Harmon Killebrew dies at 74

Updated: May 18, 2011, 11:05 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

MINNEAPOLIS -- Harmon Killebrew, the affable, big-swinging Hall of Famer whose tape-measure home runs made him the cornerstone of the Minnesota Twins and perhaps the most popular player in the team's 51-year history, died Tuesday after battling esophageal cancer. He was 74.

The Twins said Killebrew passed away peacefully at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife, Nita, and their family at his side. He announced his diagnosis just six months ago, and last week Killebrew said he was settling in for the final days of his life after doctors deemed the "awful disease" incurable.

Killebrew is 11th on baseball's all-time home run list after an exceptional 22-year career. His eight seasons with 40 or more homers still is tied for second in league history to Babe Ruth. He was an All-Star at three positions: First base, third base and in the outfield.

"No individual has ever meant more to the Minnesota Twins organization and millions of fans across Twins territory than Harmon Killebrew," Twins president Dave St. Peter said. He said Killebrew's legacy "will be the class, dignity and humility he demonstrated each and every day as a Hall of Fame-quality husband, father, friend, teammate and man."

At Target Field, the scoreboard showed a picture of a smiling Killebrew and his retired No. 3 was etched in the dirt behind second base. Plus, there was a more personal tribute -- the Twins' ground crew slowly lifted home plate and put under it a plastic-encased, black-and-white photo of Killebrew. The picture, believed to be from the 1960s, will stay beneath the plate the rest of the season.

The Twins will host a public memorial service for Killebrew at Target Field on May 26. A funeral, also open to the public, will be held on Friday in Peoria, Ariz. A private burial will be held May 23 in his hometown of Payette, Idaho.

Twins catcher Joe Mauer said he felt like he had lost a family member.

"He has treated me like one of his own," Mauer said. "It's hard to put into words what Harmon has meant to me. He first welcomed me into the Twins family as an 18-year-old kid and has continued to influence my life in many ways. He is someone I will never forget and will always treasure the time we spent together."

Along with a statue in Killebrew's likeness outside Target Field, there's a giant bronze glove where fans pose for snapshots -- the glove is 520 feet from home plate, fittingly the distance of his longest home run.

Former Twins star Kent Hrbek joined five other former Minnesota players at Target Field on Tuesday to share memories of Killebrew. Jack Morris, the 1991 World Series MVP and another native of the Twin Cities, grew up cheering for Killebrew during his heyday in the late 1960s.

"I lost a hero today," Morris said, his voice cracking and his eyes watering.

"To remember the innocence of being a young kid who just looked up to a guy he didn't know because of what he did as a baseball player, something that you hoped that maybe some day you could be like," Morris said. "But as a grown man, I look back at him now not as that guy, but as the guy who tried to show me that you don't have to be angry. You don't have to be mad. You can love and share love. We're all going to miss him, and we're all going to love him forever."

Former teammate Tony Oliva said Tuesday the Twins flew him out to Arizona on Saturday so he could spend time with Killebrew.

"It's very hard, we knew each other about 50 years," Oliva told ESPN on Tuesday after learning of Killebrew's death. "I saw him Saturday and he looked very good, even though he was very sick. He was smiling and making jokes."

[+] EnlargeKillebrew
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireHarmon Killebrew hit 573 career home runs and was the 1969 AL MVP after hitting 49 homers with 140 RBIs and 145 walks -- all Twins records that still stand.

Former pitcher Tommy John told ESPN that Killebrew was "one of the nicest, most compassionate guys I ever met in baseball." He said Killebrew hit five home runs against him, "and the most he had off anybody was six."

"He never showed you up, no flaps down or anything, just that little number 3 -- like Babe Ruth -- trotting like he hit 'em before and he would hit 'em again."

The Minnesota House observed a moment of silence at the state capitol. Rep. Bob Barrett of Shafer recalled how his father once did contracting work at Killebrew's home and "couldn't remember having met a nicer man."

