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Tony Oliva

Tony Oliva: The Life and Times of a Minnesota Twins Legend

Thom Henninger
Foreword by Patrick Reusse
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 296
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    Tony Oliva
    Book Description:

    If not for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, Minnesota might never have known one of its most popular baseball players, Twins three-time batting champion and eight-time All-Star Tony Oliva. In April 1961, the twenty-two-year-old Cuban prospect failed to impress the Twins in a tryout, but the sudden rupture in U.S.-Cuba relations made a return visa all but impossible. The story of how Oliva's unexpected stay led to a second chance and success with the Twins-as well as decades of personal and cultural isolation-is told for the first time in this full-scale biography of the man the fans affectionately call "Tony O."

    With unprecedented access to the very private Oliva, baseball writer Thom Henninger captures what life was like for the Cuban newcomer as he adjusted to major league play and American culture-and at the same time managed to earn Rookie of the Year honors and win the American League batting title in his first two seasons, all while playing with a knuckle injury. Packed with never-before-published photographs, the book follows Oliva through the 1965 season, all the way to the World Series, and then, with repaired knuckle and knee, into one of the most dramatic pennant races in baseball history in 1967. Through the voices of Oliva, his family, and his teammates-including the Cuban players who shared his cultural challenges and the future Hall of Famers he mentored, Rod Carew and Kirby Puckett-the personal and professional highs and lows of the years come alive: the Gold Glove Award in 1966, a third batting title in 1971, the devastating injury that curtailed his career, and, through it all, the struggle to build a family and recover the large and close-knit one he had left behind in Cuba.

    Nearly forty years after Oliva's retirement, the debate continues over whether his injury-shortened career was Hall of Fame caliber-a question that gets a measured and resounding answer here.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4438-8
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-x)
    Patrick Reusse

    The announcement that Minnesota was getting a major league baseball team came on October 26, 1960. The excitement here on the prairie was astounding. We wanted to know everything possible about our new ball club.

    Yet without such a thing as airfare bargains, there was no migration of newly minted Twins fans to Orlando in March 1961 to check out the ball club in spring training. Instead, we waited to find out what the baseball writers from the Minneapolis and St. Paul newspapers had to offer for information on the previous day’s exhibition game. Come the regular season, we listened...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Chapter 1 Young Pedro
    (pp. 1-12)

    Long before he faced the fallout of U.S.–Cuban relations and surfaced in the major leagues, Tony Oliva lived quietly in the Cuban province of Piñar del Río (pronouncedpin-yar del REE-o). For more than a century, Piñar del Río has been famous for growing some of the world’s finest cigar tobacco. Today this agriculturally bountiful province on the western tip of the island is just as well known for exporting one of baseball’s most gifted pure hitters—a potential Hall of Famer who grew up in the years before the Cuban Revolution of 1959.

    The Oliva family farm was...

  6. Chapter 2 Life after Cuba Closes
    (pp. 13-31)

    Initially, the Bay of Pigs invasion that turned Oliva’s life upside down seemed like anything but a miracle. First exposure to living in a new culture can be disorienting even for a person who speaks the local language. For Oliva, a young man far removed from politics in Cuba and the United States, having an unanticipated political event change the course of his life only magnified his sense of being cut adrift. Suddenly he had no place to call home. He had to take on a complicated new world in which he, like most immigrants, suddenly felt invisible, stripped of...

  7. Chapter 3 The Minor Leagues
    (pp. 32-49)

    Life remained relatively simple for Oliva during his minor league days. He focused almost entirely on baseball, with music his passion during his free time. He had acquired a record player that moved with him as he changed locales along the minor league trail. Oliva also carried vinyl records to play—a practice not uncommon among Latin players—buying the latest music coming out of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Even with the record player and the vinyl, Oliva’s possessions still did not amount to much. By the time he reached Minnesota in 1964, he could still pack...

  8. Chapter 4 A Fast Start to a Big League Career
    (pp. 50-68)

    The offseason leading up to Oliva’s phenomenal rookie year was a tumultuous one, beginning with the death of a president. Barely more than a year after negotiating a settlement to the Cuban Missile Crisis, defusing the threat of a large-scale war, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. The youthful Kennedy had epitomized an era of hope and optimism in the United States. The suspicious nature of the assassination fueled discontent and cynicism, emotions that in time grew and carried over to an unpopular war in Vietnam. And Kennedy’s death came at a time when the...

  9. Chapter 5 Injured Rookie Wins Unprecedented Batting Crown
    (pp. 69-79)

    What made Oliva’s achievements as a rookie all the more remarkable was that he played all but six weeks of the 1964 season with a hand injury that remained an issue throughout 1965 as well. In fact, he won two batting titles before undergoing surgery to correct the damage, which he had suffered on May 15, 1964, in the first game of the weekend series at Fenway Park.

    Oliva was leading the league with a .414 average as Camilo Pascual and Bill Monbouquette squared off in the Friday opener. The rookie collected two hits in three at-bats against Monbouquette, then...

  10. Chapter 6 Oliva Leads Pennant Push
    (pp. 80-98)

    Most Minnesotans were not thinking about baseball in spring 1965. Instead, the forces of nature were foremost in their minds, as news of extreme weather dominated the airwaves and hijacked attention. After a bitter, cold winter that laid layer upon layer of snow on the north country, March floods on the Root and Zumbro Rivers in southeast Minnesota began a cycle of destruction and misery that beset dozens of towns along the state’s main waterways. Heavy snowfall continued well into March, and a late thaw prolonged the inevitable flooding. Then spring came with a vengeance.

    By early April, when ice...

