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Cancer claims Twins great

Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew poses in his prime, in the fifth of his eight 40-homer seasons and the first of two with 49.

Associated Press (1964)

Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew poses in his prime, in the fifth of his eight 40-homer seasons and the first of two with 49.

MINNEAPOLIS — Harmon Killebrew earned every bit of his frightening nickname, hitting tape-measure home runs that awed even fellow Hall of Famers.

Yet there was a softer side to "The Killer," too.

The balding gentleman who enjoyed a milk shake after each game. The fisherman who was afraid of bumping into alligators. The MVP who always had time to help a rookie.

Mr. Killebrew, the big-swinging slugger for the Twins and the face of the franchise for many years, died Tuesday at age 74 after battling esophageal cancer.

"It's a sad day. We lost an icon. We lost Paul Bunyan," former Twins star Kent Hrbek said.

Mr. Killebrew was genuinely modest about ranking 11th all-time with 573 homers. His approach to life was mild and patient, except when he got in the batter's box and unleashed a swing strengthened by teenage summers in Idaho, lifting 10-gallon jugs working on a milk truck.

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

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

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

Much farther away, Mr. Killebrew was on the minds of current and former major-leaguers.

"I lost a hero," former Twins pitcher Jack Morris said. "The one thing that hits home the most with Harmon is his strength. Not as a player but as a person. In his strength and his kindness. To me, he was a real man, he was all man, because he loved so much. He is this family that we call the Minnesota Twins."

Former Twins Paul Molitor, Tony Oliva and Julio Becquer made trips to the Scottsdale area last weekend to say goodbye. Oliva and Becquer went together and found Mr. Killebrew in good spirits before things took a turn for the worse.

"(He) was laughing, and that was happy for me because I was thinking I would go see him in very bad shape, and when I saw him laughing and talking it was a big surprise for me," Oliva said. "That was Saturday and I was happy for me to have that opportunity to get there and see him in person. Sunday was a different story. I came back and was visiting and he was very down. … He said, 'You know I love you.' "

Whether as an 18-year-old with the Washington Senators in 1954 or playing for Kansas City in his final season in 1975, Mr. Killebrew carried himself the same unassuming way.

"He never walked around with his nose in the air. Never, ever. He used to go out after every game and get a milk shake. A super guy," said former second baseman Frank White, who played with Mr. Killebrew in Kansas City.

Mr. Killebrew 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 he hit 190 homers in his first four years there, including 49 in 1964.

Behind their soft-spoken slugger, the Twins reached the World Series in 1965 and back-to-back AL Championship Series in 1969 and 1970. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984, the first Twins player to be enshrined. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984.

But it was the way his easygoing demeanor contrasted starkly with his presence at the plate. "I didn't have evil intentions," Mr. Killebrew once said. "But I guess I did have power."

.FAST FACTS

'60s dominance

From 1960-69, Harmon Killebrew may have been baseball's premier slugger:

Stat No. MLB rank

HR 393 1st

BB 970 1st

RBIs 1,013 2nd

XBH 593 4th

Source: ESPN

Cancer claims Twins great 05/17/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 17, 2011 11:01pm]

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