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, and his uppercut swing formed the silhouette that inspired Major League Baseball's official logo.
At Target Field, members of the Twins' ground crew slowly lifted home plate and slipped under it a plastic-encased, black-and-white photo of Killebrew winding up for a swing. The picture will stay beneath the plate the rest of the season.
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 in a statement issued by the team. "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."
Former Twins pitcher Jack Morris, who grew up in Minnesota watching Killebrew play, was choked up and teary-eyed at a news conference to talk about the slugger's death.
"I lost a hero today," Morris said.
Former teammate Rod Carew, in a statement provided by the team, remembered Killebrew as a "gem" and for his class.
"I can never thank him enough for all I learned from him," Carew said. "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."
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."
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 years 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.