Killebrew recalled as great player, better person
Friends, family, Hall of Famers honor late slugger at service
PEORIA, Ariz. -- They came from far and wide for Harmon Killebrew's funeral service Friday staged on a sprawling church campus in this town to the far northwest of downtown Phoenix. Close friends and family, six Hall of Famers, the entire Minnesota Twins baseball team, their owners, much of the front office, and country singer Charlie Pride to sing a couple of numbers.During a string of eulogies, one of Killebrew's grandsons told the mourners -- estimated at about 750 -- that he had received an envelope from his granddad about two weeks before the slugger died from the ravages of esophageal cancer. Evidently at that point, Killebrew knew the fight was futile. The photo was of Killebrew and his grandson, then 12, taken during a Hall of Fame week once shared between the two. It was lovingly signed with the inscription that read, "Remember the good times." "That summed up the life of Harmon Killebrew," said that grandson, Eric Queathem, now an adult. Killebrew was barely a month shy of his 75th birthday when he died Tuesday at his home in nearby Scottsdale. The theme of the nearly two-hour service couldn't have been sweeter: He was a great ballplayer and a Hall of Famer, but even a better person. "Harmon was a gentle and kind man, who just happened to be a legendary baseball player," read the note at the end of a slide show that depicted Killebrew in every phase of his life. And so he was. "It was universal, the feeling about Harmon," said Jim Pohlad, the Twins' chief executive who took over when his dad, Carl, passed away in 2009. "You could've had 50 people up there and they would've said the same thing." Killebrew was a country boy and he will be buried during a private service on Monday in his hometown of Payette, Idaho. On Thursday, a memorial service is slated at Target Field, beginning at 7 p.m. CT, so fans can pay their respect. Though Friday's service was also open to the public, it was basically attended by the baseball glitterati. An elderly white-haired man was spotted wearing a vintage No. 3 Killebrew jersey, while others wore T-shirts of some this era's regulars. The pallbearers who rolled in Killebrew's polished mahogany casket were a Who's Who of Twins baseball history: Rod Carew and Tony Oliva. Frank Quilici and Paul Molitor. Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau. Joe Nathan and Ron Gardenhire, the team's current manager. Carew and Oliva played with Killebrew. So did Bert Blyleven, who also gave a eulogy and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 24 with Roberto Alomar and Pat Gillick after 14 years on the ballot. Ferguson Jenkins, Frank Robinson and Robin Yount were the other Hall of Famers in attendance, joining Carew, Molitor and Blyleven. Some may say that it was meant to be, but it was at the least a strange twist of fate that the Twins were in town for a rare weekend Interleague series against the D-backs at Chase Field and were able to attend the service. Aside from Jim Pohlad and his nephew, Joe, David St. Peter, the club's president, was there, as was Jerry Bell, the chairman of the executive board and general manager Bill Smith. Representing Major League Baseball was Laurel Prieb, the vice president of western operations and a former Twins traveling secretary during the time Killebrew was one of their broadcasters. Representing the local D-backs was hitting coach Don Baylor and Roland Hemond, an assistant to club president Derrick Hall and the recipient this year of the Hall of Fame's Buck O'Neil Award. Jeff Idelson, the Hall's president, was on hand representing the museum and couldn't help to note sadly that Killebrew is the fifth member enshrined in the Cooperstown, N.Y., institution to die in the past year, following Robin Roberts, Sparky Anderson, Bob Feller and most recently, Duke Snider. Broadcasting legends and Ford C. Frick Award winners Dave Niehaus and Ernie Harwell have also recently passed away. Robinson, now a consultant for Major League Baseball, played against Killebrew in the American League during the 1960s and early '70s, mostly when Robinson was a member of the Orioles. Both were big home run hitters. Robinson finished with 586 homers in 1976 and Killebrew with 573 in '75 when he closed his career with the Royals after 21 seasons starring for the Senators/Twins. "I wouldn't have missed this for anything," said Robinson, who flew in from his home in Los Angeles for the funeral. "Even as an opponent I admired him. He was a great competitor. But he didn't show it. He was always the same way on and off the field." Molitor grew up in the Twin Cities and didn't play for the hometown team until the last three seasons of a 21-year career that began in 1978 and ended in '98. Molitor said Killebrew was the role model he chose to emulate as an impressionable youngster. "Personally what this means to me is how blessed I was to have this man as a youngster that I picked and idolized as a baseball player," he said. "Then later in life, I met him and befriend him and realized that there was nobody I could've picked better to try to emulate." Blyleven was drafted by the Twins and came up in 1970 when Killebrew was in his waning years with Minnesota. Blyleven remembers joining the club as a scared rookie and having Killebrew come over and introducing himself to make the right-hander feel comfortable. After Killebrew announced this past week that he was entering hospice care to make the last days of his life bearable, Molitor paid him a visit on both Saturday and Sunday and Blyleven said he spoke to him via the phone from Seattle where the Twins played on Monday. The Twins were on a long losing streak and Killebrew was more concerned about them snapping out of it rather than his own condition. "Harmon died on Tuesday," Blyleven, a Twins broadcaster for the last 16 years, said during his eulogy. "It was [Francisco] Lirano vs. [Felix] Hernandez, so you knew there wouldn't be much offense. Guess what the final score was? 2-1. By my calculations that adds up to three. How many hits did the Twins have? Three. How many wins in a row do we now have? Three. That's a pretty good tribute to Harmon." But Blyleven wasn't finished as he implored the crowd to rise to its feet. "Harmon hit 573 home runs," he said. "When you're out there, I don't care if it's Little League, you just love to hear that roar of the crowd. Will everybody please stand up? Well, Harmon Killebrew just hit his 574th home run and he wants to hear the roar of the crowd and I want to hear the roar of the crowd. Please." With that, the roar and clapping of the 750 congregated was deafening. For Harmon Killebrew, it was a fitting and final tribute.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.