Prompted to upgrade my Facebook profile this morning, I did so, and found myself in a section that asked things like what sports I played, what teams I followed, and who my heroes are. I filled out what I played and skipped the rest, except for heroes. There's really only one. Harmon Killebrew.
How a boy living in the Bronx got so enamored of an Idaho farm boy playing for the Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins is no doubt an essay in itself. But I was very sorry to see this story about Harmon's esophageal cancer in my email in-box a few minutes ago. My brother, who has always had the audacity to claim that Willie Mays was the better ballplayer, sent it to me.
Harmon gave a talk at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown (photo, right) on Labor Day, 2008, and Deirdre and I traveled up to see him deliver it. I was reminded that day about how porous our memories, and how false our assumptions, can be, and resolved, once again, to double-check everything. (Which, of course, I don't.)
First, I recalled a towering fly ball Harmon hit that landed behind the monuments in the old Yankee Stadium on Memorial Day 1965. "You only got a triple," I said, "off of a 460 foot shot."
"No," he replied. "I only got a grounds-rule double, but I told the ump that I deserved at least a triple."
Then I mentioned that I had stopped rooting for the Minnesota Twins when the famously skinflint owner, Calvin Griffith, "sold" him to the Kansas City Royals. Well, Harmon had nothing but good things to say about "Mr. Griffith," who had signed him as a teenager and actually wanted him to manage the Twins that year. Harmon thought he had another year or two of ballplaying left in him, however. Griffith told him he was free to sign with whatever team agreed with that assessment and offered him the best contract, and Harmon was very grateful for that.
That's how I eventually became a Yankee fan, which has been a trip in itself although there are times when I wonder how grateful I should be for the misperceived nudge from Griffith. One more season of listening to John Sterling tell Suzyn Waldman that "no one can predict baseball" and I'll be totally looney.
Harmon is a true gentle giant (although, truth be told, he seemed shorter than I am and I've shrunk to about 5'9" myself), and I wish him a smooth and enduring recovery.