Killebrew was 'Paul Bunyan with a uniform on'

MLB colleagues remembered the iconic Minnesota Twin for his towering home runs and gracious demeanor.

When Harmon Killebrew's bulging forearms snapped his bat through the strike zone and made full contact, there was nothing else like it in baseball. His home runs were towering blasts that provided Minnesotans with their introduction to major league baseball.

The iconic Twin, known as much for his humble demeanor as his prodigious home runs, died Tuesday morning at his Scottsdale, Ariz., home at the age of 74 after a nearly five-month battle with esophageal cancer.

Killebrew was the face of the Twins for 14 seasons after the franchise moved to Minnesota from Washington, D.C., before the 1961 season. He is 11th on the all-time major league home run list with 573, of which 475 were hit wearing a Twins uniform. He has the eight-highest single-season total in Twins history, was a 13-time All Star and the American League MVP in 1969. And he was the Twins' first Hall of Fame inductee in 1984.

"No individual has ever meant more to the Minnesota Twins organization ... than Harmon Killebrew," said Twins President Dave St. Peter, who credited the Hall of Famer with helping "lay the foundation for the long-term success of the Twins franchise."

Former Twins star Kent Hrbek, born and raised within blocks of the Twins' first home at Metropolitan Stadium, called Killebrew "Paul Bunyan with a uniform on.''

Killebrew became so popular that the street in front of Metropolitan Stadium was named after him, and today is still one of the major roads into the Mall of America. His home runs were such a draw that then-owner Calvin Griffith made the slugger the team's first $100,000 player in 1971.

The flag at Seattle's Safeco Field, site of Tuesday's game against the visiting Twins, flew at half-staff. A moment of silence was observed before the game, and the Twins wore a No. 3 patch on their uniforms, a tribute that will continue throughout this season.

At Target Field, team officials buried a black-and-white photo of Killebrew beneath home plate, and team officials announced preliminary plans for a public memorial service next week, likely on May 26, when the club has an off day.

Killebrew retained strong ties with Minnesota right up to his death, making several appearances in the Twin Cities each year, and since 2006 making an annual trip to the Twins spring training camp.

Killebrew's cancer was diagnosed in the last week of December, and he vowed to do all he could to fight the disease. He made enough progress with chemotherapy and radiation treatments that he was allowed to visit camp in mid-March.

Although noticeably a few pounds lighter, Killebrew moved well and seemed to be his old self. He spoke of attending the home opener on April 8 and returning for his annual charity golf tournament June 29-30, which coincided with his 75th birthday.

Alas, he made neither.

His wife, Nita, and other family members were with him at their home as he died, just four days after he had announced that he was ending his battle with the disease and entering hospice care. Former teammates, including Tony Oliva and Julio Bequer, visited him in Scottsdale over the weekend.

"When you go through something like this, you're not really sure of what to expect," Killebrew said in March. "The thing that's really been an effect on me is how many people have reached out to me. That's one thing I want to say is to thank all of the people who sent cards and letters and e-mails and all of the well-wishes. It's really been overwhelming and special."

Powerful build

Killebrew played in one of the game's golden eras, with the likes of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson. Killebrew's monstrous home runs set him apart even among his future Hall of Fame peers.

He was only about 5-11 but was 220 pounds -- a burly man with strong arms and stronger hands. He shook hands with such force that it would leave the recipient's hand tingling. It was those arms, wrists and hands that gave Killebrew a terrific power stroke. His blasts would sail high into the air and carry and carry until they landed beyond the fence.

"Growing up in Southern California, for some reason my favorite players were Willie Mays, Carl Yazstrzemski and Harmon," Hall of Famer George Brett, a teammate of Killebrew on the 1975 Kansas City Royals, once said. "If Harmon had hit lefthanded, he would have been Babe Ruth. It wasn't just the number of home runs he hit, but how far they went and how high they went. He hit the highest home runs I had ever seen."

Killebrew was born June 29, 1936, in Payette, Idaho. He claimed to have gotten his strength from hustling 10-gallon cans of milk during the summersas a youth.

Killebrew's signing has become a part of baseball lore. In 1954, Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, supposedly complained during a game to Herman Welker, a U.S. senator from Idaho, about the team's lack of a good-hitting infielder. Welker told him about a 17-year-old from his home state who was set to go to the University of Oregon on a football scholarship.

Griffith dispatched scout Ossie Bluege, who watched Killebrew play three weekend games and go 12-for-12, including a monster 435-foot homer to left. Killebrew shortly after became the Senators' first "bonus baby," signing a $30,000, three-year contract.

Baseball rules at the time stipulated that any player receiving a bonus of $4,000 or more would have to spend at least two years on the major league roster. Killebrew played in only 47 games over his first two seasons, hitting four homers -- none in his rookie year of 1954. After the two-year period ended, Killebrew, not even 20 years old yet, was sent down to the minors.

"Mainly, I had to learn patience and the strike zone and concentration," Killebrew said later. "Those were the big things."

