Baseball Heroes and the Art of Writing

A good friend of mine died last week. The funny thing is I never met the man. But I feel like I knew him for almost 50 years. We never talked on the phone, never exchanged letters or emails, never communicated in any way, other than I would see him on TV fairly often in the summer, and listen to his exploits over the radio on many a hot summer weekend afternoon or balmy spring evening.

Those meeting stopped almost 40 years ago. In the past decade or two, I’d see him on TV occasionally, and think back to his glory days–and mine in some ways–the 1960s and early 1970s. The only thing we had in common was his vocation and one of my greatest loves—baseball. My friend was Harmon Killebrew.

Most of you are now thinking, “Harmon WHO?” A few of you might recognize the name in some vague way, like a trivia question that he might be the answer to, such as: Who is the first batter to hit a baseball over the left field roof at Tiger Stadium? Or, who was once the fifth all-time leading home run hitter in the major leagues? Or, who hit the most home runs in the major leagues in the 1960s?

If you’re from Minnesota or any of the adjacent states, and are a baseball fan, you’ve probably heard of Harmon Killebrew. He is to Minnesota baseball what Babe Ruth was to the New York Yankees. If you are a male baby-boomer, and a baseball fan, “The Killer” was probably your hitting idol. He was mine.

I used Harmon’s authentic Louisville Slugger autographed bat, emulated his swing, practiced his homerun trot around the bases, and was always ‘Killer’ at the plate in my imaginary, backyard fantasies when the count was three-and-two, bases were loaded, bottom of the ninth, the Twins were down by three runs in the seventh game of the World Series, batting against the likes of Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, or Jim Bunning. Sure enough, I’d swat that whiffle ball clear over the chain-link fence in my backyard for a grand slam homer, just like Harmon would seem to do when we needed it the most.

The other funny thing was he didn’t become my friend until later in his life. In the 60s, 70s and into the 80s, when he finally became a much deserved, but four-years-too-late, inductee into the baseball Hall of Fame, Harmon was only a sports legend, an idol, a role model for excelling on a ball field. What he did since then made him my friend because his true greatness was that of being a damn fine human being. To a person, everyone who knew him up close and personal said he was humble, gracious, giving of his time, and truly cared about everyone. He’d take the time to sign an autograph or pose for a picture, then remember you the next day at the ballpark and ask, “How did that picture of us turn out?”

He worked tirelessly for charities that he cared deeply about, loved his family, respected everyone he met, and treated all people the way he would have wanted to be treated, the way we all would like to be treated, as equal human beings. Each unique, different, unusual maybe, but no less deserving of respect than the greatest among us.

His legend has faded over the past few decades as baseball heroes of modern times came and went, because good deeds and behind-the-scenes caring go largely unnoticed these days. They aren’t newsworthy, but that’s our loss. We need to see more of humble people doing great deeds for others, no matter how great those humble people once were in their chosen profession. Harmon Killebrew made me proud to say I’m a Minnesotan. Can Ohioans say that about Pete Rose? Can northern Californians say that about Barry Bonds?

So what does this all have to do about the art of writing, you ask? (If you are still with me—I promise there’s a point.) The art of writing is all about leaving a positive mark on the world. Sure, there will be hundreds of bestsellers, books that will be turned into box-office movie hits, that everyone will read or watch and say, ‘That was very entertaining,’ then go home and wait for the next big thing to come along. They’ll make the authors a lot of money. But only a few of those best sellers will endure, make an impression on a generation of readers, and maybe remembered ten years from now.

Masterpieces will also quietly be written, the kind of books that change lives, influence public debate, sway minds and leave indelible impressions on those who care by revealing universal truth. These books will become classics and be read a hundred years from now, maybe five hundred years from now. Most of us writers won’t write anything close to a masterpiece, but we still write for “the love of the game” and strive to elevate the quality of that game. We’ll work behind the scenes, treat words with respect, be humble in our literary triumphs, gracious in rejection from agents and publishers, and strive with our prose to contribute to the greater good and understanding of the human race.

Harmon Killebrew struck out many more times than he homered, but always kept swinging. May we all strive to become the Harmon Killebrews of our literary worlds.

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