MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Harmon Killebrew earned every bit of his frightening nickname, hitting tape-measure home runs that awed even his fellow Hall of Famers.
Yet there was a softer side to "The Killer," too.
The balding gentleman who enjoyed a milkshake after each game. The fisherman who was afraid of bumping into alligators. The MVP who always had time to help a rookie.
Killebrew, the big-swinging slugger for the Minnesota Twins and the face of the franchise for so 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.
The team said Killebrew died 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 with hospice care after doctors deemed the "awful disease" incurable.
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. It shows, naturally, the compact Killebrew poised to go deep.
And boy, could he take a big cut.
His 573 home runs still rank 11th on the all-time list. His uppercut swing formed the silhouette that inspired Major League Baseball’s official logo.
"You shake his hand, still at 70-some years old, and he’d crush your hand. You can see where he got that power," Twins slugger Justin Morneau said.
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.
Much farther away, Killebrew was on the minds of current major leaguers.
"We were just talking about him this morning," Atlanta star Chipper Jones said after the Astros-Braves game. "He looked like one of those big strong, country horses. You don’t see guys like that anymore. He was a guy who really overpowered the baseball."
Nearby, teammate Eric Hinske nodded his head.
"He was as intimidating as hell," Hinske added.
But he wasn’t always the tough guy. Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel became friends with Killebrew and Bob Allison during his first spring training with the Twins and often fished together in a Florida lake.
"There were some alligators in there, otters and things like that in there that would bump up against your leg," Manuel said. "They would get scared. So I would take the fish chain and hook it to the boat, and I’d wade and pull the boat. That was part of being a rookie."
Whether as an 18-year-old with the Washington Senators in 1954 or playing for Kansas City in his final season in 1975, 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 milkshake. A super guy," said former Royals second baseman Frank White, a youngster who played with Killebrew that final year.
The Twins played at Seattle on Tuesday night. Manager Ron Gardenhire said it was a somber clubhouse.
"A lot of guys out there are really sad. We’re all honored that at least we had the chance to hang out with him a little and get to know him. He touched a lot of lives out there, not just on the baseball field, but the way you should handle yourself and a little bit about respect," Gardenhire said.
Hrbek’s suburban home was mere blocks from old Metropolitan Stadium, a future Twins first baseman who became Minnesota’s next true home-run hitter after being inspired by all those trips to the left-field bleachers to watch No. 3 bat fourth and aim for the fence, and beyond.
"You didn’t ever leave the ballpark if the Twins had the chance to tie the ballgame or win the ballgame and Harmon was making it to the plate," Hrbek said.
He joined five other former Twins 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."
Killebrew was the American League MVP in 1969 at age 33 with 49 homers and 140 RBIs. His eight seasons with 40 or more homers still are tied for second in history to Babe Ruth.
Twins President Dave St. Peter said the team will wear a No. 3 patch on the uniforms for the rest of the season. A replica of his smooth, eloquent signature — Killebrew chided current Twins player Michael Cuddyer earlier in his career for a sloppy autograph — will be printed on the outfield wall. The team also planned a public memorial service, likely for May 26.
"I’m 32 years old. I never got to see him play. The majority of the people now never did get to see him as a baseball player," Cuddyer said. "But the reason he has made such an impact on the world is because of who he was outside of baseball, the 30-plus years after he retired from baseball. He continued to be an ambassador not just of baseball but of life in general."
With strong competition from Kirby Puckett in the generation that followed him, Killebrew will go down as perhaps the best-loved Twins player ever, 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.
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 Killebrew hit 190 homers in his first four years there, including 49 in 1964.
The Washington Nationals included him in the Ring of Honor at their ballpark and hosted him for a game at Nationals Park last year.
"We shall long treasure that evening and the gentlemanly impression left by Harmon," Nationals principal owner Ted Lerner said.
Former Twins owner Calvin Griffith used to call Killebrew the backbone of the franchise.
"He kept us in business," Griffith once said.
Behind their soft-spoken slugger, a native of Payette, Idaho, the Twins reached the World Series for the first time in 1965 and back-to-back AL Championship series in 1969 and 1970. Killebrew was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984, the first Twins player to be enshrined. Killebrew’s No. 3 jersey was retired in 1975.
That easygoing demeanor contrasted starkly with his intimidating standing.
"I didn’t have evil intentions," Killebrew once said. "But I guess I did have power."
Killebrew never worried much about his short game, preferring instead to swing for the fences. He had a career .256 average.
On June 3, 1967, Killebrew hit 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.
Killebrew and his wife had nine children. In retirement, he became a 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.
Former teammate Tony Oliva traveled to Arizona over the weekend to see Killebrew one last time. Paul Molitor, yet another Twin Cities native who became a big league star, also visited.
"I’m glad that God brought him home after the suffering he’s been through the last few months," Molitor said, his eyes watering. He added: "I was very appreciative of the man he was and how I was able to learn from him. I picked the guy that you would want to pick to be your idol."