Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame president, Tom Valcke, continued his preparations for next month’s induction ceremonies in St. Marys, Ont., with a heavy heart today.
This morning he received word that good friend and baseball legend, Harmon Killebrew had passed away from esophageal cancer at the age of 74. The longtime Twins slugger had begun hospice care in Scottsdale, Ariz., last Friday.
“I first met Harmon in Japan where we were paired up together at the World Children’s Baseball Fair (WCBF),” remembered Valcke. “He was the name guy, who signed autographs, posed for photos, and drew the media attention, while I was his gopher. We worked well together and became fast friends.”
It was Killebrew who recommended Valcke for a job interview with Joe Garagiola of the Arizona Diamondbacks when the club was being formed, and Valcke and his wife, Paula, attended the weddings of two of Killebrew’s daughters.
“Harmon came to the WCBF that we held in Regina in the year 2000, and was never better in embracing the children from 25 different countries and all 13 provinces and territories,” recalled Valcke. “He loved sharing his knowledge, and his passion for baseball was contagious.”
After starting his big league career with the Washington Senators in 1954, Killebrew moved with the franchise to Minnesota in 1961. Nicknamed “Killer,” the 6-foot, 195-pound third baseman clubbed 573 home runs (11th on the all-time list) in 22 big league seasons. A model of consistency, the 11-time all-star slammed over 40 home runs in eight different seasons and 30-or-more in 10 campaigns.
Killebrew was named the American League MVP in 1969, when he belted 49 homers knocked in 140 runs and walked 145 times. For his efforts, his No. 3 was retired by the Twins in 1975 and he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984. The baseball legend returned to the Twins as a special assistant in 1997 and had served as an on-field instructor during spring training since 2006.
“Other than his Popeye-like forearms, he wasn’t a big man in stature, but he was a big man in heart,” said Valcke. “This is a devastating loss to all who knew him and loved him.”
Killebrew was hard to dislike, even when he was beating the brains out of our Yankees. I think when he retired, he was actually fifth on the career home run list, an incredible accomplishment when you consider who the top four were. And with 49 homers in ’69, who knows how many more he might have hit that year without so many walks.