Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, 74, dies of cancer

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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.”

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