Sunday’s call from Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame was a long time coming for the patron saint of Minnesota Twins baseball. Tony Oliva celebrated with family and friends as it was announced that he would be inducted into Cooperstown with the rest of the 2022 class. After years of dedication to the only franchise he’s ever known, he will soon get to don their logo on his Hall of Fame plaque. And while his performance on the field will be revered forever, it pales in comparison to his continued heartfelt dedication as the team’s greatest ambassador.
The legend of Tony O. began in a vacant lot by his home in Pinar del Rio, Cuba. It was there that he would practice baseball daily with his siblings and father. The patriarch made his living in a tobacco factory and was known as the best cigar roller in town. But he still found time to teach Tony and his siblings the joys of the game. Little did they know, Tony would make the Oliva name far bigger than cigars ever could.
Though he made his big league debut in 1962 with a nine-game cup of coffee, he would break in, and break out, in 1964. That season, Oliva led the league in batting average (.323), runs (109), hits (217), and doubles (43) on his way to winning the American League Rookie of the Year award. That performance garnered him MVP consideration (he came in fourth) and acted as a launching pad for one of the most dominant eight-year stretches baseball has ever seen.
“The kind of baseball we played in the 60s and 70s… we played like animals,” Oliva said.
Judging from his numbers from 1964-71, Tony couldn’t be tamed.
Per 162 games during that span, Oliva averaged 200 hits, 27 home runs, and 5.4 fWAR.
To try and put that into context, that kind of offensive output is similar to Trea Turner’s 2021 season (split between the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers), where he finished in fifth place for National League MVP. Now imagine that output for eight straight years.
That’s a legendary pace that captured the hearts of countless Midwesterners, including his wife, Gordette. They met in the mid-60s, married in South Dakota, and settled down in Bloomington, just miles from the site where Metropolitan Stadium once stood. Their story belongs in a storybook as much as it does in Cooperstown.
And while Oliva’s love for life and baseball came naturally, his effort is what led to this honor.
“I took pride in myself when I played the game. But in order to work hard, you need to work smart,” Oliva said. “I was the worst fielder you’ve ever seen, but four years later, I won the Gold Glove because I watched Al Kaline play, and I had coaches working me hard.”
While crediting his coaches, loved ones, and family, Oliva made sure to make it clear that his success is mainly due to learning from his teammates and the players who came before him. In fact, one of those mentors will be inducted alongside him: legendary pitcher and current MLB Network broadcaster Jim Kaat.
“That was so special for me. When I started, [Kaat] was already a big-league ballplayer.” Oliva remarked. “He babysitted me. I only spoke a little bit of English, so he would take me out. I was so proud that he finally made it and that we get to go in together.”
Oliva and Kaat were elected as part of the Golden Era committee vote, where a group of 18 voters looks back at Hall of Fame cases that may have slipped through the cracks. As luck would have it, they had an inside man. Among this year’s committee was Twins legend Rod Carew, a fellow Hall member and longtime friend of Oliva. But it’s not like this honor relied on luck. Oliva, Kaat, and the other members of the ‘22 class deserved this honor for their contributions on the field and off.
For Oliva, his decades of service as the team’s greatest ambassador speak for themselves. His grace, warm smile, and welcome promotion of the game span states, countries, and even generations. Every game at Target Field, parents will routinely stop him in the concourse to introduce their children, and even grandchildren, to a walking legend. The same can be said at Hammond Stadium — the Twins’ spring training home — and various little league fields around the state every year. The joyful moments that he shares with Twins faithful are vital to the health of the organization and matter more than box scores ever will.
For all incoming Twins employees, the team tries to instill four foundational values: passion, heart, hustle, and fun. Oliva has embodied these traits to perfection, and his life as the Twins’ greatest ambassador is nothing short of saintly.