Oliva always enjoys Fergus Falls [UPDATED]Published 10:14am Monday, January 28, 2013 Updated 11:41am Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Former Minnesota Twins star Tony Oliva, here on Wednesday, Jan. 23, as part of the Twins Winter Caravan stop, always enjoys coming to Fergus Falls. His first appearance here was almost 50 years ago, in November 1965.
Oliva and teammate Frank Quilici were guests at a father and son banquet at the Fergus Falls Elks Club, shortly after the Twins lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers and pitcher Sandy Koufax in game seven of the 1965 World Series.
That Twins team also included stars Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, Mudcat Grant, Earl Battey, Zoilo Versalles and other renowned players managed by Sam Mele.
Oliva was a three-time American League batting champion. His career was cut short due to injuries, but the native of Cuba remains one of the most popular Twins in the history of the franchise.
On Wednesday Oliva graciously signed my 1965 Twins World Series and 1965 All-Star Game program booklets. I attended game seven of the series, and also the all-star game. Both games were played at the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington.
Singing the praises of Oliva is Jim Thielman, author of “Cool of the Evening,” the story of the 1965 Minnesota Twins.
“It’s almost preposterous that the Minnesota Twins would publicly boast in their 1964 pre-season yearbook that Tony Oliva, who had all of 16 career at-bats, would challenge for the American League batting title,” wrote Thielman, a native of Breckenridge. “But scouts insisted his was a major-league bat.”
Even in 1964, when critics were rare, it was not common for baseball public relations departments to make statements like that.
As a left-handed rookie in 1964, Oliva led the American League in batting, hits, doubles, total bases, runs scored and was second in triples.
“Oliva did it with an injured finger, which also bothered him in 1965,” said Thielman. “Twins’ trainer George ‘Doc’ Lentz devised a knobless bat for Oliva in an effort to eliminate the pain that shot through his hand when he swung. The finger did not bother him when he made contact.”
Unfortunately, Oliva was known for taking a loose grip on the bat which tended to fly from his hands now and then.
“With no knob on the end, the sight of a bat twirling from Oliva’s hands into the stands, the on-deck circle or the field was a common sight,” said Thielman.
Oliva became the only player to win batting titles in his first two seasons.
He annihilated right-handed pitching despite illness and injury throughout his professional career. Thielman said many Twins’ fans recall his seven knee operations, but forget about hand and neck injuries and chicken pox.
“In addition, all his family was back in Cuba,” said Thielman. “Because of Fidel Castro’s rise to power, Oliva could not return home, and his family could not travel to the U.S. to watch him play. Worse yet, Oliva came to the U.S at the height of civil rights unrest, and as a black Cuban he suffered racism in the U.S.”
It’s not difficult to make the case that Oliva in his prime was among the best players the Twins ever had. He could hit for power, run the bases and throw from deep in the outfield.
“Even if Oliva never makes it to the Baseball Hall of Fame, there’s always a place in fans’ memories for a great hitter who was also a stand-up teammate with exceptional class, poise and personality,” said Thielman.
I know that Fergus Falls sports fans who love Tony Oliva wholeheartedly agree with Thielman.