "Mr. Cub" Ernie Banks in a play at first base in 1967.
Then one day I was cleaning out my closet (I can hear my wife laughing at that possibility) when I came across my box of baseballs and saw the Killebrew signature again. That's awesome, I thought. The memory of that moment is so much more special than a simple signing on a ball or program.
So while at one time I may have disputed the claims that Harmon Killebrew was a "gentle, caring man who treated all those he encountered with respect," instead I will always have a soft spot in my heart for him.
Rest easy, my friend. Thanks for the memories ...