MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO/AP) — Minnesota Twins legend Harmon Killebrew passed away Tuesday morning after a battle with esophageal cancer. He was 74.
The former Twins player had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer last December.
The Minnesota Twins released a statement saying Killebrew passed away at his Scottsdale, Ariz., home. They said he died peacefully, with his wife, Nita, and their family at his side.
Killebrew announced last week that his battle with cancer was coming to an end. In a statement last Friday, Killebrew said, “I have exhausted all options with respect to controlling this awful disease. My illness has progressed beyond my doctors’ expectation of cure.”
His family released the following statement about Killebrew’s passing: “He will be missed more than anyone can imagine but we take solace in the fact that he will no longer suffer. We thank you for your outpouring of support and prayers and take comfort in the fact that he was loved by so many.”
Killebrew hit 573 home runs and made 11 All-Star appearances during his 22-year career, spent mostly with the Washington Senators and the Twins. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984 and was fifth on the career home run list when he retired in 1975 after one season with the Kansas City Royals.
Killebrew currently ranks 11th on the all-time homer list, and his eight seasons with 40 or more homers still is tied for second in league history to Babe Ruth.
Killebrew was able to travel to Fort Myers, Fla., for his annual stint as a guest instructor at spring training. He was in good spirits, quipping that Twins manager Ron Gardenhire gave him the OK to show up a little late.
In statement released by the Twins, team president Dave St. Peter said, “No individual has ever meant more to the Minnesota Twins organization and millions of fans across Twins Territory than Harmon Killebrew. Harmon will long be remembered as one of the most prolific home run hitters in the history of the game and the leader of a group of players who helped lay the foundation for the long-term success of the Twins franchise and Major League Baseball in the Upper Midwest.”
The Twins will tribute Killebrew with an old black-and-white photo that will rest beneath home plate at Target Field for the rest of the season.
On Tuesday, six members of the Target Field grounds crew slowly lifted home plate and slipped the plastic-encased photo of Killebrew under it, then replaced it. A team spokeswoman says the picture is believed to have been taken at Met Stadium in the 1960s.
It shows Killebrew winding up for a mighty swing.
The stadium’s video board showed a photo of Killebrew with the years of his life, 1936-2011.
NewsRadio 830 WCCO’s Dave Lee Looks Back At Killebrew’s Life
His Early Years
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 recounts the story of 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 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 has 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.
The man whose silhouette inspired Major League Baseball’s official logo 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.”
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.
Jane Forbes Clark, chairman of National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, said Killebrew personified Hall of Fame excellence and was simply one of the greatest hitters of all time.
“Since joining the Hall of Fame family in 1984, Harmon was a beacon of light among his fellow Hall of Famers, always smiling, always enjoying every moment that life delivered to his doorstep,” she said. “We have so many fond memories of this wonderful baseball hero, and we will miss him enormously.”
WCCO’s Chad Hartman Interviews Bert Blyleven About Harmon Killebrew
Off The Field
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.
“I never thought anything would compare to being elected into the Hall of Fame, but being able to interact with fans once my playing days were over has been just as gratifying,” Killebrew said.
Killebrew also started the Harmon Killebrew Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to “enriching the quality of life by promoting positive and healthful participation in sports, specifically baseball, by partnering with other (nonprofit) organizations to raise funds for their missions of promoting mental & physical health, education, self-sufficiency and community service.”
The foundation has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for many charitable organizations across the country including the Minnesota Twins Community Fund and Miracle Leagues of Minnesota.
Killebrew and Nita had nine children.
Former Twins Broadcaster Ray Christensen On Harmon Killebrew
Click here for a photo gallery of Harmon Killebrew
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(TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)