MINNEAPOLIS — Harmon Killebrew announced Friday that he no longer plans to fight his esophageal cancer and has settled in for the final days of his life, saddening friends and fans of the 74-year-old Hall of Fame slugger.
In a statement released jointly by the Minnesota Twins and the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Killebrew said “it is with profound sadness” that he will no longer receive treatment for the “awful disease.”
He said the cancer has been deemed incurable by his doctors and he will enter hospice care.
“With the continued love and support of my wife, Nita, I have exhausted all options,” Killebrew said. He added: “I have spent the past decade of my life promoting hospice care and educating people on its benefits. I am very comfortable taking this next step and experiencing the compassionate care that hospice provides.”
Killebrew, who’s 11th on baseball’s all-time home run list with 573, thanked his well-wishers for their support.
“I look forward to spending my final days in comfort and peace with Nita by my side,” he said.
Killebrew lives in the Phoenix area and was receiving treatment at a branch of the Mayo Clinic nearby after his diagnosis in December. He expressed optimism at the time, saying he expected to make a full recovery while acknowledging he was in “perhaps the most difficult battle” of his life.
Killebrew was able to travel to Fort Myers, Fla., in March for his annual stint as a guest instructor at spring training with the Twins. He was in good spirits and appeared healthy, only thinner, quipping that manager Ron Gardenhire gave him the OK to show up a little late. He said he relished the opportunity to immerse himself in baseball and divert his focus from the treatment and the disease.
But his plan to throw out the first pitch at the team’s home opener in April was scrapped. He said then in a statement that such a trip would disrupt his treatment schedule, though he remained hopeful for a recovery.
Twins spokesman Kevin Smith said there was no prognosis given by Killebrew’s doctors for how much longer he might live. Instead of enduring chemotherapy, he’ll now be kept as comfortable as possible to deal with pain. Smith is one of a handful of Twins officials who have been in contact with the Killebrew and his family over the last few months.
Killebrew made 11 All-Star appearances during a 22-year career spent mostly with the Washington Senators and the Twins when they moved to Minnesota in 1961. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984 and was fifth on the career home run list when he retired in 1975 after one season with the Kansas City Royals.
Killebrew’s eight seasons with 40 or more homers is tied for second in league history to Babe Ruth. He won the American League MVP award in 1969, when the Twins won their division and lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the AL championship series.
The 49 homers, 140 RBIs and 145 walks he compiled that season remain Twins records.
In the plaza outside Target Field, there is a giant bronze glove where fans pose for pictures. It is the same distance from home plate, 520 feet, as that longest home run Killebrew ever hit. His No. 3 jersey is retired, and there’s a statue in his likeness outside the ballpark.
Killebrew has maintained a regular presence around the Twins over the years He made an effort to get to know almost all the current players, striking particularly close friendships with Michael Cuddyer and Jim Thome among others.
When Thome passed Killebrew on the career home run list last season, Killebrew issued a gracious congratulatory message. His nickname, “The Killer,” defied his humble, gentle demeanor, but he sure could crush a baseball with that big bat of his.
“I didn’t have evil intentions,” Killebrew once said, “but I guess I did have power.”
His home run totals turned out to be that much more impressive, given the smaller parks, watered-down pitching staffs and juiced balls and players that came in the decades after he retired.
Though Killebrew has been passed in recent years by Alex Rodriguez and Thome on the homer list to fall out of the top 10, he ought to be in 11th place for some time, particularly as dominant young pitchers have taken control of this post-steroid era in baseball. With Manny Ramirez’s sudden retirement last month, the next closest active players are Vladimir Guerrero and Chipper Jones with 440.
Albert Pujols, with 415 homers at age 31, might be the next threat to reach Killebrew’s mark.