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Harmon Killebrew: We Lost One of the Greats

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Harmon Killebrew last played in the Major Leagues in 1975, so sadly, I never got to see him play in person. And what it sight that would have been. Killebrew tied May 17 at age 74 after a bout with esophageal cancer.

In everything I have read about the man, he was known for prodigious home runs. He hit 40 or more home runs in eight seasons and led all of baseball in that category six times en route to 573 career home runs.

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But perhaps on the same level of his feats on the diamond, I heard about what a great person he was, how engaging and pleasant he was at shows to everyone, and that might speak louder than how he did on the field.

"There are so many Harmon Killebrew stories that are all positive. There
was not a negative with Harmon. There can't be. Can't be,'' said Bert
Blyleven, his former teammate. "That's what I'll miss most about
Harmon. Not his playing but his personality and the way he treated
people.''

Killebrew was a 17-year-old "Bonus Baby" Former editor T.S. O'Connell summed up the term thusly: "Seems the escalating costs of bonuses paid to untried young talent was
alarming them, and their solution was a Bonus Rule that decreed that any
young player signed for a bonus of $4,000 or more (Killebrew handsomely
qualified for the rule with a three-year deal worth $30,000) would have
to spend two years on the 40-man roster (two full seasons)."

Basically it meant that Killebrew spent the first two years of his career riding the pine when he should have been in the minors. In fact, it wasn't until he was 23 (1959) that he got regular playing time.

“That was an interesting year ... We had Eddie Yost (The Walking Man) on
our ball club and it took a trade with the Tigers to give me an
opportunity to play,” Killebrew recalled in a 1989 interview. “I had a
good spring training and started the season at third and then hit a home
run on opening day. I kept goin’ and hit one on the last day of the
season and tied Rocky Colavito for the home run championship.”

And while he currently stands 11th on the all-time home run list and considered the greatest Minnesota athlete, he endured himself to this hobby on the show circuit, with observations such as this:

“To me, it’s important to interact with the fans at these shows,
be it telling old baseball stories or taking pictures with the fans,”
Killebrew explained. “Most collectors appreciate you signing something
extra on their item, such as HOF or your home run total ... and I don’t
mind doing that, not at all.”

I know many SCD readers saw Killebrew play in person and had encounters with him at shows, and I hope you will share some of those stories in the comments section.

He was indeed Hobby Royalty.

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