'Greatest ambassador' Oliva gets Hall call

December 6th, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- had been waiting for the phone call from the National Baseball Hall of Fame for 45 years.

Many of the loving friends and family who packed the Twins legend's home in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington on Sunday in advance of another announcement from the Golden Days Era Committee had been there when, twice before, Oliva didn't get that call, leading to another several years of waiting -- and hoping. The last such time had been in 2014, seven long years ago, when he missed election by only one vote.

The 2022 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will take place on Jul. 24 in Cooperstown. This year’s ballot was released by the BBWAA on Nov. 22, and voters have until Dec. 31 to submit their ballots. Election results will be announced live on MLB Network on January 25, 2022.

"I was wondering if the phone call would come today or not, because I have a lot of people here in the house, and I don't want to disappoint them one more time," Oliva said.

"Looking at it the whole day, I said, 'Oh, man. If that call's not coming, it's all over, Tony.'"

Instead of that ending, Sunday marked a new beginning for Oliva -- the start of his enshrinement in Cooperstown.

One of the most beloved players and ambassadors for the game in Twins history, Oliva finally got that call on Sunday, his place in the Hall of Fame's Class of 2022 secure after he earned the 75% of votes necessary from the 16-member Golden Days Era Committee. He'll be inducted in Cooperstown on July 24, 2022, alongside longtime Twins teammate , who was elected by the same committee on Sunday.

In addition to Oliva and Kaat, the Golden Days Era Committee also elected the late Gil Hodges and Minnie Miñoso. The Early Baseball Era Committee added Bud Fowler and Buck O'Neil to the Class of 2022.

Oliva and Kaat will become the fifth and sixth players enshrined in the Hall of Fame as members of the Twins, joining Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Kirby Puckett and Bert Blyleven, who was part of the committee for Oliva's election. Miñoso and Oliva are also the fifth and sixth Cubans to be elected to the Hall of Fame.

"My mother, my father, my brothers, some sisters, they never saw me play," Oliva said. "I wish they had this opportunity to be here today, but they're in heaven right now, my father and my mother. They would have been very proud that a little country boy from Cuba is in the Hall of Fame today."

That country boy from Pinar del Rio, Cuba, has made a lasting impact on his community in the Twin Cities rivaled by few in the history of Minnesota sports. Oliva played his entire 15-year career with the Twins from 1962-76, leading the American League in hits five times and becoming the first player in AL/NL history to win batting titles in his first two seasons. He won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in '64.

During his eight-year peak from 1964-71, he was named to the All-Star team every season, claimed three batting titles, led the league in doubles four times, and showed a masterful all-around skillset in his fielding, hitting ability and power that made him one of the most feared hitters of the time and helped him lead the Twins to their first AL pennant in '65.

"I always said Rod Carew is in the Hall of Fame, and he belongs there," Kaat said. "Harmon Killebrew is there -- 573 home runs, he belongs there. But if you ask catchers like the late Bill Freehan, Andy Etchebarren, catchers in the American League in those years, the guy they really feared was Tony."

So why, then, did it take Oliva all these years to earn his place in the Hall of Fame? Blame the knee issues that cut short his prime, and likely his career, stemming first from an injury sustained on a 1971 diving catch that cost him most of the '72 season and forced him to the designated hitter position for the final four years of his career, during which he played through immense pain as a shell of his former self.

Despite a .304/.353/.476 slash line for his career on the strength of his immense peak, Oliva didn't reach 2,000 hits -- finishing at 1,917 -- and didn't reach other major counting milestones with his 220 homers and 329 doubles. That likely resulted in his falling off the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot in 1996 and this lengthy 45-year wait.

"Well, that has not affected me at all, because I feel I’m lucky," Oliva said. "I never played Little League or high school or amateur ball in Cuba or anything. ... We'd go to a tree and cut a branch to make a bat because we were a poor family. We lived in the country. We did not have all the beautiful equipment that we have today. We made our own. My love was to play ball. I wanted to be a good hitter. I wanted to be a better hitter than the next guy."

Oliva accomplished that during his playing peak, but that's far from the entirety of what endears him to the Upper Midwest community to this day.

Following his playing career, Oliva continued to make his home in the Twin Cities and joined the Twins' coaching staff, serving as hitting coach in 1987, when the club won its first World Series championship, and as bench coach in '91, when Minnesota won another. He's the only person to have been in the dugout for all three of the organization's pennant-winning clubs: 1965, '87 and '91.

And even now, decades removed from those coaching days, Oliva is a constant presence around the Twins as a Spanish-language radio broadcaster and as a special assistant in the front office, roaming the ballpark with stories and hitting tips and even popping out to the stands to shake hands and take photos at his "Tony O's Cuban Sandwiches" stands during games with any fans that request his time.

"From his prodigious on-field career to the broadcast booth, and in the hearts of fans everywhere in our region, Tony O embodies what it truly means to be a Minnesota Twin and has been the greatest ambassador for this organization since his arrival in the Upper Midwest," Twins president Dave St. Peter said in a statement.

"Tony O," as he's known around Target Field, has long since cemented his place in the hearts of all around Twins Territory. Now, he has forever cemented his place in Cooperstown, too.