He spent parts of the next three seasons in the minors before returning for good in 1959, when at age 22 he led the American League with 42 home runs.

Killebrew could have made upwards of $20 million a season in today's game. When he led the league in homers in 1959 he was paid $9,000. Killebrew was among the players who had to moonlight during the offseason for extra cash. As a contestant on the TV show "Home Run Derby," Killebrew tried to outslug his contemporaries for the extra money as well as the publicity.

He hit 31 homers in 1960, then packed up and made the move with his teammates to the Twin Cities before the 1961 season.

No fan of the cold

Killebrew admitted numerous times that he wasn't excited about making the move to Minnesota, a place he figured to be cold and unforgiving. Upon arriving, he realized that his views on the weather were accurate. But he developed a lasting affection for the people.

"I loved the fans because they were down-to-earth Midwestern people," Killebrew said. "The people in the Upper Midwest were the same kind of people I grew up around in Idaho."

Killebrew was named the first Twins captain in 1961. He smashed 46 homers that first season in the Twin Cities. His totals the next three seasons: 48, 45 and 49 homers. In 1965 he helped lead the Twins to their first World Series, which ended in a seven-game loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was named to the 1967 American League All-Star team at first base, becoming the first player in All-Star history to be named at three different positions (third base and outfield were the other two).

He was named the American League's most valuable player in 1969, when he drove in a career-high 140 runs and matched his career-best with 49 homers. But by 1971 Killebrew was clearly on the decline, battling knee problems and chronic pain in his big toe. In three seasons from 1972 to 1974 Killebrew produced only 44 home runs.

Then-Twins owner Calvin Griffith offered Killebrew $40,000 to return in 1975 as a player-coach. He would have pinch hit and tutored the younger hitters. Instead, he signed with the Kansas City Royals to be their designated hitter.

He appeared in 106 games, hit 14 homers and drove in 44 runs while batting .199. Kansas City released Killebrew after the 1975 season, and he decided to retire.

In retiring, he left behind a legacy of 400-foot home runs and the memory of one of the game's true gentlemen.

Former Twins outfielder Torii Hunter remembered Killebrew as a mentor, both on and off the field. Hunter said Killebrew looked at his autograph several years ago and deemed it to be illegible.

"I had a doctor's signature," said Hunter, now with the Los Angeles Angels. "I had a 'T' and an 'I' and a dot-dot. He said, 'What the hell is this?'" Killebrew told Hunter that if kids found that baseball, they would start throwing it around the park because they couldn't read the signature. He gave Hunter advice the former Twin still follows today.

"He said, 'If you play the game this long, make sure people know who you are,' " Hunter said. "Harmon was a tremendous player, but is an even greater man."

Financial problems

After retiring, Killebrew went home to Ontario, Ore., where his house sat on a ridge next to the Snake River. From the living room, he could see over the river, into Idaho and his boyhood home of Payette. It seemed like a happy ending to a distinguished career.

But life away from baseball wasn't as rosy. He battled serious financial, family and health problems. He was a victim of fraud in a failed luxury-home development in Rancho Mirage, California. A car-leasing company in Bloomington, Minn., failed. In 1993, he filed for bankruptcy after a car dealership in Ontario, Ore., failed. He owed four banks more than $900,000. He couldn't make the $2,500 monthly payments on his Oregon dream home, and the mortgage company foreclosed. He owed the IRS money for personal taxes and for the auto dealership.

By the late 1980s he was living in a rented condominium in Boise, Idaho.

He borrowed $100,000 from Griffith in the mid-1980s, and more money from Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Warren Spahn.

"It's been a living hell. You have a lot of those days when you feel you're at the bottom," Killebrew said in a 1989 interview. "You get to feeling that sometimes you're out on that island by yourself. I don't feel anger, more sometimes frustration, sadness is another, loneliness is another one. ... Stressful? That's an understatement."

He separated from his wife, Elaine, in 1989. The couple had five children. In May 1990, Killebrew complained of pain in his neck and back that turned out to be a collapsed lung. In August, he still didn't feel well and needed surgery to remove a large abscess from behind a lung. Surgeons removed 1 1/2 inch of a rib, which left a four-inch hole in his back. The area became infected, limiting his ability to walk. He dropped 40 pounds and was sent home with odds against surviving.

He was given intense hospice care and made a miraculous recovery. He remarried and began representing VistaCare, the hospice-care company that nursed him back to health.

"Hospice is such a tremendous thing," he said in a November 1999 interview with Sports Illustrated. "Patients seem to reach an inner peace. Society doesn't like to deal with death, but it is a natural part of living."

Killebrew, in recent years, had held an annual charity golf event in Phoenix and one in the Twin Cities. He continued to make public appearances right up until his cancer was diagnosed. It was news when he missed the 2010 TwinsFest to have his gallbladder removed.

"What's amazing is that every time I go back [to the Twin Cities], how much people, even the young people, seem to know about me," Killebrew said in a 1999 interview. "It was a wonderful place to play."

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