by Eric Bergeson, May 27, 2011
Many years ago while browsing the bookstore, I ran across a book which contained the addresses of famous sports legends.
Well! It was the middle of winter and I had nothing better to do, so I bought the book, sat down and wrote letters to some of my favorite old ball players.
Willie Stargell. Carlton Fisk. Lou Piniella. Tom Seaver. Jerry Koosman. I wrote a couple of dozen players about my favorite memories of their playing career.
My motives weren't all pure. I was sort of hoping they would be so touched by my stories that they would plop an autographed picture in the mail. But I didn't ask.
I didn't realize that, because the autographs of these ball players had become worth good money, they were pestered all the time by innocent-sounding people who really wanted to sell their autograph for profit.
Because these older players didn't share in the wealth of baseball players of later years, they made sure only to give out mementoes at events where they were paid to do so. A lot of them needed the money, and their notoriety was all they had to sell.
I received exactly one piece of mail in return.
It was a crinkled envelope which contained a handwritten note on lined paper thanking me for my kind comments.
It was from Harmon Killebrew.
Only later did I find out that at the time he sent me the note, Killebrew was broke, recently-divorced and besieged by a collapsed lung which nearly killed him.
The handwriting on the note was immaculate, a boxy cursive script that clearly was etched with great care and effort.
The signature was as neat as the rest of the letter. No big flourishes. No egotistical scribbles. Just an unpretentious and readable “Harmon Killebrew.”
I still have the letter, but I don't know where it is. Like several other items I treasure, I hid it so well that I can't find it.
I suspect it is folded in the Q volume of the encyclopedia back at Mom and Dad's. Or in some classic book by Jane Austen.
It may turn up someday, or it may not.
When Harmon Killebrew passed away last week, accolades poured in for the humble man who hit the ball farther than anybody since Babe Ruth.
Humble Harmon was loved by all who met him, they said. The contrast between his gentle, self-effacing personality and his violent presence in the batter's box was noted by all.
But what warmed my heart was the testimony of several young ballplayers who had signed autographs alongside Killebrew.
Minnesota Twin Michael Cuddyer said Killebrew was so offended by Cuddyer's flippant, sloppy signature that he said, “if you sign one more thing with that scrawl, I am leaving and the only one they’ll be mad at is you.”
Killebrew told Torii Hunter to neaten his signature so people can actually read it.
“If the kids can't read it,” Killebrew told Hunter, “that ball will soon be covered with mud like the rest of them.”
Behind Killebrew's careful signature was the philosophy he carried to his grave:
Always be grateful for being able to play baseball for a living. Always respect those who fill the seats. Always be humble. Do everything with great care, even the small tasks.
Handwriting is a dying art. One wonders if they'll teach it in 20 years.
But Harmon Killebrew has made an argument for keeping cursive in the curriculum.
When I received Harmon's handwritten note, I was stunned, humbled by the obvious effort that went into producing it.
For ten minutes, at least, Hall of Famer Harmon had concentrated upon showing appreciation to a fan who wrote him a letter for reasons which might have been shady.
Harmon's handwritten letter shamed me: I realized it is inappropriate for anybody over trick-or-treating age to pester baseball stars for an autograph. Grow up, people.
I learned that lesson only because Killebrew's note was hand-written. His humble, careful and gentlemanly personality came through.
Killebrew's philosophy was powerfully expressed with his careful signature, custom-etched for a fan he never met.
No email, text message or copied-off script will ever carry as much weight.
So, the next time we sign a check, letter or tax document, let's buckle down, take pride in the task, and make it legible.
And remember the lessons taught by the handwriting of the mighty but humble Harmon Killebrew.