Oliva's legacy not just with Twins, but Minnesota

July 24th, 2022

When Tony Oliva first arrived in Bloomington, Minn., in 1962 for a nine-game stint with the ballclub in September, he barely spoke a word of English, and the only feeling tethering him to any sense of home, more than a thousand miles away from his native Cuba, was the fact that the Twins gave him a chance to play -- and acclimate -- alongside several other Cuban players.

Few -- if any -- have had the staying power of "Tony O," who has left an indelible impact on generations in this region and around the game through his gentle spirit and love for people as a player, then as a coach, then as a baseball ambassador. At last, he's getting the due that the Twins and their fans have long felt was his right: the chance for a Minnesota legend to also become one of baseball's foremost legends with his induction to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

"He connects the Twins of the '60s with Killebrew and Battey and Kaat to the coaching stint with Puckett and Hrbek and Viola and Gardy, to today, and that is an unmatched run of excellence within this organization," Twins president Dave St. Peter said. "It's also an unmatched level of connection to community and to fans. And for that, he is probably, in many ways, maybe the most beloved of all the Twins figures."

Through the years, Oliva would say that he just hoped to be alive to see this day. Eight years ago, he fell a mere one vote shy of election into the Hall through the Veterans Committee. He was slated to rejoin the ballot five years later, which was kicked down the line first by the restructuring of the committee system and again by the pandemic. But in December, at the age of 83, he finally got that call he'd awaited all his life.

This weekend, Oliva was part of one of the most significant weekends in the history of the Minnesota Twins, going into the Hall of Fame alongside Kaat with the Minnesota logo on their caps as part of this year's seven-man class.

"I feel very blessed and honored to have been with him for all these years," former teammate and longtime Twins farm director Jim Rantz said. "I call him my good friend, because he is, and I'm just so proud of him and, and just like Jim Kaat, I think both of them are so deserving. They should have been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago."

No player has ever made an immediate impact like Oliva made on the Twins of the 1960s. After leading the league in hitting in both 1964 and '65, he was the first player in AL/NL history to win batting titles in each of his first two seasons -- and remains the only player to do so. He was the 1964 AL Rookie of the Year, a three-time finisher in the top four of AL MVP voting, an eight-time All-Star and three-time batting champion.

“If you give 100 percent all the time, people are going to care for you,” Oliva said in his induction speech. “When I first came to Minnesota, I had no money, family and didn’t know any English.”

Oliva was one of the most consistent and dangerous hitters of the era, leading the league in hits five times and in doubles four times during his eight-year prime from 1964-71 -- until a knee injury in '72 first put his career on life support, then ended it altogether. His relatively short-lived prime and, thus, lack of career counting starts, made him such a longstanding holdout from the Hall of Fame.

"Rod [Carew] was a batting title holder and Harmon [Killebrew] was a home run hitter and both respected as Hall of Famers," said Kaat, a longtime former teammate and fellow Hall of Fame inductee, last winter. "But catchers in the American League, they feared when Tony came up with men on."

Oliva, a Black Cuban, first came to the United States as a Minor Leaguer in the South amid the racial tensions of the '60s, often staying in different hotels and eating at different restaurants as many of his teammates, now simply saying that he knew what he had to do for survival. He almost didn't make it through that first baseball, season, with his putrid play in the outfield contributing to his release from the organization mere weeks into his tenure with the Twins.

With aggressive campaigning from fellow Cuban Minnie Mendoza, Oliva got the chance to stay. He crushed the Rookie League. He kept crushing the Minors. He made his way up to Minnesota for the first time in '62, establishing his permanent foothold in '64.

He'd found his home.

"It was something different," Oliva said. "It felt like home from the beginning, here in Minnesota."

Minnesota had found one of its favorite sons, too.

Oliva led the league in runs (109), hits (217), doubles (43) and average (.323) as a rookie while hitting mainly third in the lineup ahead of Killebrew. A year later, he was part of the first Twins team to win the American League pennant. He went on to become the only member of the organization to take part in all three AL champion Twins teams, serving under Tom Kelly as the hitting coach in '87 and bench coach in '91.

"He was such a great breaking-ball hitter," Kaat said. "He was telling me, growing up in Cuba, they'd wad up paper and tape it, and when they'd throw it, the ball would just dance all over. ... We used to laugh on the bench because the pitcher would get him 0-2, and we would say, 'Well, the pitcher doesn't know it, but he's in trouble.'"

Kelly says that Oliva the coach was a grinder. He would talk to players, but he preferred to see them taking his lessons into action, taking swing after swing, on the field. He also had the knack -- and still does -- for making those around him comfortable thanks to his easygoing attitude. Those '87 and '91 teams will live on forever in the hearts of Minnesotans -- and, of course, Oliva was in the middle of them.

"Tony always had a good rapport," Kelly said. "I think he also made some of our Latin players more comfortable, which was very important. So I think it's a combination of Tony Oliva, and if he puts up his umbrella, it encompasses a lot of different areas that are beneficial to players, his knowledge, his experience."

And following his retirement from coaching, Oliva has remained in Bloomington, a southern suburb of the Twin Cities, surrounded by his family, now rooted in Minnesota -- so beloved by those around him that his neighbors were among the loudest voices in his battle for the Hall of Fame.

“I love Minnesota … from the top to the bottom, everyone is first class," Oliva said.

Oliva remains a constant presence around the ballpark as a special assistant, the analyst on the Twins' Spanish radio broadcast, and, occasionally, a presence at his Tony O's Cuban Sandwich stand around Target Field. Every winter, he has strapped on the heavy winter coat and hopped on buses, planes and everything in between to represent the Twins brand and share his stories and autographs (enough for everyone in the state to have two, folks around the Twins frequently joke).

Minnesota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana -- you name it, Oliva has probably been there through six decades of Caravan. He has a special place in his heart for South Dakota, birthplace of his loving wife, Gordette.

"If we've done a Caravan, Tony has been on it, and we've done them almost every year dating back to the beginning of the franchise," St. Peter said. "You know, it's got to be hundreds of thousands of miles. You know, it might be pushing a million miles on Caravan."

Considering all that, you simply can't tell the story of any era in Twins baseball in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, from the very beginning until the modern day, without talking about Tony Oliva -- the batting titles, the guidance, the consistency, the genuine warmth and, yes, the trademark Cuban sandwich at the ballpark.

Cooperstown is now welcoming Oliva because of the sweet swing that struck fear into the hearts of pitchers in the late '60s and brought so many individual accolades and production during his peak. Twins fans will show up to cheer and cry for him because, perhaps more so than anyone else in the history of the organization, Oliva is one of their own, a Minnesotan who chose to make their home his home and dedicated his entire baseball life to them.

He'll soon return home, to Minnesota. He'll always remain in Cooperstown.