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Oliva Not Sweating Big Speech July 24

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July 12, 2022

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What a July this will be for Tony Oliva. His 84th birthday will be July 20 and the experience of a lifetime comes four days later when the former Twins batting champion is inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

“I think it’s exciting because only a few people are able to get into the Hall of Fame,” Oliva told Sports Headliners during a telephone interview.

A week from Sunday, July 24, Oliva will join other baseball legends as part of a seven-member induction class that also includes former Twins pitcher Jim Kaat, now 83 years old. Both Oliva and Kaat were elected by the Golden Era Committee after decades of waiting for the Hall of Fame call. The two first met in the Instructional League in 1961.

Oliva, who was an American League All-Star for eight consecutive seasons from 1964-1971, said several days ago he was still working on his acceptance speech that can be about 10 minutes long. Despite its importance, the easy-going Minnesotan isn’t over thinking the speech. “I think it’s going to be a piece of cake because I’ve been waiting 45 years,” he said lightly while referencing the Hall of Fame honor.

Oliva knows speeches can change on the fly when it’s finally time to deliver them. “People say when you get there the speech is a whole (lot) different.”

But he was clear during the interview that a focus of the speech will be other people, including fans. “I don’t want to speak about myself, about what I think of me.”

On that soon to arrive Sunday in upstate New York Oliva will express his gratitude for what has been a remarkable journey from his native Cuba to the United States where he saw his first professional baseball game in 1961 as a minor leaguer and faced not only challenges on the field but also learning a new language and acclimating to a different culture. “I think if I have an opportunity to say thank you, it’s going to be good enough, and the people understand the rest,” Oliva said.

His story is well-known to many Twins fans, particularly to older generations. He worked on the family farm in his native Cuba helping grow tobacco. In 1961 he made a splash as a first year prospect, hitting .410 with Wytheville, Virginia in the low minor leagues. Three years later he had a gold standard rookie season with the Twins as the club’s starting right fielder.

Oliva was honored as the 1964 American League Rookie of the Year after his .323 average won the league batting championship. He was tops in the majors in hits and total bases, and led the AL in runs scored and doubles. His hits total of 217 is the fourth highest in MLB history among rookies. He followed up in 1965 by again winning the AL batting title, the first player in MLB history to win the crown his first two seasons in the majors.

Tony Oliva

A three-time batting champion with a .304 lifetime average, Oliva played 15 MLB seasons and all of them were with the Twins. At about 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, the left-handed hitting terror was among the most difficult batters in baseball for pitchers to face. He not only could hit to all fields and knock the ball over the fence (career high 32 home runs as a rookie), but he also frustrated pitchers by putting balls thrown out of the strike zone into play with his trademark line drives.

Oliva’s career after baseball has all been with the Twins including as a coach, hitting instructor, color analyst on Spanish radio broadcasts and as an ambassador for his beloved franchise. A Bloomington resident, Oliva and his wife Gordette have made Minnesota home for more than five decades. With a ready smile and welcoming disposition, Tony-O seemingly has made enough friends among Minnesotans to fill Target Field.

The affection goes both ways. “Since I came in here to Minnesota the people have been very nice to me and I love Minnesota,” Oliva said. “My family is here. My wife is from South Dakota. She grew up almost here because she came out to Minnesota when she was 18. …”

At Oliva’s induction he will be joined by perhaps 50 family members but not many from Cuba where he still has siblings. A brother, Juan Carlos, is in Miami by way of Cuba and will journey to Cooperstown. But for most of Oliva’s aging siblings who still live on the Caribbean island, upstate New York is a difficult place to reach.

Expected to be in attendance will be a Twins delegation likely to include close friend and former teammate Rod Carew. In Carew’s autobiography One Tough Out he expressed what so many people feel about Oliva when he wrote:

“Tony has never met a stranger. The warmth he exudes could light a cigar from the lush tobacco fields he grew up surrounded by in Cuba. He taught me things like how to knot a tie and where to eat on the road. Any question I had, about baseball or life, he answered. Sometimes he provided advice before I even realized I needed it.”

A badly injured knee cut short Oliva’s legacy career, reducing him to a player who struggled to run and sometimes a role as a designated or pinch hitter. He had surgery on his right knee eight times in the last five years of his career.

Not only did injury rob him of his skills too soon, but he also played before the big money era of modern day baseball. He made $7,000 his rookie season and never earned more than $100,000.

Asked if he wishes he had played at a time like today when modern orthopedics might have sustained his success and career, you get a typical Oliva response—an acceptance of what was. “This was my time. I think my time was perfect.”

Oliva has a simple approach to life. He takes much of life as it comes, staying in the present, and doesn’t seem anxious about the future. Asked if he was concerned about losing control of his emotions during the speech he answered, “You know something like that I don’t worry about because I don’t know what is going to happen.”

This won’t qualify as breaking news but Oliva said that since last December when word broke about his induction he hasn’t changed, although fans may look at him differently. “Now they call me Hall of Fame. Before they used to call me T.O. or No. 6. I think for me, I still the same.”

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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