Anyone who collected baseball cards learned that "Tony O." was a native of Pinar del Rio Province, Cuba. Collecting baseball cards was like an extensive geography lesson. The minor league cities got impressed on our minds. These are cities we never would have heard of otherwise. Like Wytheville. Part of Oliva's climb to the bigs was with the Wytheville Twins in the Appalachian League. How did he do there? At any time in his life, did Oliva struggle at the plate? At Wytheville he batted .410 in 64 games. But alas, his fielding hadn't made much progress. This deficiency was a millstone around his neck, eventually to be corrected.
Oliva played winter ball in Puerto Rico, and of course kept ripping the cover off the ball. He joined Charlotte, a Class A minor league team in the South Atlantic League, and batted .350 in 127 games. He socked 17 home runs. He played for the Twins again, up "for a cup of coffee," as they say, and guess what? He ripped the cover off the ball, batting .444 in 12 plate appearances. This was in 1962! He would not come to the forefront of fans' attention until 1964. He went from obscurity to a full-fledged star in '64.
All of a sudden us Twins fans were wide-eyed watching the exploits of our "Tony O." I think the "Tony O." reference was promoted mostly by Herb Carneal, long-time broadcaster. We all loved Herb but I think at a certain point, he should have retired. Some people just can't let go.
The powers-that-be decided for some reason that Oliva still wasn't ready in 1963. I suppose these guys know what they're doing.
Tony was invited to spring training. He became friends with Zoilo Versalles. Alas, those fielding deficiencies must still have evidenced themselves, because Tony didn't stay with the big club. Instead it was off to Dallas-Fort Worth. At least this was at the AAA level, in the Pacific Coast League. He was disappointed. He had a slow start but finished with a .304 average with 23 home runs and 74 RBIs. Again he was called up for that "cup of coffee" with the big club. And oh my, he sizzled with a .429 average in his handful of at-bats.
In 1964, "Pinocchio became a real boy," as it were. He catapulted to stardom. He won Rookie of the Year and the American League batting title.
A tip of the hat with music
I am pleased to have written a song about the great "Tony O." He was a defining part of the boomers' childhood in Minnesota. My song lyrics refer to other defining personalities like "Casey Jones," Vern Gagne, Halsey Hall and Earl Battey.
I throw in a reference to "Francis," Fran Tarkenton, quarterback of the Vikings in boomers' memories. I doubt that anything promotes warmer memories than the reference to Tony Oliva or "Tony O."
Here is a link to the YouTube posting of my song. I invite you to listen.
Yes, they're mortals
Nearly all sports heroes have an element of sadness attached to those memories. That is because they are human beings with limitations, both in terms of their basic human nature and the body's frailties. It was the latter that surfaced with Oliva. As a person he was exemplary.
My friend Del Sarlette has always been struck by Oliva's lack of grasp with the English language, considering how much of his life he has spent in the U.S. But that's no biggie.
Tony O. incurred severe knee, leg and shoulder injuries. He had seven knee operations. Plus there were hand and neck problems along with chicken pox and car accidents. Whew! His family back in Cuba could not travel here to watch him play.
I have always been troubled seeing that Oliva played all 162 games in his rookie year of 1964. Was that really necessary? Wouldn't an occasional rest have been good for his body? Did all those demands take a toll that caught up to him later?
In '64, "Tony O." led the A.L. in batting, hits, doubles, total bases and runs scored, and was second (by one) in triples. He had a loose grip on the bat which caused the bat to sometimes fly from his hands, remember? He won the batting title in his first two seasons. He almost made it three in a row. Through the end of July in 1966, he was tops in batting average at .328, but he fell into a three-for-30 slump. He ended up second in batting to Baltimore's Frank Robinson who won the triple crown. He did lead the league in hits with 191.
Twins were known for power
On June 9 of 1966, Oliva was one of five Twins hitting a home run in a single inning! We truly were known for our power bats. As a young fan I was most impressed by all that power, but I wasn't so much aware of all the other strategic nuances of the game. For all the offensive prowess the Twins possessed in 1964, for example, would you believe we finished only in a tie for sixth?
We won the pennant in '65 precisely because manager Sam Mele decided to develop those other nuances of the game - taking the extra base, advancing the baserunner and stealing, for example.
Tony Oliva is an iconic part of baby boomers' memories in Minnesota. I'm delighted to have written my song and to be able to share it on YouTube. The song was recorded at the Nashville TN demo recording studio of Bob Angello (Angello Sound Studio). It's a simple recording with just guitar and voice. If it's a good song, it does not need an elaborate backing. I certainly hope it's a good song.
"We Called Him Tony O." What memories. He has come to Morris as part of the winter Twins caravan. He is a total gentleman. I hope this song gets to his attention, and maybe he can share with other family members.