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Killebrew departed as he lived -- with grace

It was only days ago that this message scrolled across my screen. It was Harmon Killebrew's farewell, and the only one of its kind that I've ever seen. His time was up. He had fought the good fight.

He had lost, and this was how he said his good-bye:

".....That my continued battle with esophogeal cancer is coming to an end. I have exhausted all options with respect to battling this awful disease. My illness has progressed beyond my doctors' expectations of a cure. I have spent the past decade promoting hospice care and educating people on its benefits. I'm very comfortable taking this next step ....and look forward to spending my final days in comfort and peace with Nita at my side."

That was last Friday. Death came to Harmon Killebrew Tuesday. I don't think many of us realized that it was that close to a fellow who could deliver such a lucid farewell.

It was swift, and painless, we can hope, and with Nita, his wife, to see him off.

He departed as he had lived, with compassion for his fellow man to the end.

Years ago, when Atlanta and Chattanooga carried on a snarling rivalry in the old Southern Association, Killebrew was raw, muscular third baseman for the Lookouts, a farm club in the Washington Senators farm system, later to become the Minnesota Twins.

I came to know him as a Chattanooga farmhand, learning the tools of a third baseman. This is how he got from Payette, Idaho: An Idaho senator brought steaming stories of this mighty slugger to Washington, and to his friend Clark Griffith, who owned the Senators. Griff dispatched a scout to check on this kid, and the scout, Ossie Bluege, saw enough of him to recommend the Senators invest $50,000 in him, and $50,000 to Clark Griffith was a king's ransom.

Not only that, but there was a rule in those days that these "bonus babies" had to be carried four seasons on the major league roster even though they spent that time in the farm system.

Killebrew left all sorts of records behind in the Southern Associatioon before he finally settled in the majors, where he also left a trail of long distance home runs.

What impressed was that he was as much an exemplary person as he was a mauling slugger, and it was evident from the first day he put on a pair of spikes in Chattanooga. And once he reached the major leagues, nothing changed in his demeanor.

"He was a bigger Hall of Famer off the field than on it," Bert Blyleven, the pitching teammate who goes into Hall this year, said.

George Brett said, "He was a nice guy and a tough competitor, and you don't find those two together very often."

He didn't just hit home runs, he hit 'em out of sight, and left long distance records behind wherever he played.

A Minnesota official said, "He had the loudest bat and the quietest mouth in the majors." And that's enough. I was blessed to have known him, and I can give witness to every kind and gentle thing said of' Harmon Killebrew. It's regrettable that his time was cut so short after he'd composed that impassioned farewell.

But we know this: He was ready when his time came.

( Furman Bisher is one of the deans of American sports writing. The longtime Atlanta sports journalist is a member of the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame and in addition to his newspaper writing has authored multiple books profiling major figures like Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer. He writes periodic columns for the Clayton News Daily and the Henry Daily Herald)