From The Press Box
This past Sunday, December 5, the Hall of Fame Early Baseball Era Committee (Pre 1950) and Golden Day Era Committee (1950-1969) got together to vote on 10 players’ Hall of Fame list. One of those ten was Tony Oliva, who fell short by one vote last time in 2014 to put his name in Cooperstown, New York. The other one was Orestes “Minnie” Minoso. Others inducted were Gil Hodges, Buck O’Neil, Jim Kaat, and Bud Fowler. The committee that cast the votes consisted of members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, executives, and veteran media members. One of those that were selected was my good friend colleague and legendary Spanish Voice for the LA Dodgers, Hall of Famer Mr. Jaime Jarrin. The ceremony will take place next July in Cooperstown, New York. Great job by this committee, as all these players, deserve to be in Cooperstown.
–Pedro Oliva López Fernández, better known as Tony Oliva was a right fielder who hit left and threw right. Played from 1964 to 1976, born in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, he ended his stellar 12-year career with .304 average, 220 Homers, 747 runs batted in, and 86 stolen bases. In 1964 won the American League Rookie of the Year and was one of the most dominant players during his first season, Oliva led the league in average with .323 average doubles with 43 and runs scored 109, and was ‘número uno’ in the majors in hits with 217 as well as total bases (374) producing 32 home runs and 94 RBI. Became the first player in baseball history to win two consecutive league batting titles at the start of his career.
Oliva almost didn’t make it. In 1961 the Minnesota Twins took a look at Tony during Spring Training but was released before Opening Day. He then considered returning to Cuba, but on April 17 that year, the US launched the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which failed (after the Brigada 2506 of Cuban patriots was double-crossed by the CIA) and soon after the US and Cuba broke diplomatic relations and he could not go back to Cuba because of travel restrictions. As fate has it, it was a blessing in disguise. He stayed in the US and traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina to train with the Twins Class A affiliate and later after a recommendation from some coaches; he was introduced to the General Manager Phil Howser, who helped him to get another chance at the Big Show.
—History as a Rookie: Tony Oliva ended with 217 hits in 1964. In the history of MLB only Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 (242) Lloyd Wanner 1947 (223) and Jimmy Williams in 1899 (220) have had more hits than Oliva. In 1964 finished fourth in the vote for MVP of the American League, only Orioles Brooks Robinson and Yankees Mickey Mantle finished ahead of Oliva.
—Other notable numbers: Tony Oliva led the American League on hits 5 seasons and won 3 batting titles. Between 1964 and 1971 only Pete Rose, Lou Brock, Billy Williams, and Roberto Clemente had more hits.
—1965 won one of his three batting titles as he hit for a healthy .321 the only player to win batting titles in his first two seasons and finished second to teammate and fellow-Cuban great shortstop Zoilo “Zorro” Versalles in the MVP voting.
—1966 Gold Glove: The Cuban right fielder had a cannon of an arm throughout his career and this year won the top award for fielding.
–Eight surgeries: Suffered ligament damage early in his career than for his last five years underwent eight knee operations. It was not until the mid-1970s that Arthroscopic surgery came about, by then Tony was not the same player and that robbed him of a few more years of his career. Although his knees were not that good he was such a good hitter that he was also a Designated Hitter for the Twins in 1973 when the new DH rule began.
Tony Oliva’s number 6 was retired by the Minnesota Twins in 1971 and was inducted to the Twins Hall of Fame in 2000 with Rod Carew, Kirby Pucket and owner Calvin Griffith. Now, Tony Oliva joins his very good buddies in Minnesota, Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew and Kirby Puckett in Cooperstown. In 1987 when the All Star Game took place at the Oakland Coliseum, I invited Tony to my baseball radio show; he took so many calls from fans that I had to ask for special 15 additional minutes from the next show that was going to air. It was granted and the lines were still lit-up when he had to leave.
