Diane Baker said when her husband, Wayne, heard the news Tuesday that baseball legend Harmon Killebrew had passed away, he turned to her with tears welling in his eyes.
“‘My hero is gone,’” she said. “That’s what he told me. Harmon really was Wayne’s hero, so it’s a real honor for us to be here.”
The Bakers were among hundreds of family, friends and fans who packed Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria Friday morning for a celebration of the life of Harmon “Killer” Killebrew, often referred to as the classiest gentleman in baseball. Galen Christianson, a Sun City resident who still spends his summers in Minnesota, said Killebrew’s reputation was deserved.
“You couldn’t find a finer man,” he said. “My dad took me to a lot of ball games growing up, and Harmon always made time for everyone. I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.”
The ceremony began with a musical performance from Charley Pride, a legend in his own right. Pride, an avid baseball fan, said he was touched to find out years ago Killebrew said he was his favorite country singer. He played several songs requested by Killebrew’s family.
“I loved this man,” he said. “This is for you, Harmon.”
Killebrew’s grandson Eric Queathem said he felt blessed to be a part of his grandfather’s life, adding he will always remember what Killebrew taught him.
“Sometimes I think of what life would be like if we were all possessed of more humility,” he said. “If we were all more like Harmon Killebrew.”
Shawn Bair, one of Killebrew’s daughters, said even in his last days Killebrew was more concerned with others than himself.
“He cheered us up,” she said. “He wanted everyone else to be all right, even up to the very end.”
Cam Killebrew, Harmon’s eldest son, said he wanted to thank everyone for the support they had shown over the past several months.
“There has been such a tremendous outpouring of love and prayers,” he said. “I know he felt that and I don’t think he realized how much he was loved.”
Cam Killebrew told a story about his father that he said encapsulates just why his father meant so much to so many. He said he spent many nights at the Metropolitan Stadium as a kid and often grew impatient with the fans after the games.
“He would stop to sign every baseball and I would be eager to get home, saying, ‘Dad, dad, come on, let’s go,’” he said. “He told me in the car once there might be someone who came all the way from North Dakota or Iowa to see him play, and this might be the only opportunity they have to get an autograph. That’s who he was.”
In attendance for the service were the Minnesota Twins of today, several of whom served as pallbearers, along with many of Killebrew’s old teammates. Rod Carew was there, as was Tony Oliva, Frank Quilici and fellow Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven.
“Harmon was more than just a home run hitter,” Blyleven said. “He was a leader. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984, but those of us who knew him know he was in the Hall of Fame of life long before that.”
Blyleven said he has no doubt Killebrew will leave a lasting legacy.
“Harmon loved baseball and the fans loved him, because they knew they were meeting somebody who cared,” he said. “We should all try to live our lives like Harmon did.”
Jeff Dempsey may be reached at 623-876-2531 or firstname.lastname@example.org.