Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva set for Hall of Fame induction

COOPERSTOWN, NY – A humble little baseball sits at the bottom of a display case for David Ortiz on the third floor of the Hall of Fame. ...


COOPERSTOWN, NY – A humble little baseball sits at the bottom of a display case for David Ortiz on the third floor of the Hall of Fame. No hologram, no elaborate markings. In thick black ink, just below the red-stitched horseshoe, someone scribbled “First HR.” Below, in lighter pen: “Big Show”.

The Big Papi Show was still in pre-production that day, Sept. 14, 1997, when Ortiz crashed the first of 541 home runs en route to first-round induction here on Sunday. His years with the Boston Red Sox made him a transcendent star, but when he hit that first home run he was playing for the Minnesota Twins.

The other inductees this weekend have come a long way here, elected by a small committee vote in December: Bud Fowler, Gil Hodges, Minnie Miñoso, Buck O’Neil and the other two living members, Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva, who will represent the Twins – the same franchise that took out Ortiz in 2002, just before his breakthrough in Boston.

“I won’t get many endorsement opportunities like Big Papi,” Kaat said recently, “unless they have, like, a Duracell battery for long life.”

Kaat and Oliva were born in 1938 and spent a combined 30 seasons with the Twins franchise. Their induction means five Hall of Famers played for the Twins from 1970 to 1973, including Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew and Bert Blyleven.

According to Hall of Famer research, no team has had more than five Hall of Famers at any one time in the era of divisional play. Besides the Twins, the others with five are the 1970 Chicago Cubs, the 1980 Boston Red Sox, and the 1982 and 1984 Milwaukee Brewers. None of these teams won the World Series, as Ortiz did. done three times with the Red Sox, but the 1970 Twins, who were 98-64, had the group’s best regular-season record.

“You had to play really well to beat them,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, whose Baltimore Orioles swept the Twins in a best-of-five American League championship series this fall, repeating their feat in 1969. “They had very good balance – power, a bit of speed, well managed and great fans in the old ballpark.

Kaat played his first two seasons for the original Washington Senators, who moved to Bloomington, Minn., about two weeks after Bill Mazeroski homered for Pittsburgh to beat the Yankees in Game 7 of the Series. world. It was the start of the expansion era and part of a wave of franchise movement.

“I showed up at the instructional league clubhouse on October 26, 1960, and I had senators on my chest — and at the end of the day, it was Twins,” Kaat said. “That was the day the Washington Senators became the Twins.

“We as players thought it was a good move because we remembered how positive it was for the Braves to go from Boston to Milwaukee. Little things, like we heard that they get these offers to get a car to drive for the season, stuff like that. So coming here with MLB being new, being welcomed with open arms, I mean the performance was secondary. The fans here were just just happy to have a great baseball league.

After a first season of 90 defeats, the performance was extraordinary. The Twins won 817 games from 1962 to 1970, more than any other AL team except the Orioles. Kaat was among the best pitchers at the time, winning 146 games during those seasons, trailing only Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal.

Oliva came on in earnest in 1964, winning the Rookie of the Year award and the first of three batting titles. He was one of many Cuban players signed by Senators/Twins scout Joe Cambria, including 1965 AL Most Valuable Player award winner shortstop Zoilo Versalles. The environment helped the transition for Oliva, who never played for another team.

“I remember Jim Kaat saying to me, ‘You’re going to feel like home, because a third of the baseball club is Cuban,’ Oliva said. “I was so happy to be here with the Minnesota Twins, because I felt like home. At that time, I didn’t speak a word of English, and they took care of me, they kept me. They were very nice, all those Cubans.

Knee injuries robbed Oliva of the longevity of many of his contemporaries; he finished with an average of .304, but only 1,917 career hits. He was no singles hitter either, once leading the league in slugging percentage and finishing with 220 home runs, 13-plus club members on 3,000 hits.

“Everyone says, ‘What’s the highlight of your career, the shutout against Sandy Koufax in the World Series?'” Palmer said. “I’ll tell Tony, ‘No, the day I knocked you out twice.’ Wally Bunker used to say, “Tony Oliva – oh, leave us alone!”

Oliva hit .344 for his career against Palmer (although he never beat him) and punished fellow Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter for a .333 average and eight homers. He hit .314 in three playoff series.

Before the ALCS’ two losses to the Orioles, the Twins fell to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1965 World Series. Kaat defeated Koufax in Game 2 (after Koufax refused to pitch Game 1 because ‘he fell on Yom Kippur) but lost to him in games 5 and 7.

“I was pretty realistic in 1965 – I mean trying to get some points from Koufax, we were lucky to get two in Game 2 and one of them was undeserved. “, said Kaat. “So it’s not like we ruined the show or anything. And then, of course, I thought we’d come back. When you’re 20 and you have a good team: ‘Oh, we’ll be back.’ »

The Twins declined in the early 1970s, even with all those Hall of Famers, and waived Kaat in 1973. He revived his career with consecutive 20-win seasons for the Chicago White Sox under pitching coach Johnny Sain then rebounded to the Philadelphia Phillies, Yankees and, finally, the St. Louis Cardinals.

There, in 1982, Kaat won a championship ring when the Cardinals defeated the Brewers and their Cooperstown foursome of Paul Molitor, Ted Simmons, Don Sutton and Robin Yount (nearest Rollie Fingers was injured). By then, all other members of the 1965 World Series had retired.

“That 17-year wait was the longest a player had to wait to return to the World Series,” Kaat said. “And then getting that World Series ring – I found out from the Elias Sports Bureau – no athlete in any professional sport has played 24 seasons before getting a championship ring. So that’s what made this 1982 season worth the wait and very rewarding.

The Twins would eventually win the World Series in 1987, with Kirby Puckett leading, and again four years later. But those teams couldn’t match their early ’70s predecessors for Hall of Fame membership, where Kaat and Oliva — that long-lived duo — will now have plaques forever.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva set for Hall of Fame induction
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