Now going to Cooperstown. Oliva is also enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown New York, Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame, Hispanic Heritage Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
A jovial man with a great attitude who is 83 years young has made it to the top, but in 1961 he though his career might not even get started in baseball. Tony Oliva never played in the Cuban Winter League which was nationalized that same 1961 by Cuba’s communist dictatorship. That league was regarded as the best Winter League in the world, with talent from Cuba and Major League Baseball, with such players as Orestes (Minnie) Miñoso, Brooks Robinson, Cookie Rojas, Camilo Pascual, Bob Shaw, Jackie Brandt, Bill Werle, Pedro Ramos, Jim Bunning, Bob Allison, Chico Fernández, Zoilo Versalles, Mike Fornieles, Mike Cuellar and many others. The late Bill Werle, born in the Bay Area used to tell me when he was a scout for the Orioles “Cubsa had the best Winter League, and most of us wanted to go there, because the caliber of baseball was great and the pay was also very good”. Werle pitcher in the major leagues and in 1956 won the Cuban Winter League title with the Tigres de Marianao.
Tony Oliva was inducted into our Hall of Fame in 2014 in Minneapolis.
Orestes (Minnie) Miñoso. Played for 20 years in the major leagues and in 1949 as a rookie with the Cleveland Indians became the first Hispanic player of black skin in las Grandes Ligas. Prior to his debut with Cleveland, he played from 1946 to 1949 with the New York Cubans, who played since the 1930’s in the Negro Leagues. First time I remember seeing Miñoso was in the mid-1950’s, when my father took me to one of the Winter League Games in Havana, Minnie was playing left-field for the Tigres del Marianao team and he was as popular as anybody in Cuba. Decades later I saw him play in the Major Leagues with the Chicago White Sox, team which he played the most during that 20-year career.
There is only one guy in history than when you say “Minnie” everybody in baseball knows who you are talking about. He played for five decades from 1949 until 1980. There is only one Minnie indeed. I first met him when he was playing with the White Sox and interviewed him in various occasions. He was as enthusiastic as anybody that was glad to be wearing a major league uniform. In 1980, during his last season and his last trip as a player to Oakland, he told me he did not like the solid black uniforms as he was wearing with shorts, he told me; “I do not like these uniforms because my knees are ugly”. During a broadcast I was doing with the LA Angels Spanish radio in Chicago in the 2005 season, he sat with me most of the game doing commentary, and he truly enjoyed it, as he told me on the air: “I feel I am in Cuba sitting with you doing this game here”.
There was a time after the 1964 season that Minnie left the major leagues to play and manage in Mexico until 1973, then he made another couple of comebacks until he totally retired in 1980. Although towards the end of his career he was mostly used as a promotional tool for the White Sox, nevertheless inspiring many players like José Abreu, also born in Cuba who told me Minnie was his inspiration since he was a little boy in Cuba.
Minnie died March 1, 2015 in Chicago of a tear in the pulmonary artery, he was 90 years old. The White Sox had retired his famous #9 in 1983 and erected a statue outside U.S. Cellular Field in 2004. Chicago mourned the Cuban-born player like he was ‘one of their own’ One of the tallest buildings in downtown Chicago had a huge number 9 illuminated over half of the building as well as numerous memorials depicting his life and exploits in the game he so much loved. He told me he was “ready to play” when he came to Oakland in 1980, when he was 55 years young, he did not play in Oakland but he did played in 2 games that season and did not get a hit in 2 turns at-bat. His career was done.
Minnie ended his 20 year MLB career with a solid .299 batting average.195 home runs, 1.093 RBI. 216 stolen bases led the American League in triples and stolen bases three times apiece and ended with a total of 2,110 hits. Currently listed #10 in history in ‘hit by pitches’ 195 times got hit at the plated, and for years he led the American League in ‘hit by pitches’.
Now going to Cooperstown, Orestes Saturnino “Minnie” Miñoso is also enshrined in the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame (In Exile) in Miami, 1983, the Mexican Professional Hall of Fame in 1996 and The Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum Hall of Fame in 2000.
Tony Oliva and Minnie Miñoso are the third and fourth Cuban-born players now in Cooperstown. The others are, Martin Dihigo and Tony Pérez.
Orestes “Minnie”Miñoso was inducted into our Hall of Fame in 2002 at old Comiskey Park, Chicago.