Oliva one of great Cuban players to impact MLB
Former Twins star's book documents political turmoil with U.S. in 1960s
Tony Oliva is undergoing a sort of post-career revival. Back in December, the Veterans Committee came one vote shy of electing him to the Hall of Fame. Now comes Tony Oliva: The Life and Times of a Minnesota Twins Legend by Thom Henninger.
The timing is both coincidental and fortuitous, and there's another parallel between and present and past at work here. With the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, which was preceded by the instant impact of stars like Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu, the subject of Cuban players in the Major Leagues is back in the headlines.
Younger fans may not realize that before Fidel Castro seized control of the baseball-crazy island in the early 1960s, which led to the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, dozens of Cuban players came to the United States. There were 40 in the Washington Senators' organization alone. Names like Zoilo Versalles, Camilio Pascual, Tony Perez, Mike Cuellar, Bert Campaneris, Jose Cardenal, Minnie Minoso, Cookie Rojas, Tony Taylor and Luis Tiant dotted rosters across both leagues.
Oliva may have been the best of them all. He won the first of his three batting titles as a rookie in 1964. He made the All-Star team eight straight years, before a series of knee surgeries sabotaged his career.
Oliva's success didn't come without a cost, though. In one of the most powerful passages in the book, a large group of Cuban Major Leaguers was participating in an informal softball game in Havana in February, 1961, after the Cuban Winter League ended when, suddenly, Castro appeared.
Wrote Henninger: "[He] told us," [Minnie] Mendoza recalls, 'If you want to go and continue your career in the United States, you are free to go. But if you stay here, you're going to stay for good.'"
Oliva would later say that this political turmoil probably saved his career. At the end of his first Spring Training in 1961, he was released. Under different circumstances, Oliva might have returned to Cuba and worked on the family farm, giving up his baseball dream. Instead, he stuck it out even though it meant not seeing his family until years later.
This book faithfully recounts the day-to-day grind and the many injuries Oliva played through, a straightforward recitation of games and hits and pitchers faced. There are tales about the rickety plane he flew on in the Minors, the first time he saw snow, the unorthodox medical treatment he received in Mexico to cure a sore arm, how an outfielder who came into baseball with a reputation for being a poor defender eventually won a Gold Glove Award.
The strength of the narrative, though, is the exploration of the wrenching emotional decision to leave loved ones behind and how it affected Oliva throughout his career, the language barrier, the similar tribulations of other Cuban players and how they supported each other away from the field.
It's not a stretch to suggest that Puig, Abreu and other Cubans who have pursued Major League careers in recent years deal with many of the same issues.
Inevitably, the subject turns to whether Oliva deserves to be enshrined in Cooperstown with the best-of-the-best players of all time.
It probably doesn't require a spoiler alert to reveal that Henninger believes he does, buttressing his conclusion with baker's dozen of tables comparing his numbers to Hall of Famers, charting his position on the leader boards, demonstrating his success against the best pitchers of his era.
They show conclusively that, from 1964-71, Oliva was one of the best hitters of his generation. The only question remains whether eight years is enough to earn a plaque. That's the gray area he's resided in until now. We'll see whether the heightened profile of Cuban players in general -- and Oliva in particular -- will change that in the future.