  11. Chapter 7 Life’s Highs and Lows
    (pp. 99-112)

    As Oliva sat in the Twins clubhouse, experiencing life’s emotional highs and lows simultaneously during the pennant celebration, he anticipated his first taste of the World Series. It was a moment that presaged the year of highs and lows that lay ahead. Oliva faced surgery following the World Series, and midway through a disappointing 1966 season for the Twins, he suffered neck and head injuries in a car accident. The collision caused headaches and neck pain that lingered for a few years.

    The days leading up to the World Series, however, were a time of great joy and pride. Oliva...

  12. Chapter 8 The Great Pennant Race of 1967
    (pp. 113-130)

    In the wake of the Twins’ struggles in 1966, owner Calvin Griffith retooled a young team that a year earlier had seemed poised to capture a few more American League pennants. By year’s end, he had dealt several cornerstones of the 1965 World Series team to improve the pitching staff.

    In December 1966, Griffith made a bold move to pick up a number one starter, trading center fielder Jimmie Hall, slugging first baseman Don Mincher, and pitching prospect Pete Cimino to the California Angels for Dean Chance. The righthander had won Cy Young honors in 1964 with a 20–9...

  13. Chapter 9 Marriage and Family in the Year of the Pitcher
    (pp. 131-143)

    After a disheartening finish to the 1967 season, the following year began with a celebration. On January 6, 1968, Gordette DuBois and Tony Oliva married in the bride’s hometown of Hitchcock, South Dakota, a farm community some 350 miles west of the Twin Cities.

    Although they could barely communicate when they first met in spring 1964, the two soon realized that their childhoods had had much in common. Both bride and groom had grown up on family farms with a large contingent of brothers and sisters. Gordette had seven siblings, including her twin Gordon; Tony had nine brothers and sisters....

  14. Chapter 10 Baseball’s Summer of Change
    (pp. 144-156)

    Change was in the air in spring 1969. In response to the game’s slow but steady tilt toward the sparse run production of the dead-ball era, Major League Baseball owners looked to level the playing field between hitters and pitchers by lowering the mound to a maximum of ten inches. For decades, the maximum height had been fifteen inches, though a few mounds, including Dodger Stadium’s, were rumored to be closer to twenty. But for 1969, everything would be different.

    A new round of expansion added two teams to each league and, for the first time, divided each league into...

  15. Chapter 11 Twins Repeat with a New Bill in Charge
    (pp. 157-167)

    Forty years ago, baseball did not generate nearly as much offseason buzz as it does today, but the long Minnesota winter leading up to the 1970 season was different. Twins fans were not talking about the team’s triumph in winning the first American League West title or the disappointing postseason. Instead, they were consumed with Calvin Griffith’s canning of manager Billy Martin after a ninety-seven-win performance.

    Martin’s firing also made it a less-than-typical winter for new manager Bill Rigney. The fifty-two-year-old Rigney, who had spent twelve-plus seasons managing the Giants and the Angels, accepted the unenviable task of replacing Martin,...

  16. Chapter 12 Family Reunions and the Career-Changing Knee Injury
    (pp. 168-181)

    After the Orioles swept the Twins in the American League Championship Series for the second straight season, Oliva headed to Mexico again to play winter ball. His return to Los Mochis was motivated less by the opportunity to play than by the possibility of reuniting with his family, as he had tried to do the previous winter. The efforts of Los Mochis club owner Martín Estrada to bring Oliva’s mother and sister to Mexico had run into bureaucratic snags, and Oliva had returned to Florida for spring training in 1970 with the paperwork still not in place. But by that...

  17. Chapter 13 The Extremes of 1972
    (pp. 182-197)

    For reasons both good and bad, spring training in 1972 was like no other for Oliva. When he made the annual sojourn to Florida, his father Pirico was with him. They had spent the winter together in Minnesota with Tony’s family, and now Pirico would see his son take the field as a major leaguer for the first time.

    Oliva had waited for more than a decade for this opportunity, but his surgically repaired right knee had not responded as expected. It was bothersome all spring, as fluid collected in the joint whenever Oliva stepped up his running. The pain...

  18. Chapter 14 The Final Years as a Player
    (pp. 198-212)

    American League owners, looking for more scoring, voted to begin using the designated hitter in 1973. Lowering the mound and adding four expansion teams after 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, helped shift Major League Baseball away from an overly pitcher-friendly era, but run production still lagged in the junior circuit. Through the late 1960s and into the ’70s, the National League outscored the American League—significantly in some seasons—and NL hitters frequently posted gaudier numbers. The National League was also considered the faster league, with Lou Brock, Bobby Bonds, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, César Cedeño, and Roberto Clemente...

  19. Chapter 15 Tony O: The Man
    (pp. 213-226)

    Gene Larkin, whose tenth-inning single scored Dan Gladden to secure Jack Morris’s Game Seven shutout and the World Series championship in 1991, touches on a remarkable aspect of Oliva’s career in his comment above. In a bid to develop into one of the top baseball players in the world—in a highly competitive work environment—the Cuban émigré was able to overcome his sense of isolation and excel between the white lines. His ability to compartmentalize his alienation, however, did not dull its long-term effects. His early years in the United States shaped the man he is today. Immediate family...

  20. Epilogue: The Hall of Fame Question
    (pp. 227-250)

    From a remote family farm in Cuba to a Hall of Fame–caliber career, Tony Oliva has led a remarkable life. It was rare for a young man growing up far from Havana to make it to the United States at all. Then, after never being away from home, Oliva persevered through the political turmoil resulting from the Bay of Pigs invasion, which left him without a country soon after his arrival on foreign shores.

    For the latter half of Oliva’s life, baseball writers and Hall of Famers have debated whether his career was worthy of the game’s ultimate honor:...

  21. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 251-254)
  22. Index
    (pp. 255-268)
  23. Back Matter
    (pp. 269-269)