Oliva Welcomed Into Baseball Hall of Fame

From Left to Right : Baseball Hall of Fame President Josh Rawitch,  Tony Oliva,  Hall of Fame Chairman of the Board of Directors Jane Forbes Clark /CREDIT- George Napolitano
From Left to Right : Baseball Hall of Fame President Josh Rawitch, Tony Oliva, Hall of Fame Chairman of the Board of Directors Jane Forbes Clark /CREDIT- George Napolitano
Don Laible
Tony Oliva has to be baseball's happiest hall of famer. He had what seemed to be a perpetual smile on his face during his recent visit to "Baseball's Home Town."

Two days prior to his induction on July 24 as a member of the Hall of Fame's Class of 2022, Oliva, 84, was soaking in being recognized as one of the game's all-time elites. Before noon, on Cooperstown's Main Street, there was a slow-moving, and growing, group. Oliva was the reason for the masses coming together.

Accompanied by his wife Gordette Oliva, and his brother Juan Carlos Oliva, as they strolled along the street looking at the many local shops, some with his picture in their windows honoring his success on the diamond, fans of his were amazed to see the former three-time American League batting champion.

There was no turning down selfies or autograph requests. Always a man of the people, the Cuban-born 1964 American League Rookie of the Year shook hands, laughed, and spoke to his well-wishers, as he made progress in reaching the baseball museum at 25 Main Street.

Oliva has always been easy to root for; to connect with. During a 15-year career with the Minnesota Twins, as successful as he was on the field—including eight invites to MLB's annual all-star game—Oliva made it a point to connect with his fans. Never taking his status in baseball for granted, the former Twin remained humble when formerly welcomed into baseball's ultimate brotherhood.

"I really enjoyed playing baseball. It was special for me. My goal growing up in Cuba was to play ball," recalled Oliva while addressing members of the media at the Clark Sports Center the day before his induction.  "My goal wasn't to come to America and play ball. That could only be a dream."

Dreams do come true in baseball.

Spotted by a scout in his home country, Oliva, as a 22-year-old found himself with a one-way plane ticket to the United States—to play ball. Speaking little English, in 1961 Oliva found himself playing Class-D ball in the Appalachian League. The rest, as they say, is history.

Oliva, who last December was elected to the Hall by the 16-member Golden Days Era Committee, tells of being ecstatic to be joining the Hall of Fame's roster with Jim Kaat, his Twins teammate of 10 seasons.

"We first met in 1961 playing in the instructional league," says Oliva of Kaat. "It was in St. Petersburg. What a wonderful man, and great player he was."

Along with fellow Class of 2022 member Kaat, Oliva joins other notable Twins such as Bert Blyleven, Rod Carew, and Harmon Killebrew in the Hall of Fame.

"Playing ball with Carew was special for me. We were roommates for 10 seasons," said Oliva, who (along with Kaat) was a member of the Twins' 1965 American League pennant-winning club. "When he (Carew) came up to the big leagues, I was his 'babysitter.'"

During Oliva's career, he didn't collect 3,000 hits or smash 500 home runs. Far from it. But, when in the Twins' lineup, Oliva produced.  Before knee injuries curtailed his abilities to blaze around the bases and track down fly balls in the outfield, Oliva was one of baseball's elites.

"I always gave 100 percent to the game. For me, playing baseball was like going to school. The harder I worked, my grades improved. I always hustled," explained the Bloomington, Minnesota resident.

It was easy to clap for Oliva, as he rode in an open truck down Main Street en route to the Hall of Fame during the Parade of Legends.  Drifting back in time, when Oliva was learning to play baseball on his family's farm, little did he know then that one day he would walk the game's ultimate red carpet in Cooperstown.

With his playing days ending in 1976, Oliva received the ultimate thank you from the Twins in 2011. A bronze statue of himself placed on the 7th Street side of Target Plaza, near the box office of Target Field, pays homage to Oliva for all he has contributed to the Twins' community for more than a half-century.

Not bad for a dreamer from Pinar del Rio, Cuba. Not bad at all.