May 18, 2011
The Passing of a Great
Mortality has been on my mind a lot recently. When Harmon Killebrew announced last week that he would be ending his battle with esophogeal cancer by moving into hospice care, it's all I could think of (I don't think I was alone in this). Coupled with some recent, similar news from family and friends, it's hard to get away from the concept. And now that we learn today of the passing of Killebrew, only a few days after his announcement, it comes into even sharper focus.
Twelve years ago, I visited Pacific Bell Park (now AT&T Park, of course) for the first time. I remember going through the team store that opens up on the street and allows you access to the stadium at the top of the stairs. Along the way, there is memorabilia everywhere, from ballcaps to backpacks to shirts/jerseys of Giants legends like Bonds and Clark. There's also a display of signed baseballs along the wall (for sale, I presume). I remember looking at that display and reading the various names, from the likes of Jeff Kent and J.T. Snow all the way up to Barry Bonds, Willie McCovey, and Willie Mays. The one that caught my eye, though, belonged to Warren Spahn. I remember being amazed that the 363 game winner, who began his career in 1942, who straddled two very different eras, and who faced the likes of Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial and Roberto Clemente, was still alive, giving us all a way to touch the past. Sure, the autographed ball was rare, but he could have been, at that very moment, signing dozens more. It made for a nice reminder that there was a lot more to the world than whatever my eighteen year old self was interested in.
Looking back on it now, I see that Spahn was probably 78 years old at the time (he died in 2003 at 82). Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson, and Sandy Koufax all turn 76 this year. Hank Aaron and Al Kaline are 77. Willie Mays and Ernie Banks are 80 (the same age Mickey Mantle would be if he were alive). Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra are both in their mid-80s. Stan Musial turns 91 in November for goodness sake. These are our ties to the past now. It may be hard to believe since it's so easy to picture Aaron or Koufax or Mays in their 20s or 40s or 60s, but it's the truth. And, as the passings of Bob Feller and Duke Snider and Robin Roberts and Sparky Anderson and too many others recently have shown us, they won't be along forever. Killebrew was only 74.
What exactly am I saying? I wish I knew exactly. I never had the pleasure of meeting Killebrew - though I hear it was always exactly that, a pleasure - or any of the other men listed above. I probably never will. But they have all meant something to me and countless more in one way or another, and I'm glad to know that they're still out there, shaking hands, telling stories, and making people happy. It's a gift we have for only so much time and should be treated as such.
Harmon Killebrew had 573 home runs and 2,086 hits. In his nearly 75 years, he positively affected millions of lives. I'm guessing he was more proud of the second accomplishment. We should all be so lucky.