Said Barrett: "He was a great player, but he was an even greater man."

Bob Wolf was walking near Target Field as he reflected on the death of a fan favorite he had followed since the Twins arrived in Minnesota in 1961.

"It's going to be a loss for the Twins and the state of Minnesota. He was a great person and a great ambassador for baseball," Wolf said.

What set him apart?

"Just the power," Wolf said, shaking his head. "He went up there to put 'em out."

That he did.

Killebrew broke in with the Washington Senators in 1954 as an 18-year-old. He spent most of his first five seasons in the minors, then hit 42 homers in his first full season in 1959. The Senators moved to Minnesota in 1961, and Killebrew hit 190 homers in his first four seasons there, including 49 in 1964.

The 11-time All-Star was the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1969 after hitting 49 home runs with 140 RBIs and 145 walks, all team records that stand to this day.

"I found out early in life that I could hit a baseball farther than most players and that's what I tried to do," Killebrew said.

Behind their soft-spoken slugger nicknamed "The Killer," the Twins reached the World Series for the first time in 1965 and back-to-back AL Championship Series in 1969 and 1970.

Former Twins owner Calvin Griffith used to call Killebrew the backbone of the franchise. "He kept us in business," Griffith said.

Killebrew was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984, the first Twin to be enshrined. Killebrew's No. 3 jersey was retired in 1975. Killebrew's easygoing demeanor contrasted starkly with his nickname and standing as one of baseball's most feared hitters.

"I didn't have evil intentions," Killebrew said on his website. "But I guess I did have power."

Harmon Clayton Killebrew was born June 29, 1936, in the Idaho farm town of Payette. He was an all-state quarterback in high school, but it was his power with a baseball bat in his hands that got Killebrew noticed by Washington Senators scout Ossie Bluege.

On Killebrew's website, Bluege recounted how he signed the 17-year-old to a $30,000 contract in 1953.

"I waited for the rain to stop in Payette, Idaho, and then he hit one a mile over the left field fence," Bluege said. "I stepped it off the next morning and measured it at 435 feet. That convinced me."

Killebrew didn't just hit balls over the fence, he turned at-bats into longest-drive contests. He never worried much about his short game, preferring instead to swing for the fences, and wound up with a career .256 average.

"I didn't think much about batting average when I was playing," Killebrew said.

On June 3, 1967, Killebrew belted the longest home run in Met Stadium history, a shot that reached the second deck of the bleachers in the old park, some 500 feet from home plate.

"He hit line drives that put the opposition in jeopardy," Bluege once said. "And I don't mean the infielders. I mean the outfielders."

Killebrew finished his career with one season in Kansas City in 1975.

Commissioner Bud Selig said he was saddened by the death of a "true gentleman."

"Harmon was as tough and feared a competitor on the field as the game has ever seen, while off the field he touched everyone he encountered with his sensitive and humble nature," Selig said. "He led his life with modesty and dignity and I will miss him forever."

Killebrew and Nita had nine children. In retirement, he became a successful businessman in insurance, financial planning and car sales. He also traveled the country with baseball memorabilia shows and returned to the Twin Cities regularly, delighting in conversations with fans and reunions with teammates.

With strong competition from Kirby Puckett in the generation that followed him, Killebrew will go down as perhaps the most popular Twins player in history, possibly in all of Minnesota sports. Killebrew Root Beer is sold at Target Field, and there's a Killebrew Drive next to the mall where Metropolitan Stadium once stood in suburban Bloomington.

"Harmon Killebrew was a gem. I can never thank him enough for all I learned from him," said former teammate Rod Carew. "He was a consummate professional who treated everyone from the brashest of rookies to the groundskeepers to the ushers in the stadium with the utmost of respect. I would not be the person I am today if it weren't for Harmon Killebrew. He was a Hall of Famer in every sense of the word."

Information from ESPN's Willie Weinbaum and The Associated Press was used in this report.